Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Fiction of Isaac Babel

Is it possible that not being taken seriously can be fatal?

Such might have been the fate of Isaac Babel, one of the great Russian prose stylists and victim of the gulag. His work, which is swimming in irony and ambiguity, quite likely led to his arrest. But, was too much read into that ambiguity, or read against it? He was barely writing at all by the time of his arrest. With the coming of Stalin, Babel's output stalled. He called himself a master of silence, a formation Wittgenstein would have loved. No doubt, this was not taken seriously either. Under totalitarianism, even silence counts as political speech.

The first striking thing about Babel's stories is their remarkable brevity, as if this Jew in imperial Russia, and then ironist under Soviet Communism, is trying to make his points as quickly as possible, before the authorities catch up with him. Babel has a remarkable aptitute for consision- not only using few words, but finding le mot juste to place in his sentences like a fishhook waiting to snag the reader. Babel never babbles. For instance, check out this passage, from his story The Road to Brody:
"I felt sorry about the bees. The fighting armies treated them most brutally. There were no bees left in Volhynia.

"We defiled the hives. We destroyed them with sulfur and blew them up with gunpowder. The smell of singed rags reeked in the sacred republic of the bees. Dying, they flew around slowly, humming so that you could hardly hear. And we who had no bread extracted the honey with our swords... There were no bees left in Volhynia."
The passage points towards the next striking thing about Babel's writing: the irony. It's never quite clear how seriously we should take what Babel is saying. For example, the great final line of his short story After the Battle:
"Bent beneath the funereal garland, I continued on my way, imploring fate to grant me the simplest of proficiencies- the ability to kill my fellow men."
Again, those last few words really snag the reader, don't they? But note the irony there. For most of us, killing our fellow men would be nearly impossible. Babel's character is a Jew trying to earn the respect of the Cossacks in his cavalry unit during the Civil War that followed the toppling of the Czars. A Jew fighting with Cossacks is strange in itself, but he needs their trust. So, of course, he needed the ability to kill. Does he mean what he says here? Or, is he being ironic in retrospect? I think both answers are right.

The stories in Red Cavalry, and the stories about his childhood in Odessa, are infused with this sort of irony. The story Gedali, in which our soldier chats with a Rabbi, trying to convince him to pray to the Revolution, is perhaps the best statement I've ever read about the Russian Revolution and its ambiguities. Taken one way, it's a straightforward story about the stubborness of faith. Taken another, it's about the ridiculousness and bloodlust at the heart of post-revolutionary Russia. It's a bit incredible that it was published in Russia.

True believers, of all stripes, can't stand irony, because irony refuses to take a clear stand. It stands back, detached, from social reality, commenting on the futility of those clear stands. One suspects this is why Babel died in the gulag. But, irony does take a stand- it states that the individual is worth more than the sum of his allegiances. Irony asserts the sovereignty of the self.

And that suggests the most striking thing about Babel- his humanity. While he smirks at the abstract "struggles of history", which often hide ageless human violence, his heart never quite hardens towards the not-so-abstract people who suffer through history. His sense of the unfairness of life, which admittedly starts with himself, extends to nearly all the people he's ever known. He recognizes how easy it really is to kill another human being- it's harder to live with them- and his humanism is in his acceptance of the imperfection of all men. Recognizing the imperfection of the individual is, in itself, a strike against abstract theories of human society.

Perhaps the Soviets killed Babel because he didn't take them seriously either.


Holly said...

Maybe they killed him because they had the nagging sense he was making fun of them, even if the words sounded quite sincere.

I'm sad about the bees, though. No one should blow up a bee hive. :(

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