Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3384
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.
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 told by, a baggage-train officer named Liutov (a persona standing for Babel), not by a frontline participant. Readers learn about the general nature of the conflict, recognize the place names, and even follow the course of the battles, but they cannot piece together the exact history of the conflict simply because that was not the author’s intention. Babel gives readers single episodes in miniature form instead, like individual pieces of a mosaic; only after finishing the book are readers able to take in the complete picture.
The first story, “Perekhod cherez Zbruch” (“Crossing into Poland”), sets the tone for the entire collection. The opening lines reveal that a military objective has been taken, but Liutov’s baggage train that follows sinks into a hazy, dreamy, impressionistic atmosphere, as if having nothing to do with the campaign:Fields flowered around us, crimson with poppies; a noontide breeze played in the yellowing rye; on the horizon virginal buckwheat rose like the wall of a distant monastery. The Volyn’s peaceful stream moved away from us in sinuous curves and was lost in the pearly haze of the birch groves; crawling between flowery slopes, it wound weary arms through a wilderness of hops.
This passage shows a poetic proclivity of Babel, but it is also his deliberate attempt to take his readers away from the factual course of events and move them to what he considers to be more important—the human perception of the events. Many of the stories in the collection bear the same trademark.
Although many stories deserve detailed comment, several stand out for their “message” or meaning that can be culled from the story. Nowhere is the brutal nature of the civil war depicted more poignantly than in “Pis’mo” (“A Letter”). A young, illiterate cossack, Vasily, dictates to Liutov a letter to his mother. He inquires about his beloved foal back home, and only after giving detailed advice about handling him does he tell how his father, who is on the other side, killed one of his sons and was then killed in return by another. This most tragic piece of news is relayed matter-of-factly, as if to underscore the degree of desensitization to which all the participants have fallen prey through endless killing.
The cruelty of the civil war is brought into sharp focus by an old Jewish shopkeeper in “Gedali.” Gedali reasons like a legitimate humanitarian and libertarian: “The Revolution—we will say ‘yes’ to it, but are we to say ‘no’ to the Sabbath? I cry yes to [the Revolution], but it hides its face from Gedali and sends out on front naught but shooting.” He understands when the Poles commit atrocities, but he is perplexed when the Reds do the same in the name of the revolution. “You shoot because you are the Revolution. But surely the Revolution means joy. The Revolution is the good deed of good men. But good men do not kill.” Gedali says that all he wants is an International of good people. Liutov’s answer that the International “is eaten with gunpowder,” though realistic, falls short of satisfying the old man’s yearning for justice, which, after all, was the primary driving force of the revolution. It is interesting that, by presenting the case in such uncompromising terms, Babel himself is questioning the rationale behind the revolution and the justification of all the sacrifices and suffering.
A similar moral issue is brought to a climactic head in perhaps the best story in Red Cavalry, “Smert’ Dolgushova” (“The Death of Dolgushov”). Dolgushov is wounded beyond repair and is left behind the fighting line to die. He is begging Liutov to finish him off because he is afraid that the Poles, if they caught him alive, would mutilate his body. Liutov refuses. The commander gallops by, evaluates the situation, and shoots Dolgushov in the mouth. Before galloping away, the commander threatens to kill Liutov, too, screaming, “You guys in specks have about as much pity for chaps like us as a cat has for a mouse.” Aside from the revolutionaries’ mistrust of Liutov (alias Babel) and the age-old question of euthanasia, the story poses a weighty moral question: Has a human being the right to kill another human being? Even though Babel seems to allow for this possibility, he himself cannot make that step, making it appear that he is shirking his responsibility (after all, he is fighting alongside the revolutionaries). More likely, he is hoping that there should be at least someone to say no to the incessant killing, thus saving the face of the revolution (as if answering Gedali’s mournful plea). More important, this hope hints at Babel’s real attitude toward the revolution. For such “misunderstanding” of the revolution he was criticized severely, and it is most likely that through such attitudes he sowed the seeds of his own destruction two decades later.
Not all stories in Red Cavalry are weighed down with ultimate moral questions. There are stories of pure human interest, colorful slices of the war, and even some genuinely humorous ones. In “Moi pervyi gus’” (“My First Goose”), Liutov is faced with the problem of gaining the respect of the illiterate cossacks in his unit. As a bespectacled intellectual (“a four-eyed devil,” as they called him), and a Jew at that, he knows that the only way to win them over is by committing an act of bravery. He thinks of raping a woman, but he sees only an old woman around. He finally kills a goose with his saber, thereby gaining the respect of his “peers.” Only then are they willing to let him read to them Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s latest pronouncements. With this mixture of mocking seriousness and irony, Babel attempts to put the revolution in a proper perspective. His difficulties at adjusting to military life are evident also in the story “Argamak,” where he ruins a good horse by not knowing how to handle it.
The Jews are frequently mentioned in these stories because the war was taking place in an area heavily populated by them. Babel uses these opportunities to stress their perennial role as sufferers and martyrs, but also to gauge his own Jewish identification. In “Rabbi” (“The Rabbi”), he visits, with Gedali, an old rabbi, who asks him where he came from, what he has been studying, and what he was seeking—typical identification questions. Later, they and the rabbi’s son, “the cursed son, the last son, the unruly son,” sit amid the wilderness of war, in silence and prayers, as if to underscore the isolation of people threatened by an alien war. In “Berestechko,” a cossack is shown cutting the throat of an old Jewish “spy,” being careful not to stain himself with blood. This one detail completes the picture of a Jew as an ultimate victim.
Many characters are etched out in these miniature stories. There is Sandy the Christ in the story by the same title (“Sashka Khristov”), a meek herdsman who at the age of fourteen caught “an evil disease” while carousing with his stepfather and who later joined the Reds and became a good fighter. There is Pan Apolek (“Pan Apolek”), an itinerant artist who painted church icons in the images not of the saints but of local people. There is Afonka Bida (“Afonka Bida”), the commander who almost shot Liutov because of Dolgushov, who loses his horse Stepan and disappears hunting for another. After several weeks, he reappears with a gray stallion, but the loss of Stepan still makes him want to destroy the whole world. In “So” (“Salt”), a woman carrying a bundled baby uses him to gain sympathy and hitch a train ride. It turns out that the bundle is nothing but a two-pound sack of salt; she is thrown out of the moving train and then shot from the distance. The man who killed her pronounces solemnly, “We will deal mercilessly with all the traitors that are dragging us to the dogs and want to turn everything upside down and cover Russia with nothing but corpses and dead grass,” which is exactly what he has just done. Finally, in one of the best stories in the book, “Vdova” (“The Widow”), a lover of the dying commander is bequeathed all of his belongings, with the request that she send some of them to his mother. When the widow shows signs of not following the will of the deceased, she is beaten, and, if she forgets the second time, she will be reminded again in the same fashion. These stories are perfect illustrations of Babel’s ability to create unforgettable but credible characters, to set up dramatic scenes, and to conjure a proper atmosphere, while endowing his creations with a truly human pathos—qualities that characterize most of his stories but especially those in Red Cavalry.
Among the stories outside the three groups, several are worth mentioning. An early story, “Mama, Rimma, i Alla” (“Mama, Rimma, and Alla”), resembles a Chekhov story in that the domestic problems in a family (a mother finds it difficult to cope with her daughters in absence of her husband) are not solved and the story dissolves in hopelessness. “Iisusov grekh” (“The Sin of Jesus”) is a colorful tale of a woman whose husband is away at war and who goes to Jesus for advice about loneliness. When Jesus sends her an angel, she accidentally smothers him to death in sleep. She goes again to Jesus, but now he damns her as a slut, which she resents, for it is not her fault that she lusts, that people drink vodka, and that he has created “a woman’s soul, stupid and lonely.” When finally Jesus admits his error and asks for forgiveness, she refuses to accept it, saying, “There is no forgiveness for you and never will be.” The story displays Babel’s exquisite sense of humor along with a keen understanding of human nature and the complexities of life. A variant, “Skazka pro babu” (“The Tale of a Woman”), another Chekhovian story, again depicts the plight of a widow who, in her loneliness, asks a friend to find her a husband. When she does, he mistreats her and walks out on her, which causes her to lose her job. Finally, “Ulitsa Dante” (“Dante Street”) is a Paris story in the tradition of Guy de Maupassant, showing Babel’s versatility and imagination.
Babel’s stylistic excellence has been often praised by critics. His style features a Spartan economy of words, and he is known to have spent years reworking and revising his stories. Babel’s attention to detail, especially to line and color, often result in fine etchings. There is a pronounced poetic bent in his stories, whether they are located in a city milieu or in the countryside. This is reinforced by a prolific use of images and metaphors in the style of the following passages, quoted at random: A dead man’s fingers were picking at the frozen entrails of Petersburg. The gentleman had drooping jowls, like the sacks of an old-clothes man, and wounded cats prowled in his reddish eyes.
One finds in Babel also a surprising amount of humor, as if to offset the cruelty and gruesome injustice of his world.
Babel’s artfulness is especially noticeable in his treatment of irony as his strongest device. He refuses to accept reality as one perceives it. He also plays games with the reader’s perceptions, as he says openly, “I set myself a reader who is intelligent, well educated, with sensible and severe standards of taste. Then I try to think how I can deceive and stun the reader.” This cool intellectual approach, coupled with the strong emotional charge of his stories, gives his stories an aura of not only skillfully executed works of art but also pristine innocence of divine creation.