The Complete Works of Isaac Babelby Isaac Babel
"A celebration of literary genius framed by 20th-century tragedy."Richard Bernstein, New York Times
Finally in paperback, this "monumental collection; gathers all of Babel's deft and brutal writing, including a wide array of previously unavailable material, from never-before-translated stories to plays and film scripts" (David Ulin, Los Angeles Times).
"A celebration of literary genius framed by 20th-century tragedy."Richard Bernstein, New York Times
Finally in paperback, this "monumental collection; gathers all of Babel's deft and brutal writing, including a wide array of previously unavailable material, from never-before-translated stories to plays and film scripts" (David Ulin, Los Angeles Times). Reviewing the work in The New Republic, James Woods wrote that this groundbreaking volume "represents a triumph of translating, editing, and publishing. Beautiful to hold, scholarly and also popularly accessible, it is an enactment of love." Considered one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Isaac Babel has left his mark on a generation of readers and writers. This book will stand as Babel's final, most enduring legacy. Winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award; A New York Times Notable Book, a and Library Journal Best Book, a Washington Post Book World Rave, a Village Voice Favorite Book of the Year.
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Read an Excerpt
When the twenty-one-year-old Isaac Babel arrived in St. Petersburg in 1916, he found the city in wild but stimulating upheaval. It was still the capital of Russia and the center of Russian literature and art, where the foremost writers of the day lived and published. But the city was shaken by World War I. The Imperial government was losing control, and calls for change, which were to lead to the Revolution and Civil War, were in the air. Perhaps most important for a young writer was that the Czarist censorship was crumbling, which meant that daring new subjects could be treated in new ways, a characteristic that was to stay with Babel throughout his writing career. His first published story, "Old Shloyme" (1913), dealt with the subversive subject of Jews forced by officially sanctioned anti-Semitism to renounce their religion. In the story, a young Jew gives in to the pressure to Russianize himself, "to leave his people for a new God," while the old Jew, though never interested in religion or tradition, cannot bring himself to give them up. In the subsequent stories, Babel touches on other taboo subjects: Jewish men mixing with Christian women, prostitution, teenage pregnancy, and abortion.
These early stories also reveal Babel's growing interest in using language in new and unusual ways. He has a young woman offer herself to her lover, "and the lanky follow wallowed in businesslike bliss." Odessa matrons, "plump with idleness and naively corseted are passionately squeezed behind bushes by ferventstudents of medicine or law." Babel describes the Czarina as "a small woman with a tightly powdered face, a consummate schemer with an indefatigable passion for power." In a forest scene, "green leaves bent toward one another, caressed each other with their flat hands." We also see the recurring motifs of sun and sunset, which are to play an important role in Babel's later writing.
Babel's piquant brand of realism soon caught the eye of Maxim Gorky, who was to be the single most influential literary figure in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, and who was particularly instrumental in helping young Soviet writers. Gorky published Babel's stories "Elya Isaakovich and Margarita Prokofievna," and "Mama, Rimma, and Alla" in 1916 in his literary magazine Letopis, which marked the beginning of Gorky's mentoring of Babel's career. This mentoring was to last until Gorky's death exactly twenty years later.
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Although our town is small, its inhabitants few in number, and although Shloyme had not left this town once in sixty years, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single person who was able to tell you exactly who Shloyme was or what he was all about. The reason for this, plain and simple, is that he was forgotten, the way you forget an unnecessary thing that doesn't jump out and grab you. Old Shloyme was precisely that kind of thing. He was eighty-six years old. His eyes were watery. His facehis small, dirty, wrinkled facewas overgrown with a yellowish beard that had never been combed, and his head was covered with a thick, tangled mane. Shloyme almost never washed, seldom changed his clothes, and gave off a foul stench. His son and daughter-in-law, with whom he lived, had stopped bothering about himthey kept him in a warm corner and forgot about him. His warm corner and his food were all that Shloyme had left, and it seemed that this was all he needed. For him, warming his old broken bones and eating a nice, fat, juicy piece of meat were the purest bliss. He was the first to come to the table, and greedily watched every bite with unflinching eyes, convulsively cramming food into his mouth with his long bony fingers, and he ate, ate, ate till they refused to give him any more, even a tiny little piece. Watching Shloyme eat was disgusting: his whole puny body quivered, his fingers covered with grease, his face so pitiful, filled with the dread that someone might harm him, that he might be forgotten. Sometimes his daughter-in-law would play a little trick on Shloyme. She would serve the food, and then act as if she had overlooked him. The old man would begin to get agitated, look around helplessly, and try to smile with his twisted, toothless mouth. He wanted to show that food was not important to him, that he could perfectly well make do without it, but there was so much pleading in the depths of his eyes, in the crease of his mouth, in his outstretched, imploring arms, and his smile, wrenched with such difficulty, was so pitiful, that all jokes were dropped, and Shloyme received his portion.
And thus he lived in his cornerhe ate and slept, and in the summer he also lay baking in the sun. It seemed that he had long ago lost all ability to comprehend anything. Neither his son's business nor household matters interested him. He looked blankly at everything that took place around him, and the only fear that would flutter up in him was that his grandson might catch on that he had hidden a dried-up piece of honey cake under his pillow. Nobody ever spoke to Shloyme, asked his advice about anything, or asked him for help. And Shloyme was quite happy, until one day his son came over to him after dinner and shouted loudly into his ear, "Papa, they're going to evict us from here! Are you listening? Evict us, kick us out!" His son's voice was shaking, his face twisted as if he were in pain. Shloyme slowly raised his faded eyes, looked around, vaguely comprehending something, wrapped himself tighter in his greasy frock coat, didn't say a word, and shuffled off to sleep.
From that day on Shloyme began noticing that something strange was going on in the house. His son was crestfallen, wasn't taking care of his business, and at times would burst into tears and look furtively at his chewing father. His grandson stopped going to high school. His daughter-in-law yelled shrilly, wrung her hands, pressed her son close to her, and cried bitterly and profusely.
Shloyme now had an occupation, he watched and tried to comprehend. Muffled thoughts stirred in his long-torpid brain. "They're being kicked out of here!" Shloyme knew why they were being kicked out. "But Shloyme can't leave! He's eighty-six years old! He wants to stay warm! It's cold outside, damp .... No! Shloyme isn't going anywhere! He has nowhere to go, nowhere!" Shloyme hid in his corner and wanted to clasp the rickety wooden bed in his arms, caress the stove, the sweet, warm stove that was as old as he was. "He grew up here, spent his poor, bleak life here, and wants his old bones to be buried in the small local cemetery!" At moments when such thoughts came to him, Shloyme became unnaturally animated, walked up to his son, wanted to talk to him with passion and at great length, to give him advice on a couple of things, but... it had been such a long time since he had spoken to anyone, or given anyone advice. And the words froze in his toothless mouth, his raised arm dropped weakly. Shloyme, all huddled up as if ashamed at his outburst, sullenly went back to his corner and listened to what his son was saying to his daughter-in-law. His hearing was bad, but with fear and dread he sensed something terrifying. At such moments his son felt the heavy crazed look of the old man, who was being driven insane, focused on him. The old man's two small eyes with their accursed probing, seemed incessantly to sense something, to question something. On one occasion words were said too loudlyit had slipped the daughter-in-law's mind that Shloyme was still alive. And right after her words were spoken, there was a quiet, almost smothered wail. It was old Shloyme. With tottering steps, dirty and disheveled, he slowly hobbled over to his son, grabbed his hands, caressed them, kissed them, and, not taking his inflamed eyes off his son, shook his head several times, and for the first time in many, many years, tears flowed from his eyes. He didn't say anything. With difficulty he got up from his knees, his bony hand wiping away the tears; for some reason he shook the dust off his frock coat and shuffled back to his corner, to where the warm stove stood. Shloyme wanted to warm himself. He felt cold.
From that time on, Shloyme thought of nothing else. He knew one thing for certain: his son wanted to leave his people for a new God. The old, forgotten faith was kindled within him. Shloyme had never been religious, had rarely ever prayed, and in his younger days had even had the reputation of being godless. But to leave, to leave one's God completely and forever, the God of an oppressed and suffering peoplethat he could not understand. Thoughts rolled heavily inside his head, he comprehended things with difficult, but these words remained unchanged, hard, and terrible before him: "This mustn't happen, it mustn't!" And when Shloyme realized that disaster was inevitable, that his son couldn't hold out, he said to himself, "Shloyme, old Shloyme! What are you going to do now?" The old man looked around helplessly, mournfully puckered his lips like a child, and wanted to burst into the bitter tears of an old man. But there were no relieving tears. And then, at the moment his heart began aching, when his mind grasped the boundlessness of the disaster, it was then that Shloyme looked at his warm corner one last time and decided that no one was going to kick him out of here, they would never kick him out. "They will not let old Shloyme eat the dried-up piece of honey cake lying under his pillow! So what! Shloyme will tell God how he was wronged! After all, there is a God, God will take him in!" Shloyme was sure of this.
In the middle of the night, trembling with cold, he got up from his bed. Quietly, so as not to wake anyone, he lit a small kerosene lamp. Slowly, with an old man's groaning and shivering, he started pulling on his dirty clothes. Then he took the stool and the rope he had prepared the night before, and, tottering with weakness, steadying himself on the walls, went out into the street. Suddenly it was so cold. His whole body shivered. Shloyme quickly fastened the rope onto a hook, stood up next to the door, put the stool in place, clambered up onto it, wound the rope around his thin, quivering neck, kicked away the stool with his last strength, managing with his dimming eyes to glance at the town he had not left once in sixty years, and hung.
There was a strong wind, and soon old Shloyme's frail body began swaying before the door of his house in which he had left his warm stove and the greasy Torah of his forefathers.
Excerpted from The Complete Works of Isaac Babel by Isaac Babel. Copyright © 2002 by Nathalie Babel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Isaac Babel was a journalist, playwright, and short story writer, whose works include the Russian masterpieces Red Cavalry and The Odessa Tales. He was arrested and executed in a Soviet prison in 1940.
Nathalie Babel, his daughter, edited two other books of Babel's writing and is the author of Hugo and Dostoevsky.
Peter Constantine's most recent translations are Sophocles’ Theban Trilogy, The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, and The Bird is a Raven by Benjamin Lebert, which was awarded the Helen und Kurt Wolff Translation Prize. He was awarded the PEN Translation Prize for Six Early Stories by Thomas Mann, and the National Translation Award for The Undiscovered Chekhov: Thirty-Eight New Stories. His translation of the complete works of Isaac Babel received the Koret Jewish Literature Award and a National Jewish Book Award citation. He has recently translated Gogol’s Taras Bulba, Tolstoy’s The Cossacks, and Voltaire’s Candide for Modern Library. He was one of the editors for A Century of Greek Poetry: 1900-2000, and is a senior editor at Conjunctions.
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