THE LONELY VOICE #14: Isaac Babel, Every Grief Soaked Word


I mourn him like a lost brother. I’ve no right to say this. It’s ridiculous. Yet some voices, we convince ourselves, can’t be lived without.

Their words, our oxygen. So it is with Babel. I cling stupidly, desperately almost, to the embarrassing illusion that the man was put on earth (and shot twice in the head by Stalin’s goons) for the sole purpose of giving me pleasure in my cold garage. This sounds wrong. But why not just say it? Why not shout it to the dog walkers across the street in Precita Park? Hey Yatzee’s dad, Hey Punim’s mom, Isaac Babel’s prose is so achingly heart gnawing, it gives me a sexual charge.

I talk in my head and even I don’t listen anymore.

Yatzee’s dad and Punim’s mom watch the dogs sniff each other. Yatzee and Punim circle. They sniff each other some more. Life’s dance. The minutes wander by, another afternoon procrastinated into sweet oblivion. In my city, to each his own sexual charge. A Russian short story writer dead since 1940? Go to town bud, have all the fun you can muster. We got dogs to walk.

I’ve been resisting writing anything about The One for years. What could I possibly say beyond what my teacher and friend Andre Dubus said to me almost seventeen years ago when I borrowed his copy of Collected Stories, the old Meridian edition translated by Walter Morrison, the one with the guy on the cover dressed up to look like Babel. That big furry hat, those goofy glasses. This was apparently before any photographs of the man were available in the west. The publisher wanted to give the impression of Babel as a little Jew playing dress-up, the four-eyed book worm who goes off riding with the big bad Cossacks. I hoarded the book, read and re-read it like a starveling. For weeks. Until Dubus called me and roared into the phone. “Where the my Isaac Babel? Get your own goddamn copy!”

I never did return it. Andre. Isaac Babel, another thing I didn’t get the chance to thank you for.

Nothing more need be said, get it, steal it, and yet having nothing better to do for the last couple of hours, I’ve been hunting through four different translations in search of a bad Babel sentence, my theory being that one must exist somewhere.  All writers are entitled to bad sentences. How can a writer, even the very greatest of writers, know they are mortal if every sentence hits the mark? Our bad sentences, the imperfections that make us who we are. To each our own bad sentences, I say.

The man himself talked about this in a speech to the 1934 Moscow Writers’ Conference (think Soviet version of manic AWP). Babel had no desire to speak and yet he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. In Stalin’s Russia, writers had to speak, had to write. Silence itself was taken not only as an affront, but an act of subversion.

“…everything is given to us by the party and the government and only one thing is taken away: the freedom to write badly. Comrades, we must not conceal that this is an important right, and it is no small thing to take away.”

Even in that atmosphere, Babel went for a laugh and I’ll bet he got it. With the benefit of awful hindsight, the quip works like a typical Babel sentence. Brief, funny, grief soaked. You laugh till you look down at your chest and you realize your heart’s bleeding.

The man wasn’t even allowed to live long enough to write badly.

It is tempting to say Stalin did literature a favor. But who would ever wish their brother dead, even if the long shadow of inevitable failure itself looms down the years? The story goes that Stalin had never even read Babel before he had him murdered. It may be apocryphal but I accept it as I accept other myths I live by. In the middle of the night Stalin called a sycophantic literary critic and asked him, “Tell me, Ivan Yegorovich, is this Babel character as good as people say?”

The sycophantic critic couldn’t quite figure out the right answer and so in a moment of panic Yegorovich said what he actually thought.

“He’s better.”

If it’s not true, it’s still true. If Stalin had actually read Babel, he wouldn’t have been able to tell if he was any good or not. Men (and it is always men) who on a whim can – and do – order the deaths of millions of people are, in my garage view, incapable of reading well because reading well requires reading humanely. If Stalin (a mediocre poet himself) had truly read Isaac Babel, he would have sunk to his knees and wept. Would he have closed the gulags? No. Literature has never had much success interfering with the business of tyranny. (Ask Obama about Guantanamo and Obama’s a
reader.) And yet and yet. I still, in spite of everything, grip tight my faith in the power of stories to stick it to power.

Sermon over. Where was I? Right, a bad sentence. Here’s the best I can do. This is from “Evening,” part of the Red Cavalry stories:

The night consoled us in our sorrows, a light wind fanned us like a mother’s skirt and the grasses below gleamed with dewy freshness.[1]

Gleamed with dewy freshness? Oh, Isaac, say it isn’t so. I just got done telling the entire Rumpian world that you never penned a single –

Check another translation:

The night comforted us in our anguish; a light breeze rustled over us like a mother’s skirt and the weeds below us glittered with freshness and moisture.[2]

Weeds I like better than grass, but glistened with freshness and moisture? Lets try this again:

Night comforted us in our miseries, a light wind fanned us like a mother’s skirt, and the grass below sparkled with freshness and moisture.[3]

Okay, okay. We can no longer blame this on the poor, unloved translators without whose thankless work we would never know these stories in the first place. The stuff with the wet grass clunks whether it glistens, gleams, or sparkles. So we’ll split the difference 50/50. Call it a bad phrase within a luminous sentence. Because I’d saw off my right thumb to have written the light wind fanned us like a mother’s skirt. In the larger context of the story, the line is even more glorious. These two guys lying on the wet grass are soldiers in the middle of a nasty war on the Polish frontier. They’ll be lucky if they see tomorrow morning, forget their mothers. In a later Red Cavalry story called, “The Song,” Babel writes, “When there’s a revolution on, a mother’s an episode.”

I often forget what actually happens in a Babel story. I think this is because what actually happens is never – on it’s own – especially surprising. Death is coming, we know its coming, there’s no getting around it; it either strikes or, at the very least, lurks in nearly every story.[4] Something else I’m getting at, something far more intangible and difficult to explain. I think it has something to do with the fact that a Babel story always unfurls in real time so that to re-read is to completely re-experience. It’s a little like sex. Do we crave sex again because we’re wondering how it will all turn out? Not the outcome, the flesh, the wanting of the flesh – again, again, again. Not the plot, the details, the sentences, the moments. In Babel, every moment demands attention. He reminds us that this is how intensely we should be observing the world when we aren’t reading. An old man’s watery eyes. The sun like a lopped off head, rolling down the sky. A Polish officer’s too fancy underwear. Ribbons of dust. A rabbi’s son, a revolutionary, buried at a forgotten station.

In Babel even the most routine moment, is – always – uniquely and flaringly alive. Therefore any attempt to claim him, as I tried to do above, is doomed in the face of the work itself.  He’s a Russian writer; he’s a Jewish writer. He’s a Jewish Russian writer. He’s both and neither. May as well call him a Madagascarian writer. A Delawarean writer. A Mormon writer. Why not? Because Babel, like Gogol and Chekhov before him, can never be contained by ethnic, political, cultural, or any other cages. He knew so much about us human beings. He knew how relentlessly cruel we are to each other, and also how, less common but still pervasive, gentle we can be.

This is not to say Babel wasn’t completely immersed in his own world. The Poet C.D. Wright has a beautiful variant on former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil’s line, “All Politics is local.” Wright says all salvation is local. Babel probably believed this. He refused to immigrate to Paris when he had the chance because he couldn’t bear the idea of not living in Russia. For him, if there was going to be any salvation, it was going to be at home, in his own language, with his own people. Their jokes, their miseries. In spite of everything his letters show he was optimistic about the future. In 1933, Babel wrote, “The collective farm movement has made great progress this year and now limitless vistas are opening up – the land is being transformed…The winter here is extraordinary mild and beautiful. There’s a lot of snow. I feel well.” Yet if Russians were going to go down, he would go down with them. A Russian, a Jew, a hesitant revolutionary. A human writer.

So no claimings and no boxing him up. However, in the event that tonight I am mugged while walking the dog up Bernal Hill, and the mugger, rather than asking for my emptyish wallet, demands at gunpoint that I compare Babel to another writer, I’m ready with an answer. I wouldn’t look to Babel’s kinsmen like Gogol or Chekhov or Kafka or Singer or Malamud or Bellow or even Leonard Michaels, who at times has real Babelian rhythms. For me, the writer with as acute an eye and ear: Babel’s near exact contemporary, Zora Neale Hurston.[5] Her sentences have a similar way of detonating in the brain. And Hurston’s fiercely individual characters – like Babel’s – represent nobody but themselves. Both often write about isolated souls in conflict with the unruly rabble known as the rest of humanity. Both reported from so deep within their own respective territories – in her case, the south, the Bible; in his, Odessa, the Bible – that, again, their intimacy with the local rises to the universal. Both spoke the hard truths to societies that either couldn’t or refused to listen. And both were silenced. Hurston by entrenched racism and indifference; Babel by the bullet.

Then she saw all of the colored people standing in the back of the courtroom. Packed tight like celery, only much darker than that. They were all against her, she could see. So many were against her that a light slap from each of them would have beat her to death. She felt them pelting her with dirty thoughts. They were there with their tongues locked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks. The only killing tool they are allowed to use in the presence of white folks.

In the face of all this hostility, Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God holds on to her own soul and never once stops seeing the world in her own way. All are against her, packed like celery. If everybody in the courtroom gave Janie a slap, she’d be beaten to death. The beauty and horror of this line astounds. Think about all those light slaps adding up.

And a page earlier, a line that might have brought Babel himself to his knees. Janie wonders how she will possibly endure the turn her life has taken.

No hour is ever eternity, but it has its own right to weep.

It will end. Somehow, it always does. And people either endure, or they don’t. But this doesn’t mean Janie doesn’t have the right to weep.

In Babel’s work nowhere is this absolute right to weep (possibly the only pure, inalienable right we have) more empathically expressed than in the 1932 story, “The End of the Almshouse”. A band of elderly poorhouse Jews are working in a cemetery not long after the fall of the Romanov’s and the birth of the Soviet Union. Amid the general euphoria, confusion, poverty, and wretchedness of that time, the Jews of the Almshouse make a pretty good living renting out a single coffin, using it and re-using it for seemingly non-stop funerals.

Timber at that time had vanished from Odessa. The rented coffin did not lie idle. At home and during the funeral services the deceased person remained inside the oak box, but he was put into the grave wrapped only in a shroud.

By itself the detail of the rented coffin would be wonderful. A lesser writer would mine it even further for laughs. Not Babel. He ends the paragraph with, “This is a forgotten Jewish law.”

That is, for dust thou art and unto dust though shalt return. That is, fancy coffin or no fancy coffin, we’re all going to join the worms, and this has always been the law, everybody’s law.

Be our common demise as it may. When you’re alive and you’re hungry, you got to make a living.  If you rent out a casket, you rent out a casket. Death is money in a time of immense change, upheavel. And that upheavel asserts itself – literally – in the second page of the story when a Jewish Bolshevik named Gersh is buried in the cemetery with the full honors of a revolutionary hero. The commander of the division eulogizes, drones:

Comrade Gersh joined the Bolshevik Worker’s Party and worked as a propagandist and liaison agent. In 1913, Comrade Gersh began to undergo repression together with Sonya Yanovskaya, Ivan Sokolov and Monoszon in the town of Nikolayev…

As he winds his speech down, the Jewish gravediggers prepare to dump Gersh out of the casket when the commander – in a classic Babelian moment – halts them with a nudge of his spur. “Leave it…Leave it as it is…Gersh did service to the Republic.” And so Gersh is buried in a coffin that had doubled as a cash cow.

Of course, the old Jews don’t take their loss lightly. The old folks of the Kofman Almshouse rise with their shovels and their wheelbarrows, many riding in wheelchairs (which Babel calls invalid carriages). They rise. They seize the little dignity they’ve got left. It’s Simon-Volf and Doba-Leya and Meyer Beskonechny and the rest versus the entire Russian Revolution. What could be more impossible, absurd? Though for a brief moment, you think they’ve got a shot. A doctor comes to the almshouse in the name of the progress, to inoculate the Jews against smallpox. This is the moment they choose to rebel and the rebellion begins with shoutings – words. The only real weapon left to weak folks. It’s Meyer Beskonechny who starts it. He tells the doctor, he’s got nothing for her to jab. How can she jab him if he’s got no flesh for her to jab?

“Life is sweepings,” Beskonechy muttered, “the world is a brothel, people are crooks…”[6]

As always, it’s comical till it isn’t. Soon the old folks will not only be out a coffin, they’re going to be evicted. The cemetery itself will be nationalized. But Babel, like Hurston, is never preoccupied with suffering alone, and the Jews aren’t stock victims. Our inhumanity to each other goes without saying. It’s how people respond to the inhumanity that counts. To confer victimhood on one’s characters is to see them only as a type, as the fulfillment of an idea, and people can never – if you watch them closely enough – be corralled into an idea. In Babel they will always fight their way out with humor laced with grief. “Life is sweepings.” It’s the magnificent refrain of the story, and I’m (happily) not even sure I understand it completely. Sweepings? Garbage? Refuse? Ruin? I get it even if I don’t get it. Life is sweepings. The world is a brothel. People are crooks. And then, well, you know what happens.

Hurston again:

So Jaime began to think of death. Death, that strange being with huge square toes who lived in the west…

And Babel:

The sun surfaced above the leafy treetops of the cemetery. Arye-Leyb put his fingers to his eyes. Out of their dimmed hollows crept a tear.


[1] David McDuff, translation

[2] Peter Constantine translation. Constantine has taken a lot of hits for his comprehensive translation of Babel published in 2002. Unfortunately, and I hate this say it, he deserves them. Constantine has done some great translating of other writers but his Babel is at times abominable. I speak no Russian, and I’ve no right to say this, either. But I stand by it. Constantine’s Babel too often lacks timing and rhythm in English. Further he fails to appreciate what he himself indentifies as “the different registers of Babel’s voice.” His tone remains too consistent throughout the massive collection of all Babel’s known work. Most treasonous of all, Constantine doesn’t seem to get Babel’s sense of humor. For more on this, see two excellent pieces critical of the Constantine translation: Alex Abramovich in Slate and Francine Prose in Harper’s.

[3] Walter Morrison translation.

[4] Unless we are talking about “Crossing into Poland” when the shock of death itself is revealed to be actually lying next to Lyutov, in bed.

[5] Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama. Babel came along three years later, in 1894, in Odessa.

[6] David McDuff, translation

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →