Isaac Babel Essay - Critical Essays

Isaac Babel Short Fiction Analysis

Isaac Babel’s short stories fall into three basic groups: autobiographical stories, tales about Jews in Odessa, and stories about the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Even though the stories were written and published at different times, in retrospect they can be conveniently, if arbitrarily, classified into these three categories. A small number of stories do not fall into any of these groups, but they are exceptions and do not figure significantly in Babel’s opus.

While it is true that many of Babel’s stories are autobiographical, even if indirectly, a number of them are openly so. Several refer to his childhood spent in Nikolayev and Odessa. In one of his earliest stories, “Detstvo: U babushki” (“Childhood: At Grandmother’s”), Babel pays his emotional due to his kind grandmother, who kept quiet vigil over his studying for hours on end, giving him her bits of wisdom every now and then: “You must know everything. The whole world will fall at your feet and grovel before you. Do not trust people. Do not have friends. Do not lend them money. Do not give them your heart!” Babel loved his childhood because, he said, “I grew up in it, was happy, sad, and dreamed my dreams—fervent dreams that will never return.” This early wistful realization of the inevitable transience of all things echoes through much of his writings. The mixture of happiness and sadness is reflected in one of his best stories, “Istoriia moei golubiatni” (“The Story of My Dovecot”), where a child’s dream of owning a dovecote is realized during a pogrom, but the dove, which his father had promised him if he was accepted to high school, is squashed against his face. The trickling of the dove’s entrails down his face symbolizes the boy’s loss of innocence and a premature farewell to childhood.

Babel’s discovery of love as the most potent feeling of humankind came to him rather early. As he describes in “Pervaia liubov” (“First Love”), he was ten years old when he fell in love with the wife of an officer, perhaps out of gratitude for her protection of Babel’s family during the pogrom in Nikolayev. The puppy love, however, soon gave way to fear and prolonged hiccuping—an early indication of the author’s rather sensitive nervous system that accompanied him all his life. This innocent, if incongruous, setting points to a sophisticated sense of humor and to irony, the two devices used by Babel in most of his works. It also foreshadows his unabashed approach to erotica in his later stories, for which they are well known.

As mentioned already, Babel lived as a child in a world of books, dreams, and rampant imagination. In addition, like many Jewish children, he had to take music lessons, for which he had no inclination at all. He had little time for play and fun and, as a consequence, did not develop fully physically. He was aware of this anomaly and tried to break out of it. During one such attempt, as he describes it in “Probuzhdenie” (“Awakening”), he ran away from a music lesson to the beach, only to discover that “the waves refused to support” him. Nevertheless, this experience made him realize that he had to develop “a feel for nature” if he wanted to become a writer. Another experience of “breaking out” concerns Babel’s awareness of his social status, as depicted in the story “V podvale” (“In the Basement”). In the story, he visits the luxurious home of the top student in his class and has to use his power of imagination to convince the rich boy that socially he is on equal footing with him. When the boy visits the apartment of Babel’s family, “in the basement,” however, the truth becomes obvious, and the little Isaac tries to drown himself in a barrel of water. This realization of the discrepancy between reality and the world of dreams and the need and desire to break out of various imposed confines were constant sources of aggravation in Babel’s life. Other autobiographical stories, as well as many other stories seemingly detached from the author’s personal life, attest this perennial struggle.

Tales of Odessa

The stories about the life of Jews, in the collection Tales of Odessa, demonstrate Babel’s attachment to his ethnic background as well as his efforts to be objective about it. In addition to being an economic and cultural center, Odessa had a strong underground world of criminals made mostly of Jews, which fueled the imagination of the growing Isaac; later, he used his reminiscences about the Jewish mafia in some of his best stories. He immortalized one of the leaders, Benya Krik, alias the King, in “Korol” (“The King”). Benya’s daring and resourcefulness are shown during the wedding of his elderly sister, whose husband he had purchased. When the police plan to arrest Benya’s gang during the wedding celebration, he simply arranges for the police station to be set on fire. He himself married the daughter of a man he had blackmailed in one of his operations.

An old man who saw in Babel a boy with “the spectacles on the nose and the autumn in the heart” told him the story of Benya’s rise to fame in “Kak eto delalos v Odesse” (“How It Was Done in Odessa”). Here, Benya orders the liquidation of a man who did not give in to blackmail, but Benya’s executioner kills the wrong man, a poor clerk who had very little joy in life. Benya orders a magnificent funeral for the unfortunate clerk and a lifelong financial support for his mother, thus showing his true nature and revealing that it is not crime that attracted him to the underground life but rather a subconscious desire to right the wrongs and help the downtrodden. Through such characters and their motives, Babel is able to lend his stories a redeeming grace, neutralizing the mayhem saturating them.

Loyalty is another quality that binds these lawbreakers, as illustrated in the story “Otec” (“The Father”), where Benya helps an old gangster, who had given him his start, to marry off his daughter to the son of a man who had rejected the marriage. They are assisted by another legendary figure, Lyubka, known also from the story “Liubka Kazak” (“Lyubka the Cossack”). Lyubka, a middle-aged shop and whorehouse keeper, reigns supreme in her dealings with customers, who, in turn, help her wean her baby from breast-feeding. This interdependency in a life fraught with danger and risks gives Babel’s characters a human face and his stories a patina of real drama.

Not all stories about Jews in Odessa deal with the underground world, as “Di Grasso,” a colorful tale about theater life in Odessa, shows. Di Grasso, a Sicilian tragedian, and his troupe flop the first night of the show. After a favorable newspaper review praising Di Grasso as “the most remarkable actor of the century,” the second night the theater is full and the spectators are so enthralled that the wife of the theater “mogul,” to whom the fourteen-year-old Isaac had pawned his father’s watch, makes the husband return the watch, sparing Isaac much trouble. Babel’s uncanny ability to intertwine high aspirations and small concerns, pathos with bathos, turns seemingly insignificant events into genuine human dramas. This is even more evident in the story “Konets bogadel’ni” (“The End of the Old Folks’ Home”), where the inmates of a poorhouse near the Jewish cemetery make a living by using the same coffins again and again, until one day the authorities refuse to allow a used coffin for the burial of a revolutionary hero. The ensuing rebellion by the inmates leads to their dispersal and to the end of their life-sustaining scheme. Thus, what began as a clever business proposition turns into tragedy, making Babel’s story a timeless statement of the human condition.

Red Cavalry

Babel uses a similar technique in the collection Red Cavalry. Although the stories here are based on Babel’s real-life experiences in the war between the Russian revolutionaries and the Poles, their real significance lies beyond the factual presentation of a historical event, as the author endows every gesture, almost every word, with a potential deeper meaning. It is not coincidental that the entire campaign is seen through the eyes of, and...

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