Isaac Babel’s The Essential Fictions

Isaac Babel (translated by Val Vinokur, illus. Yefim Ladyzhensky)
The Essential Fictions
(Northwestern University Press, 2017)

If we can agree—somewhat tautologically—that modernist fiction depicts the experience of a world transformed by modernization, we might further assert that the process of modernization itself is rarely so powerfully depicted in fiction as in Isaac Babel’s writing. Joyce and Woolf will give us the modernist consciousness, Proust will reveal the workings of modernized memory, and Kafka shows the sanctified bureaucracy—but Babel is different in that he shows not the effects of modernization by the very process in action. The state goes to war with the most up-to-date technology, exerting its influence over populations and geographical spaces previously inconceivable; outlaws strike whatever claims they can amid the chaos of transformation, desperately trying to outfox the encroaching law; those left behind exist more and more as outcasts among the general dislocation of a rapidly changing world; and of course, the modern political doctrine of communism is put into practice on an epic scale.

Let it be clear, Babel is brutal, his view of this transformation is not for the faint of heart. Grandfathers are murdered in pogroms, women endure the joking camaraderie of their rapists, soldiers crush the heads of geese to prove that glasses are no impediment to masculinity. The violence in Babel is so sudden and ubiquitous that it soon grows unsurprising. But if this brutishness is Babel’s main dish, it is garnished quite liberally by a very Judaic strain of mysticism that pushes this carnage into rarefied terrain. Thus was Borges able to write of “Red Cavalry”, the product of Babel’s embedding with the Red Army as it warred with Poland: “The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes. One of the stories—“Salt”—enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart.”

Thankfully, the entirety of Red Cavalry is included in Val Vinokur’s rich new translation of the “essential fictions,” as well as a healthy serving of ten Odessa stories, plus numerous early works and extras. The result is a satisfying journey through the great Judaic author’s work, beginning in relative lightness and playfulness, moving through a bulky middle inflected with the realism of reportage, and ending on a note of late enigma.

Hemingway was known to be an adherent of Babel, and indeed these pieces exhibit a profound compression and macho reserve generally associated with Hemingway, although perhaps more rightly originating with Babel. The latter was a man of brevity to even rival Hem; the seventy-two stories here average just under five pages each—many of them barely filling out a single page—and the overwhelming sensation of Babel’s strictly worded sentences and switchback-like transitions is of a masterful application of the so-called iceberg theory.

How many writers would think to begin a page-long dispatch from the Polish-Soviet War with the simple declaration “I mourn for the bees,” and how many could follow that up with eight taut sentences that are revelatory of war’s depredation, warriors’ desperation, and the ways both desecrate God’s creatures? But if Hemingway would make the war-ravaged honeybee into a symbol of timorous masculinity, Babel will make it mystic—in this story, bees give way to gnats and suddenly insects are tormenting the crucified Christ: ‘And his eyes looked on the gnat and his heart fell. Only the innumerable gnat couldn’t see those eyes of his. And the bee was flying around Christ, too. ‘Strike him,’ cries the gnat to the bee, ‘Strike him and we’ll answer for it!’ ‘Can’t do it,’ says the bee, lifting her wings over Christ. ‘Can’t do it—he’s in the carpenter trade.’“The humor that Babel injects into this perfectly bizarre anecdote is of the sort that supposedly sent Kafka into spasms as he read his short fiction aloud; it is a moment of winking, grinning— a cavernous negative capability to make the poets envious.

If the “Red Cavalry” stories invoke the tone of a journalist who aspires to the omniscience of God, the pieces from Odessa and the early works tend to feel more of the gossip. Someone is always dying to tell you about somebody else, these peculiar narrators always evincing the assumed—bordering on imposed—intimacy that is the hallmark of gossip. The Odessa stories are particularly tight, orbiting around a legendary and gratuitously violent gangster known as Benya Krik, often referred to simply as “the King.” The stories’s resolutely hierarchical nature, and the way they heedlessly oscillate between archetype and flesh-and-blood, can’t help but recall Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons—also about a legendary gangster declared the King—but Babel’s strangeness and endless invention gives the lie to just how flat is Herrera’s rendition of the lawless life.

Unable to read Babel’s original Russian, I don’t feel fit to judge Vinokur’s translations—even after studious comparison with the other available Babels—other than to say that there is very little my editor’s eye would change or question about his work. The language here is absolutely rich, although also lapidary; an intricately latticed spiderweb that could support the weight of a tank. Let us hope that its strength is tested by many a reader this year.

Contributor

Veronica Scott Esposito

VERONICA SCOTT ESPOSITO is the author of four books, including The Doubles and The Surrender. Her writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, and Music & Literature. She is a contributing editor with BOMB magazine and a senior editor at Two Lines Press.

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