by Nicholas Jahr
A few years back, I was working as a lifeguard in lower Manhattan. One of my least favorite parts of the job was staying late on Tuesday nights to watch over a rambunctious bunch of yeshiva boys. Not wanting to spend the hour discussing how I could possibly call myself a Jew if I didn’t so much as wear a yarmulke, or, so help me, whether Israel was a great country or the greatest country, I kept my Jewish upbringing quiet. It was Purim when my disguise finally failed me; I made the mistake of correcting a kid’s pronunciation of “Ahasuerus.” Instantly I had a small mob in the water at my feet. I don’t remember what I said, but by the following week they’d forgotten and I was a gentile again.
It’s strange how fast you can get so far from yourself. Isaac Babel (1894-1940) knew just how strange: “Tomorrow is the day of fasting, Tisha b’Ab, and I say nothing because I am Russian.” He was also, of course, a Jew. At the time, Babel was traveling with the viciously anti-Jewish Cossacks of the Red Cavalry to report on their ‘revolutionary’ campaign to liberate Poland. Fearing his comrades, he worked and wrote under the name Kiril Lyutov.
Granted, Babel’s concerns about being perceived as a Jew were less prosaic than mine, but his ambivalence was that much more powerful. In the first of the justly famous Red Cavalry stories, he describes his ruined quarters: “In my room I find ransacked closets, torn pieces of women’s fur coats on the floor, human excrement, and fragments of the holy seder plate that the Jews use once a year for Passover.” It isn’t his seder plate, but theirs, the Jews, and he doesn’t count himself among their number.
A moment later, he’s describing them as “monkeys.” Perhaps it was true to the impression of the moment, but it can’t be separated from his resentment at passing for Russian, the anger at the frailty and inadequacy of those Jews who ‘make’ you renounce yourself — similar to what I felt as some strange anti-Moses, watching over the yeshiva boys at the swimming pool.
Maybe this alienation is one of the reasons Babel’s work felt so familiar despite my never having read him before. Of course, there are echoes of the Sholem Aleichem I read as a shule student: Babel’s other major achievement, the Odessa stories drawn from his childhood home, are rich with the shtetl poverty that Sholem Aleichem portrayed. But when, late in his life, Babel adapted into a screenplay Sholem Aleichem’s novel Roaming Stars, the results were telling. In Babel’s hands, the story is stripped of its happy ending; its lovers are never reunited. Similarly, when he tried his hand at a tale of the shtetl trickster Hershele (“Shabes-Nakhamu“), the story ends not with the trickster’s triumph but with his duped mark: “The innkeeper, naked beneath the rays of the rising sun, stood waiting for her huddled against the tree. He felt cold. He was shifting from one foot to the other.” And that’s it. Hershele might make you laugh, but Babel won’t let you forget those who are the butts of his jokes.
“He was shifting from one foot to the other.” This is the real point of departure between Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Babel, and one of the defining qualities of Babel’s art. It’s not simply that Babel eschews the neat, happy, or poignant ending; it’s that he often abandons anything like a conventional ending altogether. There’s little in the way of dramatic resolution to be found in the Complete Works. Instead, Babel’s stories follow a peculiar digressive logic; in his notes on the Red Cavalry stories he instructs himself: “Pay no attention to continuity in the story.”
And he succeeds. A pogrom is carried out on the outskirts of a child’s consciousness, a critical cavalry charge veers into a squabble over breeding horses, a seemingly omniscient third person narrator suddenly shifts gears into first, men from the ship Plutarch dance through a shtetl courtyard and the middle of a tale, Don Quixote appears and disappears. A ‘story’ about the carts used to haul machine guns somehow concludes with “the movements of the Galician and Volhynian Jew . . . abrupt, brusque, and offensive to good taste . . . the power of their grief is filled with dark grandeur.” Stories begin at the ending and linger past their declared end or come up short of it, digress and meander, move forward and backward in time. As a method, it imbues his stories with a surfeit of meaning, a mysterious charge. Like life, they resist easy interpretation.
Every once in a while Babel introduces this indeterminacy into the telling of the story itself. Written toward the end of his life, “My First Fee” may very well be his masterpiece. In it, the lies he told to seduce a woman affirm that they spoke; he convinces the reader that she shared “secrets that you will never learn . . . words that only other women hear” by stating, “I have forgotten them.” It’s a virtuosic maneuver, acknowledging his fabrications to convince you of the truth of his story. Ultimately, he insists: “A well thought-out story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story.”
At few moments has life strained harder than during the Bolshevik revolution, when a mass of peasants and decommissioned Russian soldiers played the revolutionary role imagined by a German-Jewish philosopher for an urban laboring class. In the remarkable document that is the “1920 Diary,” Babel observes the strain firsthand. His style is reduced to its essence as he obeys his own commandment that his writing should be “very simple, a factual account, no superfluous description,” with “short chapters saturated with content.” Sentences rattle like machine guns, words detonate, life resists Marx’s revolutionary narrative. Babel arrived on the Polish front in June, 1920; although the first fifty-four pages of the diary are lost, the first surviving entry is dated June 3rd, and describes the aftermath of a pogrom (the first of many) that preceded the Red Cavalry’s arrival. By July 16th, he already asks of the cavalry’s commanders, “are they soldiers of fortune or future usurpers? They are of Cossack background, that’s the main thing . . .” Two days later:
The Jewish cemetery outside Malin, centuries old, the stones have toppled, almost all the same shape, oval at the top, the cemetery is overgrown with weeds, it saw Khmelnitsky [a 17th-century Cossack leader], now Budyonny [the Soviet commander], the unfortunate Jewish population, everything repeats itself, once again the same story of Poles, Cossacks, Jews is repeating itself with striking exactness, what is new is Communism.
By July 21st, he doubts whether there’s anything new about the story: “We are the vanguard, but of what? The population is waiting for liberators, the Jews for freedom — but who arrives? The Kuban Cossacks . . .” August 11th: “This is not a Marxist Revolution, it is a Cossack uprising that wants to win all and lose nothing.” Finally, on August 28th he writes: “The hatred for them [the Red Cavalry] is the same, they too are Cossacks, they too are savage, it’s pure nonsense that our army is any different. The life of the shtetls. There is no escape. Everyone is out to destroy them.” In six weeks, his faith in the Revolution had been shattered as surely as the seder plate.
“Farewell to you, dead men,” Babel writes in his diary, attending services at a synagogue following that first pogrom. They were dead men because they couldn’t defend themselves, dead men because history was overtaking them, dead men because they were scheduled to awaken from the opium dream of their faith at any moment. “Is it not bound to be our century in which they will perish?” Babel asks. “It’s very clear, the old gods are being destroyed.”
The dissolution of the old world began long before the catastrophe of the camps and the ovens. Here’s one solution to the mystery of his stories’ narrative structure: their digressive logic, their lack of dramatic resolution, is expressive of this historical moment, the revolutionary rupture with the past, the uncertainty and possibility of the future. Taken as a whole, Babel’s work tracks nothing less than the destruction of the old world and the miscarriage of the new.
And so the Odessa stories end with the murder of one of the city’s gangster-makhers at the hands of the Cheka, in a story (“How Things Were Done in Odessa”) with a narrative perspective that shifts rapidly through Odessa’s gangsters to settle on that of the newly appointed commissar. It’s only in a later screenplay that we learn the end of Benya Krik, Odessa’s ubiquitous gangster prince, lured out of Odessa, cornered, and murdered by the Red Army. (The film, unsurprisingly, was released and then suppressed.)
The Red Cavalry stories follow a similar trajectory, from the shattered Seder plate Babel sees in Zbrucz, evidence of the pogrom that preceded his arrival, to the delirious, dying Jew he recognizes and hauls onto his retreating train. “And I, who can barely harness the storms of fantasy raging through my ancient body, I received my brother’s last breath.” His brother. With the last of the Red Cavalry stories, Babel shed his ambivalence. If only in shared suffering, he was a Jew.
In the end, Babel was claimed by the very revolution he’d supported. And throughout his work, Babel’s characters are constantly betrayed by their plans, ambitions, inspiration. So it’s worth noting how Benya the King earned his gangster title: not for any successful heist, but for his extravagant recompense for failure. Like Camus, Babel believed: “Suffering is nothing; what counts is knowing how to suffer.” His work answers the challenge. What’s survived is a superabundance of material, an exuberant experimentation in nearly every form of storytelling available, a heroic attempt to harness the storms of fantasy. An exquisite, Jewish suffering.