Isaac Babel, the Jewish Cossack, told Konstantin Paustovsky, the playwright and publicist: "If you use enough elbow grease even the coarsest wood gets to look like ivory. That's what we have to do with words and with our Russian language. Warm it and polish it with your hand till it glows like a jewel." For instance:
The first version of a story is terrible. All in bits and pieces tied together with boring "like passages" as dry as old rope. You have the first version of "Lyubka" there, you can see for yourself. It yaps at you. It's clumsy, helpless, toothless. That's where the real work begins. I go over each sentence time and time again. I start by cutting out all the words I can do without. Words are very sly. The rubbishy ones go into hiding.
This is the Babel who so famously informed us in "Guy de Maupassant": "When a phrase is born, it is both good and bad at the same time. The secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernible. One's fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice." Later in the same story, on the same page, comes a sentence quoted so often that it must be true: "No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place."
To be sure, as a kid in Odessa he loved Flaubert, and even wrote his first couple of stories in French. Adulthood was more difficult. One might say that the key's last twist, the ultimate shortening, the final polish, the iron spike, was a blank page. Accused in 1934 of the sin of "unproductivity," he told the first Soviet Writers' Congress that he had become a "master of the genre of silence." On the same occasion, just to prove how contrary he could be, Babel also defended the right of the writer to write badly: "Comrades, this is a very important right and to take it away from us is no small thing…. Let us give up this right, and may God help us. And if there is no God, let us help ourselves."
But back to his chat with Paustovsky: "I've got no imagination," he said. "All I've got is the longing for it." Which means: "I can't invent. I have to know everything, down to the last vein." This would explain why he thought "the most interesting things I have ever read are other people's letters." And how come, first in Odessa and then in Paris, he paid people to tell him the story of their first love. Ilya Ehrenburg likewise testifies:
Babel wanted to know everything: what his brother-soldier, a Kuban Cossack, felt when, after a two days' drinking bout, in a fit of melancholy, he had set fire to his own house; why had Mashenka of Land and Factory, after cuckolding her husband, taken up biokinetics; what sort of poetry did the White Guard Gorgulov, the French President's assassin, write; how did the old accountant seen once in the window of the Pravda office die; what was the Paris lady at the next table in the café carrying in her handbag; did Mussolini keep up his bluster when he found himself alone with Ciano…
It also explains why, as a 23-year-old apprentice journalist in 1918, he reported without fear or favor in the pages of Maxim Gorky's magazine Novaya Zhizn on every open wound in revolutionary Petersburg, from the anger of the unemployed, the panic of the disabled veterans and the mortality rate of newborn children to the murdered bodies that overwhelmed the morgue and the animals starving in the zoo. How's this for a flashy lead: "I'm not about to draw any conclusions. I'm not in the mood"? Or this, for editorializing: