[Marxism] Isaac Babel reviews

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 18 17:01:41 MST 2018

NY Review of Books, FEBRUARY 8, 2018 ISSUE
The Horror, the Horror
by Gary Saul Morson

The Essential Fictions
by Isaac Babel, edited and translated from the Russian by Val Vinokur
Northwestern University Press, 404 pp., $21.95 (paper)

Red Cavalry
by Isaac Babel, translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk
London: Pushkin Press, 219 pp., $18.00 (paper)

Odessa Stories
by Isaac Babel, translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk
London: Pushkin Press, 221 pp., $18.00 (paper)

On January 17, 1940, Stalin approved the sentences of 346 prominent 
people, including the dramaturge Vsevolod Meyerhold, the former NKVD 
(secret police) chief Nikolai Yezhov, and the writer Isaac Babel. All 
were shot. Babel had been arrested on May 15, 1939, in the middle of the 
night, and, the story goes, he remarked to an NKVD officer: “So, I guess 
you don’t get much sleep, do you?”

Grim wit was Babel’s trademark. He is best known for a cycle of short 
stories entitled Red Cavalry, a fictionalized account of his experiences 
as a Bolshevik war correspondent with a Cossack regiment during the 
Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920. Lionel Trilling, who introduced Babel 
to the English-speaking world, recognized these stories as the 
masterpiece of Soviet literature.1 Some of Babel’s other stories, 
especially his Odessa tales, also impressed Trilling and have remained 
favorites. They offer a tragicomic portrait of Odessa’s large Jewish 
community, with its rabbis, sensitive schoolboys, and, improbably, a 
Jewish gangster whose adventures combine epic heroism with a trickster’s 

How did a young man “with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his 
heart,” as he describes himself in one story, wind up in a regiment of 
Cossacks, known for their extreme brutality, violent masculinity, and 
hatred of Jews? Born into a middle-class Jewish family in 1894, Babel, 
who received a traditional Jewish education, was steeped in the 
polyglot, multicultural communities of Odessa, where he acquired fluency 
in Hebrew, Yiddish, and French, as well as Russian. In one story, he 
describes how Odessa Jews were obsessed with turning their sons into 
great violinists, like Mischa Elman or Jascha Heifetz; but Babel, who 
concealed copies of Turgenev on his music stand, preferred the 
traditional Russian view of literature as the most important thing in 
the world.

Influenced by Maupassant, he wrote his first stories in French, but as 
he recalls in his autobiographical tale “My First Honorarium,” he was 
inhibited by his belief that “it was pointless to write worse than Lev 
Tolstoy.” With Tolstoy, he told an interviewer, “the electric charge 
went from the earth, through the hands, straight to the paper, with no 
insulation, quite mercilessly stripping off any and all outer layers 
with a sense of truth…both transparent and beautiful.” But it was not 
Tolstoy’s incomparable realism and transparent style that Babel would 
cultivate. It was his ability to strip away all life’s accidents and 
reveal its “essence.”

In his tale “Childhood. At Grandmother’s,” the young Babel learns to see 
everything around him—streets, shop windows, stones—“in a special 
way…and I was quite certain that I could see in them what was most 
important, mysterious, what we grown-ups call the essence of things.” He 
discovered in his grandfather a man who “was ruled by an 
inextinguishable search for knowledge and for life.” His grandmother 
told him not to trust anyone, but to acquire all human knowledge: “You 
must know everything,” she demanded, and with these words she shaped “my 
destiny, and her solemn covenant presses firmly—and forevermore—upon my 
weak little shoulders.” That destiny, as he conceived it, was to become 
“the [Russian] literary Messiah, awaited in vain for so long.”

To see into the essence of things requires experience. In one 
autobiographical tale, a proofreader rebukes Babel for not knowing the 
natural world: “And you dare to write! A person who doesn’t live in 
nature, as a stone or an animal lives in nature, will never write two 
worthwhile lines in his entire life.” But it was human beings, in all 
their beauty and loathsomeness, he most wanted to know. In 1915, he 
moved to St. Petersburg and wrote some stories that impressed Maxim 
Gorky, who published Babel’s work in his newspaper New Life, until the 
Bolsheviks shut it down. As Babel recalled, Gorky advised him to go into 
the world and acquire real experience. Over the next few years, Babel 
served as a soldier on the Romanian front and may even have worked for 
the nascent Cheka (secret police) before becoming a war correspondent.

There could hardly have been a more grotesque pairing than a sensitive 
Jewish intellectual with a brutal Cossack regiment. For Trilling, this 
contrast constitutes the central theme of Red Cavalry, and it is 
certainly important. But something else is going on. The author 
approaches the world as an anthropologist, a disinterested spectator 
recording the odd customs of Cossacks, Jews, Poles, priests, Hasidic 
rebbes, camp whores, and every sort of perpetrator or victim of extreme 
violence. Observing his own reactions as if they were someone else’s, or 
placing himself in dangerous situations in order to monitor his own 
emotions, he treats himself as just another specimen of the human 
condition. In his story “My First Goose,” he wonders at his own taste 
for violence and its intimate link with sexuality. He has to know 

But what is the morality of looking at human suffering from outside, as 
a scientist examines specimens? That, too, is a theme of these stories 
and of Babel’s work in general. In her memoir Hope Against Hope, 
Nadezhda Mandelstam describes Babel as a risk-taker, willing to do 
anything, however dangerous or morally questionable, to learn about 
unexpected situations and strange people. Babel listened with more 
intensity than anyone she had ever met, while everything about him “gave 
an impression of all-consuming curiosity—the way he held his head, his 
mouth, his chin, and particularly his eyes…. Babel’s main driving force 
was the unbridled curiosity with which he scrutinized life and people.”

Babel even seemed to enjoy risk itself. During the great purges, he had 
an affair with the NKVD chief Yezhov’s wife. Instead of living in 
apartment buildings for writers, he chose a house where foreigners 
stayed. “Who in his right mind would have lived in the same house as 
foreigners?” Mandelstam asked, since any contact with foreigners was a 
likely death sentence. She also reports that Babel spent a lot of time 
with “militiamen,” a euphemism for NKVD agents. Mandelstam’s husband, 
the poet Osip Mandelstam, asked Babel why he was so drawn to such 
company: “Was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store 
where the merchandise was death?” Babel replied: “I just like to have a 
whiff and see what it smells like.”

One might suppose that Yezhov had Babel arrested for sleeping with his 
wife, but in fact he was arrested after Yezhov fell, apparently because 
it was routine to incarcerate anyone associated with an enemy of the 
people. Under interrogation, which almost always involved torture, Babel 
implicated other cultural figures—not as spies, but for the views they 
actually held, which no one but a totalitarian would find objectionable. 
Sergei Eisenstein, according to Babel, had remarked that under current 
conditions gifted individuals could not fully realize their talents, 
while the writer Ilya Ehrenburg complained that “the continuing wave of 
arrests forced all Soviet citizens to break off any relations with 
foreigners.” As was not uncommon, Babel’s confession was bloodstained.

The narrator of Red Cavalry—the war correspondent Vasily Lyutov, the 
pseudonym Babel himself had used among the Cossacks—observes everyone 
anthropologically, even his fellow Jews, as if they were a strange 
tribe. In the opening story, “Crossing the Zbruch,” he is quartered with 
a poor Jewish family, consisting of a pregnant woman, a man with a 
covered head asleep against the wall, and two “scraggy necked Jews” who 
hop about “monkey-fashion.” As if he were disgusted by contact with 
Jews, Lyutov describes finding in the room assigned to him “turned-out 
wardrobes…scraps of women’s fur coats on the floor, human excrement, and 
shards of the hidden dishware Jews use once a year—at Easter.”

These Jews take their revenge on him for his imperious treatment of 
them. He discovers to his horror that the man with the covered head, 
next to whom he has been sleeping, is a corpse with a cut throat. The 
woman explains that her father begged the Poles to kill him outside, so 
his daughter wouldn’t see him die, “‘but they did as they saw fit. He 
met his end in this room and was thinking of me. And now I should wish 
to know,’ said the woman with sudden and terrible violence, ‘I wish to 
know where in the whole world you could find another father like my 

Red Cavalry draws on a diary Babel kept in which he expresses horror at 
the violence committed by Reds, Poles, and partisans alike.2 Everyone 
kills Jews, and he asks himself, “Can it be that ours is the century in 
which they perish?” Like Lyutov, the war correspondent in the stories, 
Babel clings to a belief in revolution as more than senseless killing, 
but encounters everywhere “the ineradicable cruelty of human beings.” 
Several stories are narrations by Bolshevik soldiers who nonchalantly 
describe their hideous, needless brutality as a fight against “treason” 
and “counter-revolution.” Babel entertains the thought that “this isn’t 
a Marxist revolution, it’s a Cossack rebellion,” which at least leaves 
open the possibility that a true Marxist revolution is taking place 
elsewhere, but he soon surrenders even this consolation. “Our way of 
bringing freedom—horrible.” The Bolshevik soldiers resemble their 
enemies. “The hatred is the same, the Cossacks just the same, the 
cruelty the same, it’s nonsense to think one army is different from 
another…. There’s no salvation.”

In one story, Lyutov encounters an old Jew, Gedali, who questions 
whether paradise can be achieved by random killing and a war on 
religion. “The Revolution—we will say yes to it, but are we to say no to 
the Sabbath?” asks Gedali. Poles beat Jews and the Revolution beats 
Poles, which makes sense, but then why does the Revolution practice 
violence on Jews as well? The narrator, pretending to be an unshakable 
Bolshevik, replies that the revolution “cannot do without 
shooting,…because she is the Revolution.” If so, Gedali asks, how is one 
to tell revolution from counterrevolution? “I want an International of 
kind people,” Gedali declares, “I would like every soul to be registered 
and given first-category rations. There, soul, please eat and enjoy 
life’s pleasures.” As the story closes, “Gedali, founder of an 
impossible International, has gone to the synagogue to pray.”

The cycle’s core story, “The Life and Adventures of Matthew 
Pavlichenko,” questions the anthropological impulse itself. What is the 
morality of treating living people experimentally, whether to understand 
human nature, as the narrator wishes, or to test sociological theories, 
as suggested by the phrase “the Soviet experiment”? Babel based the tale 
not only on a real officer, Apanasenko, described in his diary as 
especially brutal, but also on his own impulse to take brutality as a 
key to human nature. “Must penetrate the soul of the fighting man, I’m 
penetrating, it’s all horrible, wild beasts with principles,” he notes 
in the diary.

The fictional Pavlichenko, who narrates the story, practices cruelty not 
only out of revenge or revolutionary principle but, like Babel himself, 
out of a desire to “penetrate the soul.” Before the Revolution, 
Pavlichenko’s master, Nikitinsky, exploited him and slept with his wife, 
but now the tables are turned. As a Red general, Pavlichenko returns to 
the estate, terrifies Nikitinsky, and claims to be delivering a letter 
written by Lenin to Nikitinsky personally. I took out a blank page, 
Pavlichenko explains, and pretended to read, “though I can’t read to 
save my life. ‘In the name of the people and the establishment of a 
bright future, I order Pavlichenko, Matvei Rodionych, to deprive certain 
people of life according to his discretion…. That’s Lenin’s letter for 

Since this is apparently a revenge story, we expect Pavlichenko to shoot 
his former master, but learn that the general has more on his mind than 
settling scores. Like Babel, he regards himself as a sort of social 
scientist who, with disinterested curiosity, seeks to learn the 
essential truth about life. In the most chilling passage of Red Cavalry, 
Pavlichenko, groping for words, experiments on his victim. Instead of 
shooting him,

I trampled my master Nikitinsky. I trampled on him for an hour or more 
than an hour, and in that time I got to know life in full. Shooting—I’ll 
put it this way—only gets rid of a person,…shooting won’t get at the 
soul, to where it is in a person and how it shows itself. But, some of 
the times, I don’t spare myself, some of the times, I trample an enemy 
for more than an hour, seeing as I wish to get to know life, this life 
we live.

Time and again, Pavlichenko does not spare himself. The quest for 
knowledge demands no less.

Untold horror results when knowledge is more important than people, and 
still more when one imagines that life’s essence is to be found in 
extreme situations. Babel here enters a debate running through Russian 
literature about whether true life resides in extreme situations, as 
Dostoevsky’s characters tend to assume, or in the most ordinary ones, as 
Tolstoy and Chekhov believed. Babel and Lyutov are drawn to extremes, 
but repeatedly discover the value of the ordinary.

In “The Death of Dolgushov,” Lyutov’s coachman Grishchuk, seeing people 
torn apart, asks: “Why do women bother?… What’s the point of matchmaking 
and marriages and kin dancing at weddings” and all that effort to raise 
children? “Makes me laugh…why women bother.” What women do every day, 
that’s what matters, and what violent men—those “wild beasts with 
principles”—do destroys the results of all their prosaic work. Lyutov 
and Grishchuk encounter an injured soldier with his insides hanging out 
and his heartbeats visible, who begs Lyutov to shoot him so the Poles 
won’t be able “to play their nasty tricks” on him. Lyutov can’t do it, 
and his refusal horrifies his friend Afonka Bida, who rightly detects 
cruelty in such “compassion.” “Your kind with your glasses feel sorry 
for our brother like a cat’s sorry for a mouse,” Bida fumes. As Lyutov 
despairs at losing Bida as a friend, Grishchuk, who understands prosaic 
goodness, comforts him. As the story ends, he “took a shriveled apple 
from under his driver’s seat. ‘Eat,’ he said to me. ‘Please, eat…’”

In both the diary and the stories, the author treats the wanton 
destruction of beehives as symbolic of war on everyday life and its 
prosaic values. “Total destruction…. The orchard, apiary, destruction of 
the hives, terrible, bees buzzing despairingly, the men blow up the 
hives with gunpowder…a wild orgy…I feel sick about it all,” he writes in 
the diary, and one Red Cavalry story begins: “I mourn for the bees…. We 
defiled untold hives…. There are no more bees in Volhynia.” Bees matter 
to the artist Pan Apolek, who scandalizes churchmen by painting Jesus 
and Mary with the faces of local sinners, as if to show that the sacred 
resides not in mythic distance but right before one’s eyes. He tells a 
story about how gnats plaguing Jesus on the cross asked a bee to sting 
him, but the bee refused since Jesus is a fellow carpenter. Soldiers 
kill bees, but Jesus is their brother.

Babel strove for concision. It is said that he rewrote one story 
twenty-two times to make it as brief and powerful as possible. For 
Babel, the right word, le mot juste, was often the word omitted. 
Unsurprisingly, his output was small, and he produced less and less as 
Stalinist rule tightened. This silence, and the reasons for it, became 
the target of his own mordant irony in his speech at the Congress of 
Soviet Writers in 1934. The Party and the government, he explained, 
“have given us everything, depriving us of only one privilege—that of 
writing badly.” Of course, without that right, it is impossible to write 
anything worthwhile at all. So fearful am I of disappointing readers, he 
concludes, I have become the master of a new genre: the genre of 
silence. This comment resonated over the years since so much Russian 
literature was written for the drawer, appearing only decades later, or, 
like Babel’s last work, was seized by the NKVD and never reappeared.

Babel’s prose depends on his silences, on what he does not say. Like his 
contemporaries the Russian Formalists, he wanted to shock readers out of 
cliché and routine perceptions, and so he cultivated a style demanding 
interpretations he did not provide. When convention or common sense 
suggests one word, he provides another, slightly but significantly 
different. The test of a good translator is whether she preserves the 
strangeness. When Babel writes “invisible voices,” does the translator 
supply (as Walter Morison does) “mysterious voices”? Without realizing 
it, most translators betray Babel’s style by interpreting his words.

The new translations by Boris Dralyuk and Val Vinokur, like Morison’s 
classic one, provide a readable text that captures much of what makes 
Babel’s stories great, but they often explain—that is, explain 
away—Babel’s oddities. In the story “Pan Apolek,” Babel begins a 
sentence: “V Novograd-Volynske, v naspekh smyatom gorode, sredi 
skruchennykh razvalin,” which, as literally as possible, means: “In 
Novograd-Volynsk, in the hastily crumpled city, amid the crooked 
ruins….” Vinokur gives us “In Novograd-Volynsk, among the twisted ruins 
of that swiftly crushed town,” while Dralyuk offers “In 
Novograd-Volynsk, among the gnarled ruins of that hastily crushed city.” 
And Morison: “In Novograd-Volynsk, among the ruins of a town swiftly 
brought to confusion….”

These are all interpretations, almost paraphrases. Babel describes the 
city as “crumpled” (smyatyi), the way one crumples a piece of paper 
before throwing it away. The ruins are not twisted or gnarled or brought 
to confusion, but crooked: the word skruchennyi, as my colleague Nina 
Gourianova reminds me, is the one used in Samuil Marshak’s famous 
translation of the English nursery rhyme about a crooked man in a 
crooked house. Babel’s strange lexicon, and the peculiar image of a town 
resembling a crumpled letter, disappear. And the translators omit the 
double use of the word “in” (“In Novograd-Volynsk, in the hastily 
crumpled city”), so the sentence’s rhythm changes.

Dralyuk makes a principle of explaining. His introduction offers as an 
example of his method a passage where Babel describes old letters as 
istlevshikh (rotten, decaying). Dralyuk alters this to “letters worn 
thin”: “If one takes a moment to imagine what Babel’s narrator 
imagines…one can conjure the fragile letters before one’s eyes, feel 
their texture; they have been ‘worn thin’ by friction and sweat.” But 
Babel does not describe them as worn thin, and the Red Cavalry stories 
constantly offer images of rot, decay, and moldering.

Translation is the theme of Babel’s story “Guy de Maupassant.” A woman 
loves Maupassant passionately, but her renditions remain “tediously 
correct, lifeless and loud, the way Jews used to write Russian.” The 
narrator helps: “I spent all night hacking a path through someone else’s 
translation,” he explains (Vinokur). “A phrase is born into the world 
both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a barely 
discernible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm. You 
must turn it once, but not twice.” Too often, Morison turns it twice, 
and Dralyuk not at all. Vinokur gets the right effect most often.

“Guy de Maupassant” contains Babel’s most quoted line about style: “No 
iron can enter the heart as icily as a period placed in time.” (“Nikakoe 
zhelezo ne mozhet voiti v chelovecheskoe serdtse tak ledenyashche, kak 
tochka, postavlennaya vovremya.”) It is especially sad when translators 
get the timing of this very sentence wrong. They drag it out, which is 
like giving a joke a wordy punch line. In Morison’s version, “No iron 
can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right 
place,” while Vinokur renders: “Nothing of iron can breach the human 
heart with the chill of a period placed just in time.” “Stab” and 
“breach” are interpretations; “with force” does not mean “icily”; the 
right place is not the right time; and the word “just” is only implied. 
For both translators, Babel’s fourteen words needlessly expand to 
eighteen. The period arrives, like a bungled witticism, a bit late.

Translators, like the rest of us, cling to words, thoughts, and images 
that are all too hopelessly familiar. That is why Babel crafted a style 
to shock readers into seeing the strangeness before their eyes. He gave 
his words a terrifying twist that lodges them in the heart and mind. 
Those given, as he was, to romanticize violence and seek truth in 
extreme situations would do well to attend to his invisible voices and 
resonant silences.

1. Trilling’s introduction to Isaac Babel, The Collected Stories, 
translated by Walter Morison (Criterion, 1955). ↩

2. Isaac Babel, 1920 Diary, edited by Carol J. Avins and translated by 
H.T. Willetts (Yale University Press, 1995). ↩

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