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:
Our government, as everyone knows, wallows in administrative bliss in only two cases: when we need to run for our lives or when we need to be mourned. During periods of evacuation and ruinous mass resettlement, the government's activity takes on a vigor, a creative verve, an ingenious voluptuousness.
And it may even explain how Babel, "with glasses on his nose and autumn in his heart," happened to be on a horse in the first place, on the Russian-Polish front during the civil war between Reds and Whites in 1920, pretending not to be Jewish even though everybody knew he was. His agit-prop dispatches to ROSTA, the state news agency, and The Red Cavalryman, the army's daily newspaper, can't be said to have glowed like jewels–"Slaughter them, Red Army fighters! Stamp harder on the rising lids of their rancid coffins!"–but he was just as hungry for extremes as he was for information. To his diary he confided darker ideograms that would translate, rubbed up and whittled on like ivory tusks, into Red Cavalry.
"Trickster, rapscallion, ironist, wayward lover, imprudent imposter," Cynthia Ozick calls him in her intro to this grand occasion of literature, the Complete Works–"and out of these hundred fiery selves insidious truths creep out, one by one, in a face, in the color of the sky, in a patch of mud, in a word. Violence, pity, comedy, illumination. It is as if he is an irritable membrane, subject to every creaturely vibration." And maybe he knew too much. He would return to Ukraine in 1929-30, for a firsthand look at the famine caused by collectivization. Two chapters are all we have of the unpublishable novel, Kolya Topuz, he was secretly writing about it when they came for him in 1939.
There are no longer any bees in Volhynia. We desecrated the hives. We fumigated them with sulfur and detonated them with gunpowder. Smoldering rags have spread a foul stench over the holy republics of the bees. Dying, they flew slowly, their buzzing barely audible. Deprived of bread, we procured honey with our sabers. There are no longer any bees in Volhynia.
(Babel, "The Road to Brody")
Like a plug of cork in a tub of blood, Ilya Ehrenburg could always be counted on to float. So while there is no reason not to believe him when he tells us in his Memoirs that Babel was "my most intimate and true friend, the author to whom I looked up as an apprentice to a master," we also know that he wouldn't say so in public until it was safe, decades later. That when Babel, after eight months of torture and a twenty-minute trial, was executed by a firing squad early in the morning of January 27, 1940, for Trotskyite terrorism and spying for France, Ehrenburg happened as usual to be abroad. That a prudent Ilya waited to declare himself till Stalin, too, was dead. Not to mention Mandelstam, Meyerhold, Pilnyak and Gorky (murdered). Or Mayakovsky, Yesenin, Tsvetayeva and Fadeyev (suicides). Or Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Olesha and Zoshchenko (zipped up in fearful silence; writing, if at all, for the crypt). Plus all the émigrés, castaways, jailbirds and boat people, from Bunin and Zamyatin to Aksyonov, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, Solzhenitsyn, Voinovich, Zinovyev and–in his portable Winter Palace, his Zemblatic mobile home–the gaudy Nabokov.
"True literature," said Zamyatin in 1921, "can only exist where it is created, not by painstaking and reliable clerks, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics." Mandelstam added later, "Only in Russia is poetry respected–it gets people killed." After a visit to Osip in exile, Akhmatova wrote: "In the banished poet's room/terror and the muse watch by turn,/And a night is coming/that has no dawn." In The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn advised us: "A great writer–forgive me, perhaps I shouldn't say this, I'll lower my voice–a great writer is so to speak a second government, that's why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers only its minor ones." To Ehrenburg, in Moscow in 1938, Babel observed, "Today a man talks frankly only with his wife–at night, with the blanket pulled over his head."
Not Ilya, who loved to party. But neither Ehrenburg's sociability nor his evasive memoir explains why, in Paris in 1946, he went out of his way to lie to Babel's widow, Evgenia, telling her that Isaac was still alive, merely under house arrest. Or why, when he finally got around to something more approximate to the truth ten years later, he hit her between the eyes with the news that not only was her husband dead but that he had another wife and another child, on whose behalf Ehrenburg wanted Evgenia to sign a fradulent admission of divorce. She spat in his face.
More such lying faces should have been spat in: Andrei Zhdanov's, for instance, who called Akhmatova "half nun, half whore." Mikhail Sholokhov's, who wanted Sinyavsky shot and believed any author publishing in the West without permission deserved to be exterminated like the Colorado beetle. And the faces of the 70,000 censors, with their 300-page index of banned subjects–earthquakes, plane crashes, food shortages, crime stats, Trotsky. And all those Socialist Realists who rewrote their production novels about making sausage, tempering steel and pouring cement according to the ever-changing line. And every single one of the 130 writers, including Gorky and Zoshchenko, who went out to admire a new canal linking the White Sea with the Baltic, praised the project as a triumph of progressive penology, and forgot to mention that the canal had been built by the forced labor of 300,000 convicts, a third of whom had perished in the triumphant progressive process.
They would like to blame Stalin for everything. But Boris Pasternak reminded us in Dr. Zhivago of self-helping prisoners in a woodsy gulag in the 1930s:
They told us: "Here is your camp. Settle down as best you can."… We cut down saplings with our bare hands in the forest to build huts. And would you believe it, we gradually built our own camp. We cut down the wood to build our own dungeons, we surrounded ourselves with a stockade, we equipped ourselves with prison-cells and watch-towers–we did it all by ourselves.
Must we dig up all over again the bad faith and yellow bones? Yes, because generations of Americans grew up reading Russian literature, Soviet-styled, as if it were samizdat from the historical unconscious, the whirlwind's deep word; as if it either apostrophized a radiant future better than Oz, or cried instead from Dante's hell for help. ("We are the vanguard, but of what?" Babel wondered in his diary.) The cold war only intensified the hysterical quality of this reading, its gnomic-cryptic scuttle, its masquerade of spycraft. Never mind Babel versus Kafka. Who knew for sure if Gorky's Mother, radicalized by the factory workers, was a better person than our own, or Portnoy's? If Bely had done for Petersburg what Joyce would do for Dublin? If Blok was a sort of Rimbaud? If Symbolism, Futurism and Acmeism were better off with a NEP or a Five-Year Plan? If Pilnyak with his "men in yellow jackets" belonged on the shelf with Malraux? If it was absolutely necessary to read Olesha's Envy? If Dudintsev's gumption made up for the dreariness of Not by Bread Alone? Or, for that matter, whether Solzhenitsyn was really a nineteenth-century Russian novelist or just another messianic Old Believer, covered like an icon with soot and candlewax, part of the nostalgia craze?
No other writer of the Soviet era ever aroused as much American emotion as Babel. If his Red Cavalry and Odessa Tales impressed Gorky, Bely, Mayakovsky and Ehrenburg, as well as Malraux, Mann, Canetti and Brecht, they also wowed Hemingway, Bellow, Trilling, Paley, Howe, Malamud, Roth, Berryman and Carver. Even though "The Story of My Dovecote" is probably the best account of a pogrom and one of the finest stories ever written, Cynthia Ozick seemed to suggest in an essay on the 1920 Diary that when Babel traveled undercover with the Cossacks, he became what he impersonated. As if the rape and murder of Jews in the Pale of Settlement hadn't been a Polish specialty before Babel was born, she also used him as a stick to beat "the cruelly ignorant children of the Left who still believe that the Marxist Utopia requires for its realization only a more favorable venue, and another go." In her introduction here, she pulls that punch. But her doubts may have encouraged John Updike to assert, in his New Yorker review of the Complete Works on November 5, that Babel "to the end, sought to accommodate" an "increasingly totalitarian revolution." This is flabbergasting. He didn't run out of gas or–from the overconsumption of junk food, cheap sensations and disposable ideas–simply explode. He wasn't a fucking Rabbit.
It made sense that most Russian writers would at first welcome the revolution as a deliverance from a medieval mind haunted by fires, bears, church bells melted down into cannon balls and golden hordes of Scythians in cloaks of sewn-together scalps. Out of such a mind rode Ivan the Terrible's Oprichniki, secret police on black horses with severed heads tethered to their saddlebows, the dwarfs of Empress Anna, Pugachev in an iron cage and goat-smelling Rasputin. "Our brethren the Slavs," said Vissarion Belinsky, the critic who got Dostoyevsky into so much trouble, "cannot be awakened to consciousness quickly. It is a well-known fact that when the lightning does not strike, the peasant does not cross himself, he has no lord…whereas the holy mother La Guillotine is a good thing." Or so maybe it seemed to an alienated intelligentsia up to its eyeballs in vodka, dominoes, smoked fish, sable skins, onion domes, six-winged seraphs, a snuff box and the knout.
Although he confused Revolution with Resurrection, even Blok was enthusiastic at the start. Mayakovsky imagined himself in a "Cloud in Trousers" as both John the Baptist and "a sewage disposal operative…mobilized and drafted" by Lenin. If Mandelstam was predictably ambivalent as early as 1918–"We shall meet again in Petersburg,/as though we had buried the sun there"–not so Pasternak, an expert on "the maximalist temperament" of Russian intellectuals and their "nostalgia for the future," whose alter ego Zhivago rhapsodized:
The Revolution broke out…like a breath that's been held too long. Everybody was revived, reborn, changed, transformed. You might say that everyone has been through two revolutions–his own personal revolution as well as the general one. It seems to me that socialism is the sea, and all these separate streams, these private individual revolutions are flowing into it–the sea of life, of life in its own right. I said life, but I mean life as you see it in a work of art, transformed by genius, creatively enriched.
Before long, of course, Pasternak, Akhmatova and little-did-he-know Bukharin would be petitioning Stalin for Mandelstam's life. Osip never mastered the genre of silence. By 1928, in "The Egyptian Stamp," he had decided, "Petersburg has declared itself Nero, and was as loathsome as eating a soup of crushed flies." In 1930 he would add: "Petersburg! I don't want to die yet! You know my telephone numbers. Petersburg! I've still got the addresses: I can look up dead voices." And then, in 1933, he attacked Stalin himself: "His fingers are fat as grubs,/And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips…. His cockroach whiskers leer/And his boot tops gleam…. He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries./He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home." It's amazing Mandelstam wasn't immediately whacked. But he was merely sent away for awhile, his murder postponed till 1938.
And here's the eerie part, which almost seems to mimic our own kinkiness with the Soviet texts. Stalin telephoned Pasternak in July 1934 to tell him he was letting Osip off the hook. Pasternak told Stalin during the same call that he'd like to meet and talk. "About what?" Stalin wanted to know. "About life and death," said Pasternak. So Stalin hung up on him. Such, in the Soviet Union, was the awful intimacy between the realm of the imagination and the ministries of fear. If Pasternak, who wrote a note to Stalin after his wife's suicide, had a sort of fool's license that kept him from dreadful harm, that license didn't extend to his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, sentenced to five years in a labor camp. If Babel had been safe while Gorky was alive, Ehrenburg was no use once he disappeared. Bulgakov's life may have been spared because Stalin enjoyed a play of his, Days of the Turbins, so much that he sat through it fifteen times. A toadying poem by Akhmatova in 1949 got her son out of a labor camp, but didn't get her back into the Writers' Union so she could publish a book. And when that same son was arrested for the third time, in 1949, she burned all her papers.
It may seem perverse to spend so much emotion on such a minority–600 Soviet writers disappeared, most of them forever, into penal colonies, labor camps, torture chambers and psychiatric wards, whereas millions died in collectivization, and we haven't even gotten to the schoolteachers, garage mechanics, Catholic nuns and Jewish "refuseniks" found guilty of writing a letter, reading an article, seeking a visa or belonging to a human rights watch group–but these writers were remarkable. Twentieth-century literature isn't really worth imagining without Bely's St. Petersburg, Babel's Red Cavalry and Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. They were also fascinating. Tsvetayeva and Rilke wrote poems to each other. Yesenin was married to Isadora Duncan. Modigliani did sixteen potraits of Akhmatova in Paris in 1911–and when she had to be evacuated from Leningrad during the siege, she took off by propeller to Tashkent clutching the score of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony.
What had such a prodigality of personality and talent to do with party cells, cadre perks, city soviets, farm collectives, lapdog writers' unions, bought psychiatrists, secret policemen, technocrats on the pig-iron front, informers, apparatchiks or the three elements of Socialist Realism–narodnost (national character), ideinost (ideological expression) and partiinost (party spirit)–not to wonder why a Stalin would even be interested, much less suspicious (and of what?), with his love for Charlie Chaplin, his hatred of everyone else, his bad teeth and not very interesting Georgian inferiority complex, such a mensch for all the bloody seasons, but especially a Great Terror? Why trouble himself with a Babel and his minimalist fictions, his Cycladic sculptures and Yiddish spitballs? And then why, if everything was Stalin's fault, try a Sinyavsky for slander and a Brodsky for parasitism after Stalin was dead? Where is it written in any socialism that we gouge out the eyes of our brilliant children with Five-Year Plans? That we put a bullet through our own heart like Mayakovsky?
In his 1966 novel The Holy Well, Valentin Katayev, otherwise a time-serving rewrite man on the Socialist Realist pig-iron front, imagined a cat trained to speak by its Georgian master, who died trying to mouth the latest polysyllabic catchword. He also imagined a shadow that "never left me but followed a step behind," a "most rare cross between a man and a woodpecker…an informer, a bootlicker, an extortioner, and a bribetaker."
"Bring good men and we shall give them all our gramophones. We are not simpletons. The International, we know what the International is. And I want the International of good people, I want every soul to be accounted for and given first-class rations. Here, soul, eat, go ahead, go and find happiness in your life. The International, Pan Comrade, you have no idea how to swallow it!"
"With gunpowder," I tell the old man, "and seasoned with the best blood."
There will doubtless be gripes about this or that in Peter Constantine's translation, but not from me. I'm familiar with Babel only from previous translations, by Mirra Ginsburg, Max Hayward and David McDuff. Judging from these English variants, Constantine sometimes improves on his predecessors and sometimes fudges up or jaunties. But this is the Babel we already know–except much, much more of him, including dramas, screenplays, notebooks and journalism.
Besides, I was traumatized at an early age by two different translations of the very same passage in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. In the Ralph Matlaw version, on page 91 of the Norton Critical Edition, we read: "And now I hope, Arina Vlasyevna, that having satisfied your maternal heart, you will turn your thoughts to satisfying the appetites of our dear guests, because, as you're aware, even nightingales can't be fed on fairy tales." But Neal Burroughs translates the same sentence, on page 122 of the Washington Square Press edition, this way: "And now, Arina Vlasyevna, I hope your maternal heart has had its fill, and you will see about filling our dear guests, for, as you know, fair words butter no parsnips."
Did you know that the Russian word for "parsnip" is "Pasternak"? And so must most of us make do with the edible roots of a writer while not quite hearing his whole song. Never mind. Some sort of magic-making happens anyway, or Toni Morrison and Kobo Abe wouldn't have been knocked out by English and Japanese translations of Gabriel García Márquez, who was himself overwhelmed by Jorge Luis Borges's translation into Spanish of Franz Kafka, who has also been translated into Italian by Primo Levi, who didn't care for Babel, and into Polish by Bruno Schulz, who was murdered about the same time as Babel. For that matter, Günter Grass read Tanizaki in Old Teutonic.
"If you think about it," Babel wrote in an early, breezy "Odessa" story, "doesn't it strike you that in Russian literature there haven't been so far any real, clear, cheerful descriptions of the sun?" He certainly obliged, although perhaps not cheerfully, with suns that hang down like the pink tongues of thirty dogs, suns that pour into clouds like the blood of a gouged bear, suns that soar and spin like red bowls on the tips of spears, suns that roll across the sky like severed heads. But he was equally interested in animate objects–grandmothers, schoolchildren, Hebrew teachers, landladies, pawnbrokers, prostitutes, police chiefs, playwrights, sailors, cash-register girls, medical orderlies, wrestling champions, dying bulls and peeping Toms. Plus, of course, the Cossacks and the Jews.
But most of all Babel was possessed by extremes of subjectivity looking for prose analogues, by "the fat and funny bourgeois [who] lie in the evenings in their white socks on couches in front of their funny, philistine dachas, digesting their meals beneath a dark and velvety sky, while their powdered wives…are passionately squeezed behind bushes by fervent students of medicine or law"; by the wings of angels, mounted on hinges, which have to be removed at night and wrapped in clean sheets; by the purchase of a prostitute with a loaf of bread; by gangsters on their way from a wedding to a brothel dressed up like hummingbirds; by a crucifix as tiny as a courtesan's talisman; by "the sweetness of dreamy malice, the bitter contempt for the swine and dogs among men, the flame of silent and intoxicating revenge"; by ancient synagogues, yellow walls and prophet-bearded Jews selling chalk, bluing and candlewicks; by the "captivating Stavitsky," smelling of perfume "and the nauseating coolness of soap," whose "long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots"; by honeybees and Spinoza and looking at the world as if it were "a meadow in May over which women and horses wander"; by a churchful of saints who "marched to their deaths with the flair of Italian opera singers"; by the chimneys of Zamosc, "the thievish lights in the ravines of its ghetto, the watchtower with its shattered lantern," the green rockets over the Polish camp and a"damp sunrise poured down on us like waves of chloroform"; by faith, love, death and cruelty.
Babel–who told "fairy tales about Bolshevism" all over the Polish front; who would live to regret "the foppish bloodthirstiness and loudmouthed simplicity with which in those days we solved all the problems of the world"; who asked of his executioners only that they "let me finish my work"–went into battle without bullets in his gun. "You believe in God, you traitor!" he was told. And: "I can see right through you! Right through you! What you want is to live without enemies, you'll do anything not to have enemies." And when the rabbi's son who looked like a young Spinoza ended up among the revolutionary dead, here's how Babel mourned him:
I threw everything together in a jumble, the mandates of the political agitator and the mementos of a Jewish poet. Portraits of Lenin and Maimonides lay side by side–the gnarled steel of Lenin's skull and the listless silk of the Maimonides portrait. A lock of woman's hair lay in a book of the resolutions of the Sixth Party Congress, and crooked lines of Ancient Hebrew verse huddled in the margins of Communist pamphlets. Pages of The Song of Songs and revolver cartridges drizzled on me in a sad, sparse rain.
This, of course, was his own jumble and his private rain. Nevertheless:
He died before we reached Rovno. He died, the last prince, amid poems, phylacteries, and foot bindings. We buried him at a desolate train station. And I, who can barely harness the storms of fantasy raging through my ancient body, I received my brother's last breath.
Once upon a time in an Isaac Babel story, there was in the Odessa seaport a boy named Karl-Yankel, as if to yoke Marx and shtetl. The Jewish Cossack had high hopes for him: "I grew up in those streets, now it is the turn of Karl-Yankel, but they did not fight for me as they are fighting for him, few people had any thought for me. 'It's not possible,' I whispered to myself, 'that you won't be happy, Karl-Yankel. It's not possible that you won't be happier than I.'"
We are the vanguard, but of what?