Russian writer Isaac Babel was born on July 13, 1894, and given the full name Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel. Though some of his writing implies that he was raised in a Jewish ghetto by a crazy family of drunks and criminals, Babel was in fact raised middle class in Odessa, which, nearly 50 percent Jewish by 1917, had no legal restrictions on Jewish living quarters. Babel’s father, who managed an agricultural warehouse, was not particularly observant of Jewish religious tradition. Babel attended the competitive Commercial School and studied violin. Anti-Semitic sentiment remained strong in the early part of the twentieth century in Russia, and it is believed that the young Babel witnessed violent anti-Jewish demonstrations, though not necessarily the pogroms he claimed to have seen. He was small, fragile, needed glasses, and suffered from asthma. Acutely aware of these weaknesses, Babel believed them to be caused by nerves—nerves further grated upon by persecution. Later in life, Babel once wryly excused his small literary output with a physical explanation, claiming that his asthma only allowed him to say so much with words.
After graduating from The Institute of Finance and Business in Kiev, a mediocre college he attended only because of limits on Jewish attendance at better Odessa schools, Babel moved to St. Petersburg (the city later known as Leningrad). There he published his first story, ‘‘Old Shloyme,’’ which was about a suicidal Jew, a character type he explored in many later works. In 1916 Babel met the influential revolutionary writer Maxim Gorky, who published two more of Babel’s stories in his journal Letopis. Early on, Babel’s writing contained shocking images and sexual overtones, and included vague details about the characters’ histories. Babel’s own personal history is equally vague, as he often told stories about himself that were later contradicted, either by himself or some revelation of fact. However, some details are known. Upon Gorky’s advice to gather material for his writing, Babel volunteered for the Russian army during World War I, serving on the Romanian front. He returned to Odessa after becoming ill. There Babel met his first wife, Evgeniya Gronfein, with whom he had a child. He did not live with his wife throughout much of their marriage, and he later had a child with Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozhkova, a Soviet engineer.
In a gesture central to much of his fiction, Babel volunteered to serve in the Red Army in 1920 on the Polish front—a strange choice for a Jewish intellectual. The Cossacks were a brute, illiterate force, known to hate Jews. Yet Babel survived the fronts much like the narrator of ‘‘My First Goose,’’ working as a propagandist and spreading the socialist word. During that time and in the years immediately following, Babel published work under the pseudonym ‘‘K. Lyotov,’’ and gave the name ‘‘Lyotov’’ to his narrator as well, suggesting that much of his fiction may be largely autobiographical. These publications established him as a writer popular with the Russian public. Red Cavalry (the collection in which ‘‘My First Goose’’ appears) was published in 1926, and is considered by many critics to be the most artistically significant Babel work. In this book he displays a remarkable gift for startling images (‘‘Blue roads flowed past me like streams of milk spurting from many breasts’’) and an ability to portray sensitively even the ugliest scenes. For example, in ‘‘The Story of a Horse,’’ Babel famously ends a tale of a man driven mad by war with the line ‘‘Both of us looked on the world as a meadow in May—a meadow traversed by women and horses.’’ Yet this story, like most of those from the Polish front, are full of blood and death.
After his next publication, a series of autobiographical sketches entitled Odessa Tales , Babel’s literary output slowed. He defended this silence with various excuses. He did not want to...
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