Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel (BA-byihl) was born in the Moldavanka, the Jewish quarter of Odessa, then a part of the Russian Empire, on July 13, 1894. His parents Emmanuel and Fanya Babel were firmly middle class and not entirely comfortable with this lively cosmopolitan city full of foreigners and colorful gangsters. As a result, they moved to Nikolaev, about eighty miles up the coast, shortly after Isaac’s birth. Ever the compulsive mythologizer, Babel would later conveniently forget this detail of his upbringing, just as he brushed over his father’s prosperous agricultural machinery business and depicted him as a simple shopkeeper. To be fair to Babel, however, he was writing in the Soviet Union at a time when it was often expedient to soft-pedal bourgeois origins and emphasize one’s closeness with the working people.
In any case, his family’s modest wealth could not insulate them from the fact they were Jews in a virulently anti-Semitic society, where pogroms, or riots, broke out with alarming regularity. His granduncle was murdered during the pogrom of 1905, and Babel had to watch his own father kneel in supplication to a Cossack officer. However, that act of self-abasement did not spare the family business from a mob of looters or consequent financial ruin. Upon the family’s return to Odessa in 1906, Isaac himself had to struggle to be admitted to the Russian-language commercial school, since the regular Russian-language high schools had a harsh quota limiting the number of Jewish students they would admit.
At this time, Babel’s literary interests began to flower, but not in the way one might have expected for a young man of his background. He had little interest in either Hebrew or Yiddish literature, instead preferring the great Russian writers of the era, including Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. He also developed a strong interest in Western literature, particularly French writers such as Guy de Maupassant and François Rabelais. In these authors, Babel found a vision and power in marked contrast to the resignation and frequent self-pity of his coreligionists’ writings.
His literary yearnings led him to the imperial capital, St. Petersburg, where he lived in defiance of restrictions against Jewish settlement. Although this course of action exposed him to considerable hardship, it also put him in contact with writer Maxim Gorky, who enabled Babel to get his first stories published in 1917. The stories proved controversial enough to get Babel...
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