Isaac Babel is a bit of a conundrum. It’s not an easy task to trace his scattered trajectory from Jewish youth navigating the quotas in the Russian education system, cutting his literary teeth at the feet of his beloved mentor Maxim Gorky in Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg), rising to renown as a champion of Soviet literature, and being imprisoned for allegedly spying for France and Austria. No stranger to prejudice, Babel wrote with revolution and religious persecution at his backdoor. His own time on the warfront further ignited his incendiary prose and became the basis for his most celebrated story cycle, Red Cavalry. Babel’s loosely autobiographical style coupled with his modernist sensibility lent his writing a personal yet subliminal quality. His stories sometimes read like morality tales, sometimes like diaries, sometimes like journalistic dispatches. One thing they all have in common is his staggering ability to convey with succinct confidence the far and ridiculous reaches of human suffering.
Babel was born in 1894 to a family on the ascent to the middle class in the southern city of Odessa (in present-day Ukraine). A port city on the Black Sea, Odessa —“Paris of Russia” — was known for its diverse population. Soon after his birth, Babel’s family moved to Nikolayev, about 100 miles northeast of Odessa for his father’s work, and the family lived there until in 1905, when they moved back to Odessa. This same year, Czar Nicolas II established his constitutional monarchy via his “October Manifesto” – a list of provisions ostensibly giving the Russian people more civil liberties. The manifesto was a grudging response to the Russian Revolution of 1905 in which various factions made their voices heard regarding unjust governmental policies including limited land rights for peasants, poor treatment of minorities, and unfair labor practices. Its issuance sparked a turn of events that led to violent pogroms in the region. Russian backlash against Jewish inhabitants grew exponentially after months of mutual agitation and distrust. Jews and Russians alike celebrated and fought. Witnesses reported widespread murder and other heinous acts against Jewish men, women, and children. Over 400 were killed in the Odessa pogrom alone (Weinberg, 248).
Though Babel’s family was spared the 1905 pogroms’ atrocities, he writes of a young boy who is affected by a pogrom in The Story of My Dovecote, published in 1925. Dovecote was written in the years just after the Red Cavalry cycle – the cycle that brought him notoriety across the country. Today, Dovecote is generally referred to as a standalone story as opposed to part of a larger cycle, though his daughter Nathalie Babel, who has steadily worked to compile publish her father’s work over the years, explains that with this story her father had “…broadened his range of subject matter, dealing more directly than before with autobiographical material and writing in longer form. He intended to collect the stories he wrote based on his childhood in a single volume….” (The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, pg 599-600). In Dovecote, the 9-year old protagonist learns that he has earned, after a rigorous examination, one of two Jewish spots at a prestigious school. Babel himself was only allowed into a school open to sons of Jewish merchants. (“No Time to Finish”, page 520). The boy’s parents react:
When my father saw me, he abandoned the muzhik and drank in my story without a moment’s doubt. He shouted to his sales clerk to close the store, and rushed over to Sobornaya Street to buy me a cap with the school emblem on it. My poor mother barely managed to wrest me away from my delirious father. She stood there, pale, trying to foresee my fate. She kept caressing me and then pushing me away in disgust. She said that a list of all the children admitted into the lycée was always published in the newspapers, and that God would punish us and that people would laugh at us, if we bought a school uniform ahead of time. My mother was pale, she was trying to foresee my fate in my eyes, and she looked at me with bitter pity, as if I were a little cripple, for she was the only one who fully realized how luckless our family was. (Complete Works, 603).
Later in the story, after the protagonist begins school, he realizes in all the excitement he has forgotten to buy doves for their newly refurbished dovecote as his father had promised he could if he got into the lycée: “I had gotten everything ready for them…On Sunday, October 22, I set off to the wild game market but I ran into unexpected obstacles on the way.” The obstacle, of course, being the unrest created by the October Manifesto. He finally sneaks away to the market, buys two doves, but while he is there someone from his neighborhood informs the bird catcher that “Grandpa Babel” (the boy’s grandfather) had been “served…a helping of death.” The boy begins to make his way home, stopping to ask the legless cigarette seller Makarenko about how to find someone he knows, when Makarenko notices the bag under his shirt. He takes a dove out of the bag, and slaps it against the boy’s face, killing it. Babel writes:
I lay on the ground, the innards of the crushed bird trickling down the side of my face. They trickled, winding and dribbling, down my cheek, blinding me. The dove’s tender entrails slithered over my forehead, and I closed my uncaked eye so that I would not see the world unravel before me. The world was small and ugly. A pebble lay in front of my eyes, a pebble dented like the face of an old woman with a large jaw. A piece of string lay near it and a clump of feathers, still breathing. My world was small and ugly. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see it, and pressed myself against the earth that lay soothing and mute beneath me. This tamped earth did not resemble anything in our lives. (ibid, 609)
These passages are great examples of Babel’s straightforward yet dreamlike and visceral prose. His use of repetition is prevalent and unsettling—a sort ofstream of consciousness used to great effect to get readers’ minds in the correct perspective. Many of his stories are only a few pages long, but dense with imagery and message.
In 1916, after Babel finished his schooling, he went to Petrograd to find work. He shopped stories around to no avail until he met Maxim Gorky. Gorky was a dissident writer and socialist, a founder of “Socialist Realism.” To say Gorky was Babel’s mentor is an understatement – Babel credited him for much of his development and success as a writer. Gorky wasn’t especially impressed with Babel’s nascent efforts, but he detected in Babel a voice that could speak clearly through the noise of revolution and war. Gorky instructed him in the hardships of the writer’s vocation, telling him that “the writer’s path…is strewn with nails…you will have to walk on them barefoot, a good deal of blood will flow, and each year it will flow more freely. If you’re weak – they’ll buy and sell you, harass you to death, lull you to sleep, and you’ll fade away while pretending to be a tree in bloom.” (Ehre, pg 21) Two of Babel’s earliest stories appeared in Gorky’s Letopis (“The Chronicle”), and Babel went on to write many dispatches for Gorky’s later publication New Life.
1917 was a year of massive upheaval, echoing sentiments from the 1905 Revolution twelve years prior. The February Revolution, in which Czar Nicholas’ military mutinied to join anti-establishment factions, forced the czar’s abdication and the end of the Russian empire. The subsequent provisional government was overthrown during the Lenin/Trotsky-led October “Bolshevik” Revolution by Soviet workers insistent on a socialist state. Thus began the Russian Civil War that would last until the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922.
In the intervening years, according to Russian scholar Milton Ehre, Babel signed up to fight on the Rumanian front (until he contracted malaria), pushed paper for the Checka (Russia’s first secret police agency), went on a grain requisition expedition in the Volga, and worked a bureaucratic position with the People’s Commissariat of Education. In 1919 he served with the Northern Army against General Yudenich’s White Army, and in 1920 was assigned asa war correspondent with General Budyonny’s First Cavalry under an assumed Russian name, Kiril Vasilievich Lyutov, to hide his Jewish heritage. Budyonny’s outfit was charged with reclaiming land that the Polish had overtaken in the Ukraine and neighboring regions, as well as bringing Communism to the Poles. (Ehre pg 19-20)
Babel’s style of storytelling and reportage reveals his interest in new literary forms. The twenties saw the rise of notable American authors such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, and in Europe T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka, to name a few of many. With increasing access to and receptivity of Western influences, Russian poets and novelists had more freedom to experiment with form as well as previously untouched subjects, such as prostitution, a common theme in Babel’s work. A break from the realism tradition in Russian literature paved the way for more innovative, poetic prose. James Falen states:
Russian realism had had a place in its aesthetic for truth and goodness, but it had sadly neglected – or so the modernists held – the claims of beauty. A new wave of aestheticism encouraged Russian writers to turn to the West…and make their own contributions to symbolism and other movements…The Russian modernist sought to bring literature closer in form to painting and music. (pg 40)
From 1921-25, Babel produced his most potent and celebrated works: The Odessa Tales and Red Cavalry, in fact they were written practically simultaneously. Falen writes:
…(T)he two sets of stories share certain themes and attitudes and have as a common setting a background of passion and chaos. Though the Odessa stories possess a surface of broad comic intent, they like those of Red Cavalry, have conflict and violence at the heart of their world. While Red Cavalry portrays soldiers engaged in actual combat, in legally sanctioned ward, the Odessa characters are criminals, men at war with the society and their fate. The life of the Jewish underworld depicted in The Odessa Tales shows traditional moral and cultural values as fully under assault, and in much the same way, as they are in Red Cavalry. Furthermore, in both cycles the moral questioning of violence is linked to certain common attitudes toward Jewish identity. (ibid, pg 59)
The Odessa Tales are comprised of eight stories each less than 10 pages long. Set in 1905, they follow Jewish gangster Benya Krik’s ascent to infamy in his Odessa neighborhood. The first story, “The King,” recounts how Benya handles the new police chief’s threat of a raid on Benya’s sister’s wedding day feast. She is a 40 year-old goiter sufferer marrying a young mute who had been “bought” by Benya. A young man comes to tell Benya of the threat:
The chief called the whole station together and gave them a speech: “We must finish off Benya Krik,” he said, “because when you have His Majesty the Czar, you can’t have a King too. Today, when Krik gives away his sister in marriage, and they will all be there, is when we raid!” (Complete Works, pg 134)
It is revealed that Benya already knows of the raid and Babel goes on to describe how Benya became the son-in-law of a man he robbed, named Eichbaum. While Benya and his henchmen were killing Eichbaum’s cows as leverage to extort money from him, he saw and fell in love with Eichbaum’s daughter, Zilya. A few days later, dressed in an orange suit and diamond bracelet, Benya gave back Eichbaum’s money in exchange for Zilya’s hand in marriage and promised that he would be his business partner and proclaimed, “I will kill all the dairymen except you. No thief shall walk the street you live in…your son-in-law will be the King, not some snotface! The King, Eichbaum!.” (ibid, pg 136)
This darkly humorous description is followed by an equally colorful description of the wedding feast and associated antics, yet there is a sense of garish overindulgence with sinister undertones. The same young man as before returns to tell Benya that the police station is on fire. Without giving away the ending entirely, Benya goes to appraise the fire then returns to the wedding feast to find his sister “with both hands…edging her timid husband to the door of their nuptial chamber, looking at him lustfully like a cat which, holding a mouse in its jaws, gently probes it with its teeth.” (ibid, page 136)
“The Father” – the fifth story in the cycle – is a story about Froim Grach and his daughter Basya who has come to live with him after 20 years of living with her mother’s mother (Basya’s mother had died in childbirth). Basya is eager to find a husband. Babel presents us with a description of the gangsters heading to a brothel after the work day is over:
They rode in lacquered carriages and were dressed up in colorful jackets, like hummingbirds. They were goggle-eyed, one leg resting on the running board, their steel hands holding bouquets of flowers wrapped in cigarette paper. The lacquered cab moved at a walking pace, and in each carriage sat one man with a bouquet; the drivers, sticking out on their high seats, were covered in bows like best men at weddings. Old Jewish women in bonnets lazily watched the flow of this everyday procession – they were indifferent to everything, these old Jewish women, it was only the sons of shopkeepers and dockworkers who envied the kings of the Moldavanka. (ibid, page 162)
Babel’s illustrative prose conveys the allure of the life of the gangsters to the young men of the town. These are the shopkeepers’ sons role models – the slick, the fashionable, the deliberate. However, one of the shopkeepers’ sons, Solomonchik Kaplun, catches Basya’s attention because he was “among those who tried to turn their eyes away from the splendor of other men’s success.” (ibid, page 162) She sets her mind on him and begins sewing her trousseau, all the while lamenting that she is not a suitable match since she is Grach’s daughter. She’s right – the Kaplun family rejects her as she is not from a family of grocers like them. Grach then goes on a mission to find a way to marry off Basya, and ends up in negotiations with Benya Krik. Benya makes Grach wait hours while he spends time with a prostitute. In his desperation, Grach knocks on the door and makes Benya come out. Benya, casual as a breeze, agrees to marry Basya, winning her dowry and forcing the Kapluns to pay him for his trouble as a result of their arrogance. This psychological warfare is an interesting counterpoint to the physical violence he instigated in the first story, though just as effective and lucrative for Krik.
The Red Cavalry cycle is less, perhaps, fanciful or ornamental than The Odessa Tales, and the characters operate in a larger theater of war as opposed to gangland circles, though much of the action in Red Cavalry is intimately set in war-torn villages. Babel casts a more damning than amused eye in his treatment the human toll taken on both sides. The protagonist for many of the stories, the journalist Lyutov (the same name and occupation Babel had as part of Budyonny’s regiment in real life), navigates his station in a kind of pitying fog, seemingly an outsider among the Cossacks, but we, the readers, aren’t at first entirely sure if that is because he is, as Babel was, a Jew trying to hide his heritage. There is a sense of uneasy detachment towards the villagers, a devastating presentation of the sad reality of life in a war zone. Repetition of imagery and certain phrases and sentiments surrealize Lyutov’s existence among his “comrades” and the villagers – his so-called “enemies” his regiment frequently has to rely on for food and shelter. The first story, “Crossing the Rivers Zbrucz” opens with Lyutov’s regiment traveling to their next encampment amidst this rollercoaster of discordant imagery:
Fields of purple poppies are blossoming around us, a noon breeze is frolicking in the yellowing rye…Silent Volhynia is turning away, Volhynia is heading into the pearly white fog of the birch groves, creeping through the flowery hillocks, and with weakened arms entangling itself in the underbrush of hope. The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head, gentle light glimmers in the ravines of the clouds, the banners of the sunsets are fluttering above our heads. The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill. (ibid, pg 203)
Upon their arrival in Novograd, Lyutov is assigned quarters in a ransacked dwelling inhabited by a pregnant woman and two “red-haired Jews”. Disgusted by their living conditions, he tells the woman to clean up the house. They make a place for Lyutov to sleep next to another Jew on the floor. He falls into a fitful sleep and dreams of his division commander shooting bullets through the brigade commander’s eyes. The pregnant woman awakens him, saying, “Pan (Polish for “Sir” or “Mr.”), you are shouting in your sleep, and tossing and turning. I’ll put your bed in another corner, because you are kicking my papa.” She proceeds to lift the blanket to reveal her massacred father. She explains how he was killed by Polish forces and continues forcefully, “I want you to tell me where one could find another father like my father in all the world!” This is how the story ends, with an unanswerable exclamation of a question, apropos to the inexplicability of war.
Babel became a master of skaz, a narrative written in “language marked not as the author’s own – especially in the language of a more popular and oral register than that of the author” (Vinokur, page 679). Babel grew up learning Yiddish, Hebrew and French, and even wrote some stories in French, so his ear for language was most likely quite keen. Crucial to skaz is careful observation of spoken language and transcribing it meaningfully to preserve its freer qualities. Gregory Freidin’s chapter on Isaac Babel in European Writers: The Twentieth Century, explains Babel as “a writer who was able to justify they revolution morally and aesthetically, who made this justification the matter of self-sacrifice. Babel was likewise credited with the invention of the new linguistic culture.” (pg 21) Though there are many instances of skaz narrative in Red Cavalry, the story “Zamosc” provides a particularly insightful glimpse into the attitudes of the peasants caught in the war zone. As before, dream-filled sleep comes to Lyutov, a dream of a woman offering breast milk to him, which at first he believes is an act of attempted nourishment, but then the woman puts coins over his eyes as though he is dead. Lyutov wakes to find that he his horse, whose reins were tied to Lyutov’s foot while he was napping, has dragged close to the line of action. A peasant is lying next to him with a rifle. Rockets are exploding over the Polish camp. The peasant, naturally unaware of Lyutov’s heritage, says:
“It’s all the fault of those Yids,” he said. “That’s how we see it, and that’s how the Poles see it. After the war there’ll be hardly any of them left. How many Yids you reckon there’s in the world?”
“Around ten million,” I answered, and began to bridle my horse.
“There’ll be two hundred thousand of them left!” the muzhik yelled, grabbing me by the arm, afraid that I was about to leave.
The dream of refused salvation while being brought to war unaware, then stranger’s words damning Lyutov’s own heritage is pretty rough stuff. Babel’s head-on treatment of Lyutov’s cultural complexity and the nature of war itself in the space of a few pages is succinct yet brimming with beauty of imagery. Not a word is wasted and his meaning is clear yet still somehow full of mystery and symbolism. About Lyutov’s dream, Vinokur writes,
Curiosity is a one-way street which one loses one’s innocence by bearing witness. Beauty and lyricism cannot extract Lyutov from the reality he has chosen to witness out of eager curiosity; they can only pluck his strings. Skaz draws on the power of song, which can often involve a suspension of judgment, almost a seduction…But Babel’s craftsmanlike rigor invests this otherwise physiological, participatory aestheticism with critique and hidden meaning. Where beauty and lyricism take one’s breath away, Babel’s labor of whittling and polishing a story through dozens of drafts brings your breath back. (Vinokur, page 691)
There is much more to Babel’s life and works than what has been covered here. His others works include articles, early stories, reports from Petersburg, Georgia and France, and screenplays. Nathalie Babel published his letters and diaries in a volume titled Isaac Babel: The Lonely Years 1925-1939, which have been helpful in sorting out to what extent his stories are autobiographical. After Stalin came to power in1924, Babel’s works failed to meet Party guidelines, he was charged with “silence” and his production waned. Babel’s wife emigrated to Paris, where she gave birth to Nathalie in 1929. His mother and sister also emigrated – to Brussels – but Babel “clung to Moscow, hotly wed to his truest bride, the Russian tongue” as Cynthia Ozick puts it in her introduction to the Complete Works.
Babel commented on his imposed “silence” dictated by Stalin at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow in 1934, calling himself “a great master of the genre (of literary silence).” (Complete Works, pg 1055). He was also denied traveling privileges, with the exception of one trip to Paris in 1935 arranged by writer André Malraux to attend the Communist-sponsored International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture and Peace. On this trip he was able to see his wife and daughter Nathalie for what would be the last time. As Stalin systematically tries and executes military and political leaders one after another, Babel continues to quietly publish a few stories and scripts here and there, but does not go unnoticed. On May 15, 1939, Babel is arrested and charged with anti-Soviet activities including spying for France and Austria, and is tortured into making a false confession against himself and a few fellow writers. The transcripts reveal his last words in the proceedings: “I am innocent. I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union. I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others…I am asking for only one thing-let me finish my work.”
Babel was executed the next day, on January 27, 1940. Rumors of his release from prison were in circulation as late as 1948. He is exonerated in 1954, the government acknowledging that he had not committed any crimes. KGB archives obtained in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union reveal Babel’s death was by firing squad after which his body was deposited in a communal grave. (Complete Works, 28) His untimely death may seem to have been in vain, but his work lives on, taking away and giving back our breath one glorious story at a time. Babel has had the last word.
- Babel, Isaac E., Carol J. Avins (ed.) and H.T. Willets (trans.), 1920 Diary. Yale University Press, 1995
- Babel, Isaac E., Nathalie Babel (ed.) and Peter Constantine (trans.), The Complete Works of Isaac Babel. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
- Babel, Issac E., Nathalie Babel (ed.) and Andrew MacAndrew and Max Hayward (trans.), Isaac Babel: The Lonely Years 1925-1939. New York: Farrar, Straus & Company, 1964.
- Babel, Isaac E. and Nathalie Babel (ed.), You Must Know Everything: Stories 1915-1937. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
- Ehre, Milton, Isaac Babel, Boston: Twayne, 1986.
- Falen, James E., Isaac Babel, Russian Master of the Short Story. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974
- Babel, Nathalie. “’No Time to Finish’: Notes on Isaac Babel.” The Kenyon Review 26:3 (Summer 1964): 514-532, accessed August 27, 2014. http://jstor.org/stable/4334467
- Bernstein, Richard. “Isaac Babel May Yet Have the Last Word.” New York Times 11 July 2001: E1. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Accessed 22 July 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/11/books/critic-s-notebook-isaac-babel-may-yet-have-the-last-word.html
- Bojanowska, Edyta M. “E Pluribus Unum: Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry As a Story Cycle” The Russian Review 59 (July 2000): 371-89, accessed August 27, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2679461
- Freidin, Gregory, “Isaac Babel (1894-1940),” in European Writers: The Twentieth Century, ed. George Stade (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2009), 11:1885-1914
- Muldoon, Amy. “Classics of Marxism: Leon Trotsky.” Review of History of the Russian Revolution, by Leon Trotsky. International Socialist Review, Issue #60, July 2008. Accessed August 27, 2014. http://isreview.org/issue/60/history-russian-revolution
- Vinokur, Val. “Morality and Orality in Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry.” The Massachusetts Review 45:4 (Winter 2004/2005): 674-695, accessed August 27, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25090939
- Weinberg, Robert. “The Pogrom of 1905 in Odessa: A Case Study” in Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, John D. Klier and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. (Cambridge,1992): 248-89
- Gregory Freidin’s Isaac Babel page, hosted by Stanford Universityhttps://web.stanford.edu/~gfreidin/Publications/Babel.htm
Bentley Clifford Utgaard is a writer and artist living in Murray, Kentucky.