The recent advent of e-books, e-readers, tablet computers, and smart phones has truly revolutionized reading. It is mind-boggling how one small device can provide instant access to thousands of books.
This is an exciting development for an avid reader like me. As I noted in my tribute to Goethe, I have long been a used-bookstore addict, and whatever city I have lived in, I have accumulated a sizeable stock of old paperbacks. When I leave said city, I inevitably leave schlepping a heavy bag containing my books, unwilling to part with any of them. As I make the (at least partial) switch to Kindle and e-reading, that paper-moving necessity is one aspect of my love of books that I will surely not miss.
My usual travel m.o. has been to carry along five or six books to sustain me on my trip. They add a good deal of weight to my bag, which remains constant for the whole trip, for as I said I am unable to part with them after I read them. For my three-month odyssey through Central Asia, I decided that I would try a slightly different strategy. Instead of taking a bunch of books, I would take just one large book that would sustain me through the whole trip. But which book would that be?
I’d never heard of Isaac Babel until I spent a year living in Odessa, Ukraine. One of Odessa’s most famous sons, I learned that Babel was a Jewish writer of the early Soviet period, best known for his Odessa Stories, primarily chronicling the adventures of the Jewish gangster Benya Krik ( a.k.a. “The King”), and for his Red Cavalry Stories, depicting a Soviet Cossack brigade during the ill-fated 1920 invasion of Poland. Unfortunately I was unable to find a copy of Babel’s works in English while in Ukraine, but upon returning to the U.S., I promptly went on Amazon and ordered The Complete Works of Isaac Babel. The title is quite fitting; it is a mammoth volume of over a thousand pages, containing everything available to us that Babel ever wrote, including stories, plays, articles, reports, screenplays, and journals. I received it in the mail and happily flipped through it, marveling at its completeness. Then, in an inexplicably spectacular act of procrastination, I put the book aside for several years.
When I devised my reading plan for my Central Asia trip, my mind immediately came back to Babel. His Complete Works seemed the perfect choice. The length of the book would provide a good completion challenge over three months of travel. Moreover, reading Soviet/Russian literature would be ideal while traveling in former-Soviet Central Asia. Finally, I would add a long-missing component to my Odessa, and overall literary, experience.
I first cracked the book at my hostel in Estonia, in the days immediately preceding my flight to Tajikistan. From that moment forward, Babel was my constant and faithful companion. He was there with me in Tajik homestays, in Uzbek cafes, on Kazakh trains, and in the Kyrgyz mountains. (The most notable moment of course being the incident when “Babel” was mistaken for “Bible” by an Uzbek border guard, as described in “The Central Asia Police Files”). When I turned the last page in a hostel in Urumqi, western China, the day before flying to Australia, I felt a mix of emotions. Sadness that there was no more Babel to read, and extreme gratitude that I had been fortunate enough to experience the brilliant and unparalleled writing of a great man.
Babel’s prose is a constant pleasure to read. His characters and scenery leap off the page, bursting with life and passion. It was a pleasant nostalgia trip to be taken back to Odessa, albeit a very different Odessa of a century ago. It was obvious why Babel had become famous through his Odessa and Red Cavalry stories.
Cynthia Ozick provides a short, lovely introduction to the volume. Her observation about the source of Babel’s passion clarified for me what I like most about Babel’s writing: “The breadth and scope of his social compass enabled him to see through the eyes of peasants, soldiers, priests, rabbis, children, artists, actors, women of all classes. He befriended whores, cabdrivers, jockeys; he knew what it was to be penniless, to live on the edge and off the beaten track. He was at once a poet of the city…and a lyricist of the countryside.” In comparing him to Franz Kafka’s thinking man, she writes, “Babel, by contrast, lives, lives, lives! He lives robustly, inquisitively, hungrily; his appetite for unpredictable human impulse is gargantuan, inclusive, eccentric. He is trickster, rapscallion, ironist, wayward lover, imprudent imposter…”
I absolutely love this fire of life that pulses through Babel’s writing. As Ozick points out, he understands a wide cross-section of society and life, rather than writing speculation; he possesses a genuine understanding born out of experience. For me, Babel is a superb literary example of a synthesis of action and thought, living at the experiential level, and subsequently describing it beautifully.
Ozick also quotes two of Babel’s most brilliant statements on writing, both from his exquisite short story “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.”
“No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.”
Another passage of his on writing that spoke to me immensely comes from the equally lovely story “My First Fee”:
“Since childhood, I had invested every drop of my strength in creating tales, plays, and thousands of stories. They lay on my heart like a toad on a stone. Possessed by demonic pride, I did not want to write them down too soon. I felt that it was pointless to write worse than Tolstoy. My stories were destined to survive oblivion. Dauntless thought and grueling passion are only worth the effort spent on them when they are draped in beautiful raiment. But how does one sew such raiment?”
One of the pleasures of reading The Complete Works is that literally all of Babel’s surviving writings are there, including early drafts and versions of some of his stories. It’s a fascinating and insightful experience to watch Babel’s style, plot points, and descriptions evolve over one or two incarnations of a story. It also provides a wonderfully realistic look into the complexities of the writer’s craft.
While I loved all of Babel’s stories, my favorite section of the book was Babel’s 1920 Diary. Written from June to September, 1920, the Diary describes Babel’s time with the Sixth Cavalry Division of the Red Army. This experience would be used as the basis for his Red Cavalry stories. Yet for me, the Diary was infinitely more interesting than even those great stories. It reveals Babel’s personal thoughts at their deepest layers, and provides an even clearer insight into the stark and brutal nature of that 1920 campaign.
The Soviet invasion of Poland came during that gray area of history (at least in the West) in the years immediately following the close of World War I. The young Soviet Union was aiming at spreading communist revolution across Europe, but the campaign in Volhynia, in modern-day Poland and Ukraine, would prove to be unsuccessful for the Soviets.
Babel rode with the Sixth Cavalry as a war correspondent during that campaign, and was very much a fish out of water. A bespectacled, bookish, urban Jew from Odessa (and later St. Petersburg), Babel found himself surrounded by steppe-hardened Cossacks, whose distinguishing characteristics seemed to be their lust for pillage, virulent anti-Semitism, and overall brutality. In the Red Cavalry story “My First Goose,” Babel’s fictional alter-ego earns the Cossacks’ respect only when, upon being informed that there is nothing to eat, he crushes a goose’s skull beneath his boot and orders the woman whose house they are occupying to cook the dead bird for him.
The brutality of the campaign, the rape, pillage, and killing which Babel darkly yet eloquently describes, shocked the readers of the Red Cavalry stories, and these day-to-day realities of the war are even more starkly illustrated in Babel’s Diary. Over the course of the Diary, one can observe Babel’s dimming Soviet idealism, as the communist principles he believes the Red Army to be fighting for are repeatedly challenged by the barbarous reality of the campaign.
Still, Babel manages to mix in many light-hearted, irreverent observations. One of the brighter spots of knowledge to be gleaned from the Diary is the fact that, even in war-torn 1920s Poland, the Game remained the same:
“Night on the boulevard. The hunt for women. Four streets, four stages: acquaintance, conversation, awakening of desire, gratification of desire.”
I had to continually remind myself that while writing this diary, Babel was just 25 years old, very close to my own age.
A current that runs through not just the Red Cavalry stories but nearly all of Babel’s writing is his core Jewishness. The Odessa Tales provide a fascinating insight into the little-known Jewish gangster world of Odessa at the turn of the century; these stories turn the conventional Jewish stereotype (which Babel explores in other stories) on its head.
He also provides a clear and very depressing insight into the living conditions of many Jews in early-20th century Eastern Europe. The Diary depicts the Jews as the primary victims of the 1920 Russo-Polish war, their shtetls being continually raided and pillaged by both sides: women gang-raped, holy places desecrated, and men casually murdered. In several places, Babel writes what, in hindsight, resemble chilling predictions of the impending Holocaust:
“A terrible, uncanny shtetl, Jews stand at their doors like corpses, I wonder about them: what more are you going to have to go through?”
“A quiet evening in the synagogue…to grasp it fully you have to have the soul of a Jew. But what does this soul consist of? Is it not bound to be our century in which they will perish?”
One of Babel’s most poignant stories, dedicated to his literary hero and mentor Maxim Gorky, is “The Story of My Dovecote.” Here Babel describes the terrifying experiences of his family during the anti-Jewish pogrom that occurred in Odessa in the wake of the 1905 revolution, when Babel was just ten years old.
As I touched on earlier, what I most identified with in Babel’s character was his continuous struggle to break free from the bookish side of his personality and experience the world, or more appropriately, create a healthy balance between intellectualism and action. Two of my favorite quotes on the subject, from the Diary and “Sketches for the Red Cavalry Series”:
“Sweat, watery tea, I’m sinking my teeth into life again, farewell to you, dead men.”
“Books—I grabbed as many as I could, they keep calling me—I cannot tear myself away.–We gallop off—I keep throwing books away—a piece of my soul—I’ve thrown them all away.”
It was Babel’s fate to suffer an abysmally tragic end. During the 1920s and 1930s he was one of the foremost writers of the Soviet Union, widely read and loved both at home and abroad. However, during Stalin’s purges, he ran afoul of some key figures in the Soviet establishment. He was arrested in 1939, his papers confiscated and destroyed, and on an early morning in January 1940, he was secretly executed by firing squad. His last plea was reportedly: “Let me finish my work.” Following his execution, Babel was “erased,” that terrifying Stalinist procedure in which all mention of a person is deleted from the historical record, as if he or she never existed. Such was the fate of Babel, formerly one of the most famous and respected voices of the nation, until his “rehabilitation” during the thaw of 1954; even then, it would be many years before his works were republished in uncensored form in Russia.
One of the most poignant quotes in the volume comes from none of Babel’s formal writings. At the end of the book, the editor provides a complete chronology of Babel’s life, with an accompanying photo of Babel from 1930. He wears round spectacles, a George Costanza-esque hairline, and a bemused little smile. A note at the very beginning of the volume, buried in tiny type on the copyright and photograph attribute page, states that Babel enclosed the photo in a letter to his sister in Brussels. His handwritten inscription on the photo touched my heart more than any other single sentence in the volume:
“My life is spent fighting this man.”