This Penguin Classics edition of Babel’s stories provides a good introduction to a challenging writer. Although Nathalie Babel’s 2002 edition of the collected works, translated by Peter Constantine, is the ur-text, newcomers to Babel may prefer to start with a less formidable dose of his prose. Although it helps to have some knowledge of Russian literature both past and present, little prepares one for the mix of violence, insight and propaganda that characterizes Babel’s stories. It’s as if Gogol was influenced by Dostoevsky, but then decided that a touch of Turgenev and Chekhov might be a good idea.
The paradoxes abounding in Babel’s stories reflect his life, which is in turn emblematic of the tumultuous times in which he lived; he is only one of many Russian writers - Gorky, Grossman, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, to name only a few - whose lives and work were dictated by the history of their unhappy country. A Jew born in Odessa in 1894, Babel moved to Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), where he was taken up by Maxim Gorky, by then an established figure who was later able to protect Babel from the Soviet regime. Babel fought on the Romanian front in World War I and after the Revolution served as a journalist in the Russian Civil War, a conflict notable for its brutality. The stories in Red Cavalry are set in the midst of the Russian-Polish conflict that grew out of the continuing territorial between Russian and Poland. Increasingly out of favor with the powers-that-were despite his status as a writer, and Gorky having died in 1936, Babel was arrested in 1939 and shot in 1940. He was 46.
The early stories in this volume reflect the contradictions of a man who can depict the horrors of a pogrom in “The Story of My Dovecot,” and by contrast, an epiphanic moment in a ghetto at the end of another “autobiographical” story, “Di Grasso.” In “Guy de Maupassant, Madame Bedersky, an example of “the ravishing type of Jewess that comes from Kiev and Poltava,” seduces the poor young intellectual “with a forged passport and without a copeck,” hired to help her translate her adored Maupassant. Highly ironic, the story takes a grim turn at the end when the narrator discovers that in his fortieth year Maupassant “cut his throat and nearly bled to death,” and was subsequently “locked up in a lunatic asylum,” where he died at 42, close to Babel’s age at his own death. The final group of stories in this volume, “Odessa Stories,” is in some ways the most inaccessible for contemporary readers because of their episodic nature and narrow focus on gangster life in Odessa, the details of which are stubbornly arcane.
The paradoxes inherent in the early autobiographical stories, however, pale in comparison to the contradictions that abound in Red Cavalry, the work for which Babel is best known. As David McDuff points out in his useful introduction, there are actually two narrators in these short tales: one, like Babel himself, is Lyutov the journalist; the other is a Bolshevik soldier with none of the fears of his overly sensitive counterpart. It’s the soldier who tells the first two brief stories, set in the Polish town of Novograd. In the first one the narrator spends the night in a ransacked Jewish home, only to find in the morning that one of his roommates, the “third, sleeping, Jew” in the room, is dead, his gullet torn out, “his face . . . cleft in two.” In the second story he goes into the Catholic church, full of a righteous Revolutionary scorn for the icons and other religious trappings, having first drunk tea with the priest’s housekeeper, whose “sponge fingers smelt like a crucifixion. A cunning sap was contained within them, and the odorous fury of the Vatican.” When the soldier finds hidden treasure behind the “Holy Doors,” he and his fellow Bolsheviks sit down to count it with no hint of guilt for their violation of a holy place. The moral perspective in both these stories shifts, which is typical of Babel’s evasiveness. Is it wrong for the soldier to ransack the church, or is it justified by the “fury of the Vatican”? The author isn’t telling.
But then there’s the other voice of these stories, the little Jewish journalist who makes sly comments suggesting that the ideals of the Revolution are indeed compromised by the Cossacks’ rape, pillage and murder. Yet even he sometimes seems to side with the Bolsheviks-Cossacks. In “My First Goose,” for instance, this narrator is billeted with a group of soldiers whose leader makes it plain that a man with glasses is fair game. The narrator confronts the old woman of the house, says he’s hungry, and to prove it, catches a goose, kills it by stepping on its head, and asks her to roast it for his dinner. Impressed, one of the Cossacks announces that “’The lad will do all right with us,’” and he is invited to sit and eat with them. Which he gladly does. But when they all retire to the hayloft for the night, the narrator dreams of women, only to find that his “heart, stained crimson with murder, squeaked and overflowed.”
Most of the stories in Red Cavalry exhibit a similar ambivalence toward the war’s violence, so that it’s impossible to know precisely where Babel stands. But then this may be precisely the point. As the man himself seemed unsure of the validity of the Bolshevik cause, and thus the morality of raping, murdering and pillaging to ensure the victory of the Revolution, there may have been no other way to express his feelings than the mix of violence, comedy, and pathos, approval and disapproval that characterize these stories. Again, it’s worth remembering the other Russian writers of his generation whose work is equally contradictory, such as the slightly younger Vasily Grossman, whose great novel Life and Fate simultaneously argues for the inevitability of the Revolution and displays a profound understanding of its human cost, or even Gorky himself, the sometime darling of a regime that in the end may have murdered him. To be a writer in Babel’s time was not an easy thing, as his life and death and his fiction alike testify. Like the music of his countryman, Dimitri Shostakovich, the true intent of Babel’s stories is, like his country, a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.