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Isaac Babel's genre of silence
A review of The Complete Works of Isaac Babel by Isaac Babel,Nathalie Babel,Peter Constantine,Cynthia Ozick
A review of The Complete Works of Isaac Babel
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The romance of revolution has repeatedly seduced European intellectuals and nowhere more intensely than in Russia. In the late nineteenth century, Russia became the first country in which young members of the intelligentsia, when asked their career choice, might answer “revolutionary” or “terrorist”—a choice regarded as highly honorable, albeit dangerous. Indeed, the word “intelligentsia” was originally a Russian coinage, meaning not a thinking or educated person, but one, however well or ill educated, committed wholeheartedly to socialism, atheism, and revolution. If we reflect that this group actually succeeded in taking over the state—Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were all typical intelligents—then we recognize the importance of cultural battles. We also recognize the larger significance of Russian history and literature for understanding the modern world.
By and large, the classic Russian writers were opposed to the intelligentsia and its extremist ethos, so contrary to the careful particularities of great novels and realist stories. The history of Russian culture could more or less be narrated as the disputes between the intelligentsia and the great writers. In 1909, the eminent literary and social critic Mikhail Gershenzon wrote that “the surest gauge of the greatness of a Russian writer is the extent of his hatred for the intelligentsia”—a view that works well if we think of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. But 1917 altered the picture considerably. Revolutionary fervor swept up many of the writers, who found themselves intoxicated by an era of apocalyptic and romantic violence in the name of a high ideal.
One such writer, who was to learn the hard way the dangers of a revolutionary regime in power, was Isaac Babel (1894– 1940). His deeply ambiguous feelings about revolution shape his central work, Red Cavalry (more literally Cavalry), a cycle of stories about the Russian revolutionary army’s invasion of Poland in 1920 as the Bolsheviks attempted to spread Communism to the rest of the world. Under the non-Jewish name of Lyutov, the Jewish Babel served with this army, and the stories fictionalize—sometimes without even changing names—what happened to the invading soldiers, to the Polish and Jewish inhabitants they encountered, and to Lyutov (the name of the stories’ principal narrator) himself.
The cycle, taken as a whole, remains one of the masterpieces of Russian literature. If one thinks of a great work as one that will be read by nonspecialists a hundred years hence, then I think there are only three works of post-Revolutionary Russian prose that are without qualification great: Mikhail Bulgakov’s comic masterpiece about the devil’s visit to Soviet Russia, The Master and Margarita; Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, which finds an appropriate strategy for making an endless chronicle of horrors into compelling reading; and Babel’s Red Cavalry. Like Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, Babel also wrote a number of other significant works, most notably some charming and hilarious stories about the Jewish community in Odessa. The Complete Works of Isaac Babel collects all of Babel’s known extant works, including his diary of 1920—which was published in Russian only in 1990 and in Carol Avins’s and Harry Willetts’s fine English version in 1995. We have in The Complete Works at last the possibility of seeing Babel’s mind at work in a diversity of forms, among them drama, some rather repellent revolutionary journalism, and the notes that form the basis for his masterpiece. Red Cavalry has puzzled by its studied ambiguities and its sonorous laconicism. Babel was famous for his devotion to the compressed phrase, often oxymoronic or otherwise startling in its choice of words, and for his dictum that “no iron can pierce the human heart … like a period well-placed.”
In an essay that did a great deal for Babel’s reputation in the United States, Lionel Trilling viewed Red Cavalry as a Freudian meditation on the timeless themes of a young man’s initiation and of the opposition between civilized repression and natural impulses, as symbolized by the sensitive Jewish narrator’s encounter with violent Cossack soldiers. The Jew longs to overcome his effeminate Jewishness, which he nevertheless treasures like “the rotting Talmuds of my childhood,” and so, with a complexity of emotions captured in somewhat overwrought phrases, he admires violence and, up to a point, learns to commit it. Lyutov brutally slays a goose, so that his comrades will see him as one of the men; they then listen when he reads them propaganda, “rejoicing in the mysterious curve of Lenin’s straight line”; and at last they all lie down to sleep in the hayloft.
Six of us slept there warming each other, our legs tangled, under the holes in the roof which let in the stars. I dreamed and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, crimson with murder, screeched and bled.
Here, and elsewhere, the narrator is drawn by the sheer sexuality of power, violence, and male comradeship. In another story, a peasant protests that a sickly mare he has been given in compensation for one requisitioned is actually unable even to stand up. The commander, however, briefly revivifies the horse by—believe it or not —sheer sexual power. The horse “licked some invisible command from his crimson palm, and immediately the feeble mare felt bracing power flow from the sprightly, gray, blossoming Romeo… . Her whole body shivering, the mare stood on all four legs without moving her timid, doglike, lovestruck eyes from Dyakov.” Or is it, we ask, the narrator, rather than the horse, who senses Dyakov’s sexuality?
Trilling sees the other side of the dialectic —the only antithesis to the admiration of sexually charged violence he perceives—as mystical love, Catholic in some stories and Jewish in others. One character, an old Jew named Gedali, longs for an impossible International of good people, which would constitute a revolution of decency; another, an heretical Catholic artist, paints holy scenes with the lowlife of the town supplying the faces for Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Perhaps still more remarkable, although Trilling does not mention them, are the apocryphal stories. In one, we are told how Jesus begot a child. A woman, who from sheer desire and nervousness vomited on her wedding night, was mocked by her husband and all the guests, until Jesus,
filled with pity at seeing the anguish of the woman who was thirsting for her husband but also fearing him, donned the robes of the newlywed man and united himself with her as she lay in her vomit. Afterward she went out to the wedding guests, loudly exulting like a woman proud of her fall.
We are repeatedly given little folk stories like this to interpret. Jesus on the cross was plagued by gnats, and when a bee came by, the gnats demanded that the bee sting the savior, but the bee refused, because Jesus, too, was a carpenter. Trilling, who tells us that he first read Babel hoping to find an escape from modernist complexities in a Soviet writer, seems to miss the point of stories like this and, indeed, to overlook what, in the Russian context, appears to be the real alternative to the lure of killing: the occupations of everyday life, whether carpentry or the rhythms of the family. The bee story, for instance, is told after the soldiers senselessly destroy hives, and the narrator observes that “the chronicle of our everyday crimes oppresses me as relentlessly as a bad heart.” Daily revolutionary crimes destroy the basis of daily life. “Everyday life, which once has flourished, has blown away,” the narrator elsewhere observes.
Perhaps the wisest character in these stories is not the poetic Gedali or the heretical painter Pan Apolek, but Lyutov’s driver, the simple Grishchuk, who seems to emerge directly either from life or from Tolstoy.
The narrator still senses the exhilaration of disaster, illuminated by the rosy tail of a star, but Grishchuk sees the sheer waste of destroying what really matters, what wives and mothers value and what revolutions destroy.
The man by the side of the road, mortally wounded and with his entrails hanging out, begs Lyutov to kill him before the Poles find and torture him. But Lyutov, though he can love Lenin’s prose and admire Cossack violence, cannot go through with it and leaves the job to his friend Afonka Bida, who then utterly despises him.
These stories, like so much of Russian literature, question what seems to be the prime faith of intellectuals, that truth is to be found in extreme situations—the idea that everyday life is hopelessly banal, bourgeois, and deceitful, that reality is only authentic where things are starkest. All those intellectuals, from Shaw to Sartre to Céline to Foucault to Mayakovsky and countless others, who were attracted to one fanatic movement or another, seem, for all their differences, to share the assumption that everyday life—byt in Russian—is the great enemy: “love’s boat has smashed against byt,” as Mayakovsky memorably wrote. Tolstoy and Chekhov tell us differently; it is only in an everyday life well lived, they say, that meaning and truth are to be found. The question is not, as Trilling thought, whether to prefer a mystical heretic or a revolutionary killer; it is whether we value all that trouble that womenfolk take and all that men can do to aid what is utterly prosaic and really important.
Perhaps the most remarkable story Babel wrote is “The Life and Adventures of Matthew Rodionovich Pavlichenko.” It deals with an uneducated officer who nevertheless encapsulates the revolutionary mentality of every ideology. On the surface, Pavlichenko’s tale is a simple revenge story. He murders his cruel pre-revolutionary master, but the point is that this is not just murder, but something much more horrifying: an exploration of the human heart in an extreme situation—indeed, an experiment in making a situation as extreme as possible in order to explore the human heart at its most authentic. Pavlichenko refuses simply to shoot his enemy; he would not learn anything that way.
Then I started kicking Nikitinsky, my master, I kicked for an hour, maybe even more than an hour, and I really understood what life actually is. With one shot, let me tell you, you can only get rid of a person. A shot would have been a pardon for him and too horribly easy for me, with a shot you cannot get to a man’s soul, to where the soul hides and what it looks like. But there are times when I don’t spare myself and spend a good hour, maybe even more than a hour, kicking the enemy. I want to understand life, to see what it actually is.
Anyone could have thought of the idea that slow torture is a greater punishment than quick execution, but the point of this story —its sudden surprise—is that Pavlichenko will not spare himself. It is his disinterested devotion to science, to the knowledge of life’s essence, that makes him do whatever it takes to make the soul reveal itself.
The soul, it seems, is most itself when tortured. But is that really so? Perhaps, on the contrary, the essence of life is least apparent when most distant from ordinary experience? That extreme situations mislead was, I think, Babel’s point and Lyutov’s ultimate lesson, a counter-idea deeply consonant with the rhythms of Russian literature. I often think of Pavlichenko when I hear those who would soften the horrors of Leninism refer to “the Soviet experiment,” as if Lenin were a disinterested social scientist conducting a noble, if difficult, bit of research. When one thinks of Babel’s story, one realizes that, if so, the millions killed in the name of “science” would make the Russian Revolution morally even worse.
The translation of this passage is accurate, but its tone misses something: in the original, Pavlichenko appears, in a confidential, almost musing manner, to be searching for words, trying to explain just what he hopes to accomplish by his peculiar quest for truth. One has to be sympathetic to anyone who tries to render such a master of sentence rhythms as Babel, and generally this version by Peter Constantine does an adequate job. There are perhaps fewer lapses than in the Walter Morison version, which Trilling read. Yet there are moments when one prefers Morison. The opening story, “Crossing the River Zbrucz” (Morison condescends to the reader’s ignorance of boundaries by making the title “Crossing into Poland”), describes the narrator billeted with a Jewish family, whom he treats rather roughly. They play a horrible joke on him. The woman of the house has him sleep next to her father, but later wakens him to reveal that he is, in fact, sleeping next to a corpse.
“Pan [Polish for ‘sir’],” the Jewess says, shaking out the eiderdown, “the Poles were hacking him to death and he kept begging them, ‘Kill me in the backyard so my daughter won’t see me die!’ But they wouldn’t inconvenience themselves. He died in this room, thinking of me… . And now I want you to tell me,” the woman said suddenly and with terrible force, “I want you to tell me where one could hope to find another father like my father in all the world!” [end of story]
I think it should be plain that the emphasis on this sentence, and therefore its final words, should be placed not on “world” but on “father.” Morison (and the Russian original) give: “where in the whole world you could find another father like my father?” Now the punctuation can pierce the human heart.
This collection has been lovingly edited by Nathalie Babel, the author’s daughter, who includes a moving account of her own life as Babel’s daughter and as a Jew and a Soviet citizen in Nazi-occupied France. She lets us feel her mixture of emotions as she gradually discovers, and holds herself back from discovering, the facts—many disturbing—of Babel’s life, loves, and death. For a decade and a half, Babel was unmentionable in Soviet Russia, and only when the archives were opened in the 1990s was it established that Babel had been shot in 1940. His last words were a protestation of his innocence and a plea to continue his work. That work has never surfaced.
In a remarkable appearance at the Congress of Writers in 1934, Babel gave a wry speech in which, with multiple layers of irony, he praised the Soviet regime for having deprived writers of the right to write badly; commenting on his lack of publications in recent years, he also claimed to have mastered “the genre of silence.” It was as if his own laconism had merely been taken a step further. And yet, even in the writings we do have, the hint often speaks loudest. We hear, in the resonant tonalities of the barely but piercingly audible, the appreciation, in extraordinary times, of all that is careful, precise, and ordinary.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 January 2002, on page 61
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