The Brutal Lyricism of Isaac Babel

Lyricism and the brutality of war occur side by side with electric results in a new translation of Isaac Babel by Boris Dralyuk.

August 13, 2015

    I WAS DRAWN to Russian literature in translation at 14, starting with War and Peace, and have since spent a lifetime reading this extraordinary catalog of great works, from Tolstoy to Bulgakov. Yet I had never read Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel’s cycle of sketches, or stories, written during the 1920s. A new translation by Boris Dralyuk spotlights Babel’s lyricism, ironic wit, and unsentimental realism. Babel is hardly unknown in America, but Dralyuk’s translation, based on the original 1926 edition, should bring new readers to Red Cavalry, partly because Dralyuk provides helpful information for those picking up Babel for the first time, and partly because his translator’s touch is light and lifted by a sense of poetry. Describing the absurdities and calamities of war, Babel undermines any version of Russian history that would have us think it unswervingly noble.

    Why did I not realize this earlier? The American writer James Salter is on record, acknowledging Babel as an important influence on his work, and what better advocate for Babel could there be? Perhaps I was distracted by what seemed to be bigger names. When Americans think of Russian short stories, they think first of Chekhov with his perfectly pitched funny, sad, and seemingly simple stories, so accessible and yet emotionally layered. (Russians, perhaps, think first of Pushkin, whom they consider foundational, and who also wrote poetry, plays, and literary criticism.) Many famous Russian writers were prolific, but Babel’s life was sharply abbreviated by Stalin’s Great Purge. We long for what he might have written — in addition to Red Cavalry, we have only a collection of stories titled Odessa Tales, two plays, and a screenplay. (Three collections of his work have been published in America since his death, including 2002’s The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, translated by Peter Constantine.)

    Rebecca Abrams notes, in her review of Dralyuk’s translation for the London Financial Times, that as the purges went on and Stalin’s constraints on the country increased, Babel “retreated into what he called ‘the genre of literary silence’, a characteristically paradoxical response to an increasingly impossible situation.” Although the “Khrushchev Thaw” would rehabilitate his reputation, Babel was a victim of Stalin’s murderous madness, dying in 1940, at the age of 45. Babel was a Jew, which did not help him during the Great Purge, a time of rampant terror. He was not anti-Communist, even though he was anti-propaganda and bravely critiqued the Communist party. He may have sealed his fate, however, by getting caught up in a longtime love affair with the wife of the head of the NKVD. When he was arrested, he was tormented by the knowledge that he would be unable to finish his work. He was famous already, yes, but would his meager amount of writing suffice to uphold his reputation? He knew what lay ahead and was helpless, and after an NKVD interrogation, he “admitted” he was a Trotskyist spy and was shot.

    The brutal end of his life contrasts starkly with the beginning of Babel’s career, when Communists loved his work. In 1920, Babel joined Commander Semyon Budyonny’s First Cavalry Army as a correspondent, taking part in a military campaign of the Polish-Soviet War. He wrote a book of reportage, 1920 Diary, about the horrors he saw in battle. He would use 1920 Diary to build the stories of Red Cavalry, which quickly became a hit, so much so that it earned Babel enemies, among them the aforementioned Commander Semyon Budyonny. He was lucky to have Maxim Gorky as a mentor, whose fame helped protect the budding author. For a limited, little, while.

    Babel wanted to write the truth as beautifully as he could. Lyricism and the brutality of war occur side by side with electric results in his astonishing stories. “Crossing the River Zbrucz” and “Salt” are two of the best-known stories from this collection. In the memorable story “The Death of Dolgushov,” Babel’s brigade fights the Polish army: “The Poles reached the woods, about three versts from us, and positioned machine guns somewhere close by. The bullets whine and squeal. Their lament grows unbearably loud. The bullets shoot the earth, digging into it, trembling with impatience.”

    Soon, the scene turns desperate: “‘We’re done for,’ I cried out, seized by the rapture of ruin” The rapture of ruin: Is that not the secret impulse or glory of war, the frenzied dance of death? Nobody speaks about it afterward, but Babel tells the truth. The purported narrator, Lyutov, rides over to where the brigade’s telephonist, Dolgushov, is sitting next to a tree. “Without taking his eyes off me he carefully lifted his shirt. His stomach had been torn out, his guts were sliding onto his knees, and you could see his heartbeats.” Dolgushov wants to be shot and put out of his pain, but the narrator can’t bring himself to shoot. He freezes: “[s]weat slid over my body. The machine guns were hammering faster and faster, with hysterical obstinacy.” Because the narrator refuses to shoot him, Dolgushov calls him a bastard, who then leaves “without turning, sensing cold and death on my back.” Meanwhile, a Cossack does shoot Dolgushov and, disgusted with the narrator’s inability to do it, announces he is no longer the narrator’s friend. The now sorrowful narrator reports this development to Grishchuk, who hands him a “wrinkled apple,” urging the narrator — that is, Babel by a different name — to “eat […] eat, please…” He eats the apple “with sadness and reverence.”

    Other stories are comic, shocking, enlightening, rhapsodic, dulcet, or transcendent — and, often enough, all at once. Dralyuk’s new translation skillfully conveys such contrasts. After consuming four jugs of vodka, a captain “mounted his steed and rode off for heaven.” Another character says, nonchalantly, “So we talk nonsense for a while, and soon enough we get married,” and goes on to say, while stomping a man to death: “I want to get to know life, what life’s all about.” The author ironically describes the First Cavalry as “this proud phalanx, pounding the anvil of future centuries with the hammer of history.” A commander’s “belly lay on the silver-bound pommel like a big tomcat.”

    Beyond such irreverence, the stories have moments of beauty too: “Evening flew up into the sky like a flock of birds, and darkness lowered its wet wreath onto my head.” During a lyrical night scene, “A homeless moon drifted about the town.” Babel’s writing, like much Russian literature, slams together philosophy, passion, comedy, savagery, and earthy practicality. A mix, then, of socialist realism and lyricism. Yet “mix” does not express the entirety, because Babel’s poetics grow organically from his prose. He could no more leave out the lyricism than leave out the brutality; he saw both sides and, seeing both, deemed them necessary. To omit either would have been a lie.

    How did he come to write like this? The critic Lionel Trilling has pointed out that as much as Babel believed in and felt he was working for a better future for Russia, he continued to be nostalgic for the simpler, if failed, past of his childhood. That may be the source, or a source, of his doubled perspective. He can celebrate those moments of beauty and warmth that a child’s innocence calls up and at the same time see the world for the barbaric wreck it has become.

    The Russians in Babel’s stories appear more corybantic and have even less luck than the casts of classical Greek tragedies. Tragedy fits the gravity of their post-revolutionary situation: the geography of tundra and steppes and Siberia and the Asiatic East, the economics of bad weather and famine, combined with the crooked and sinister “leadership” in the Kremlin during the 1920s that, like today’s oligarchy, leeches money from the people’s pockets. That Babel, a quiet, rather gentle fellow, was able to treat this sordid material with such intelligence and dexterity is a credit to humankind’s capacity to transcend a messy world. Both the brutality and the lyricism are presented deadpan. He does not try to milk the reader’s sympathy nor does he flag his lyricism to say, Here is lyricism. He offers both with a straight face.

    Babel also refuses to beg the reader for affirmation or praise. In “Salt,” a woman with what seems to be a baby in her arms boards a train full of Cossacks. She announces that she is going to visit her husband, and the Cossacks promise she will be safe on their train. But by the next day the narrator (this time not identified with Babel) has caught on to her, takes the bundle from her, and reveals that the “baby” is a sack of salt. He asks questions. She answers coolly. He says she is a counterrevolutionary and throws her off the train. The Cossacks point to a rifle on the wall and he takes it down and, from the train, shoots her dead. Babel clearly sees the lunacy of war and violence, and yet he makes no comment on it; he simply lets the reader see it firsthand. The dead woman? The reader is left to judge.

    Red Cavalry is one of Russia’s great books, up there with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Turgenev, Gogol, Pushkin, Gorky, Solzhenitsyn. Babel’s brief career is marked by the depth, truth, and vitality of what he was able to complete. Boris Dralyuk’s translation will earn Babel new admirers and place him securely in this canon for readers of Russian literature in English.


    Kelly Cherry is author of the just-published A Kelly Cherry Reader and Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories.


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