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By Craig Raine
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2013 Craig Raine
All rights reserved.
My wife, Ann Pasternak Slater, met Nadezhda Mandelstam in Moscow in 1971, shortly after the publication of Hope Against Hope. The sequel, Hope Abandoned, was finished and waiting in another room. The poet's chain-smoking widow jerked her thumb over her shoulder: 'More dynamite in there.'
Isaac Babel was another dynamitist — a writer whose explosive force derives from his terse transcriptions of first-hand experience. He wrote to his friend Paustovsky: 'on my shield is inscribed the device "authenticity".' Some paragraphs of his prose are acts of deliberate terror. The simple shock-waves of the actual, the cruel, the irrefutable, are his speciality. His sudden, ruthless, marvellous gift leaves the reader trying — too late — to look away from what Babel is compelled to show us. There is no escape. The violence is calculated to injure the reader's bourgeois sensibility, to destroy his good taste, to trap him in the epicentre of the blast — to terrorise him.
Dulgushov is fatally wounded: 'He was sitting propped up against a tree. He lay with his legs splayed far apart, his boots pointing in opposite directions. Without lowering his eyes from me, he carefully lifted his shirt. His stomach was torn open, his intestines spilling to his knees, and we could see his heart beating' (my italics). The narrator lacks the 'courage' to finish him off, as the wounded man asks.
'Afonka Bida' tells the story of a Cossack whose wounded horse has to be shot. First, he feels in the wound with his copper-coloured fingers, then a comrade shoots the horse: 'Maslak walked over to the horse, treading daintily on his fat legs, slid his revolver into its ear, and fired' (my italics). Deranged with grief, Afonka Bida goes on the rampage and returns with a replacement mount. It has cost him an eye: 'he had combed his sweat-drenched forelock over his gouged-out eye.'
Afonka expresses his sorrow in a phrase — 'Where's one to find another horse like that?' — which recalls another story in the collection, 'Crossing the River Zbrucz'. The narrator is billeted on a family of Volhynian Jews in Novograd. He lies back on 'the ripped eiderdown' and dreams restlessly about battle. He is woken by a pregnant Jewish woman tapping him on his face. I quote the rest of the two-page story, about one quarter of the total:
'Pan,' she says to me, 'you are shouting in your sleep, and tossing and turning. I'll put your bed in another corner, because you are kicking my papa.'
She raises her thin legs and round belly from the floor and pulls the blanket off the sleeping man. An old man is lying there on his back, dead. His gullet has been ripped out, his face hacked in two, and dark blood is clinging to his beard like a lump of lead.
'Pan,' the Jewess says, shaking out the eiderdown, 'the Poles were hacking him to death and he kept begging them, "Kill me in the backyard so my daughter won't see me die!" But they wouldn't inconvenience themselves. He died in this room, thinking of me ... And now I want you to tell me,' the woman suddenly said with terrible force, 'I want you to tell me where one could find another father like my father in all the world!'
That sudden 'terrible force' is Babel's speciality, too. But it depends not just on the way the mundane nightmare is succeeded by the infinitely worse waking nightmare. It depends also on what follows the dark blood in the beard — shaking out the eiderdown. In those four alert words is all the shock, all the tragic incongruity, of ordinary life's unbearable, bearable continuities.
This is 'Berestechko' and more Jews:
The old man was screeching, and tried to break free. Kudrya from the machine gun detachment grabbed his head and held it wedged under his arm. The Jew fell silent and spread his legs. Kudrya pulled out his dagger with his right hand and carefully slit the old man's throat without spattering himself. He knocked on one of the closed windows.
'If anyone's interested,' he said, 'they can come get him. It's no problem.' (my italics)
You know it is true. No fiction writer would dare this black farce — the fastidiousness of the barbarian's meticulous barbarity, the etiquette observed by the executioner knocking on the closed window. It is writing with the greatest possible specific gravity. It exerts an awful, irresistible pull on the reader. There are the ingredients for a sick joke here, the shape of perverse laughter — but Babel skirts the absurd and renders it as sober, almost off-hand, factual, unquestionable.
The casual cruelty and the laconic prose recall the italicised prefatory micro-bulletins above the stories in Hemingway's In Our Time. Quoted like this, the Babel stories satisfy the imperatives set down in his diary: 'short chapters saturated with content'; 'very simple, a factual account, no superfluous description'; 'rest. New men. Night in the field. The horses, I tie myself to the stirrup. — Night, corn on the cob, nurse. Dawn. Without a plot.'
Of course, there are moments of more insidious vividness — a prostitute squinting to squeeze a pimple on her shoulder, a Jew on his way to synagogue ('he fastened the three bone buttons of his green coat. He dusted himself with the cockerel feathers'), 'a moaning hurrah, shredded by the wind'. Babel knows the 'round shoulders' of plump women. He is as expert on backs as a chiropractor: 'scars shimmered on her powdered back'; passion means that 'blotches flared up on her arms and shoulders'; 'her back, dazzling and sad, moved in front of me.' Or there is the mistress of Division Commander Savitsky, 'combing her hair in the coolness under the awning', smilingly chiding her lover as she buttons up his shirt for him. Not unbuttoning, but the far greater intimacy of buttoning up.
This is an utterly authentic vignette of a landscape transformed by battle:
Cossacks went from yard to yard collecting rags and eating unripe plums. The moment we arrived, Akinfiev curled up on the hay and fell asleep, and I took a blanket from his cart and went to look for some shade to lie down in. But the fields on both sides of the road were covered with excrement. A bearded muzhik in copper-rimmed spectacles and a Tyrolean hat was sitting by the wayside reading a newspaper.
The fatigue we might have guessed — and even the excrement — but it took Babel's being there to assure us so confidently of those unripe plums and that implausible yet irrefutable Tyrolean hat. Equally, Babel's first-hand knowledge can assure us that cooking pots are stirred with a twig, or that sleeping cavalry tie their horses to their legs. Or consider the narrative hypnosis that holds us while a Cossack, Prishchepa, executes a bloody revenge to restore the looted furniture to his family hut. He arranges it as he remembers from childhood, drinks vodka for two days, sings, cries — and finally sets fire to the hut. Before he vanishes, he throws 'a lock of his hair into the flames'. A remarkable, inexplicable, unforgettable final touch.
Elsewhere, Vytagaichenko, the regiment commander, is woken by a Polish attack. 'He mounted his horse and rode over to the lead squadron. His face was creased with red stripes from his uncomfortable sleep, and his pockets were filled with plums.' The creases are good, but they are to be expected. The plums are the surprise — the authenticating detail, the guarantee of genuineness, by this alert connoisseur, this calm Berenson of the battlefield. Both Lionel Trilling and Henry Gifford are exercised by the perceived conflict between the timorous intellectual and the warriors he fought alongside. (See Trilling's introduction to Collected Stories (Methuen, 1957) and Gifford's shrewd and learned essay in Grand Street (Autumn, 1989).) In a revisionist spirit, Gifford offers the testimony of Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian formalist, who knew one of Babel's comradesin-arms: 'They liked Babel very much in the army. He had a calm fearlessness of which he was quite unconscious.' The internal evidence of the stories suggests how closely this was related to an almost scholarly impulse. Those plums are recorded twice in the unflinching spirit of thoroughness — the pedantry of genius.
But selective quotation is distorting. It ignores the aesthetic pleasure of form and shapeliness. The stories are wholes. Who can tell from fragmentary quotation whether that verbal parallel lamenting the loss of a father and the loss of a horse is intentional and ironic, or inadvertent repetition? (There are unintentional repetitions in Babel, but here I think he is covertly ironising horse-centred Cossack morality.) A weak, early, overwritten, knowingly improbable story like 'Shabos-Nakhamu' can look intriguing if you quote only the last paragraph: '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 another.' And, up to now, most of my quotation has been sensationalist and Babel's subtler registers under-represented. For example, 'Dolgushov's Death' is more than its core — the slow cascade of intestines and flexing heart of Dolgushov, who is eventually put out of his misery by Afonka Bida. He shoots the dying man in the mouth. Bida despises the bespectacled, ineffectual narrator, whose fastidious tenderness is actually a form of cruelty — and he threatens to shoot him, too. The story ends like this: '"Well, there you have it, Grishchuk," I said to him. "Today I lost Afonka, my first real friend." Grishchuk took out a wrinkled apple from under the cart seat. "Eat it," he told me, "please, eat it."' A quiet, indirect, apparently inconsequential, Chekhovian close. But the soothing gesture is germane. Grishchuk, the subordinate, is consoling his friend and superior, whose feelings have been wounded in parallel to Dolgushov's physical wounding. The wrinkled apple is a token of friendship. It also carries an edge of impatience, a hint of rebuke, as the lowly driver confronts the narrator's self-indulgent egotism with an act of self-sacrifice, the giving up of the precious apple.
Consider 'A Letter', a four-page masterpiece about the civil war. In it, a father butchers his son Fyodor and is in turn butchered by another son, Semyon. The narrative is contained in a letter dictated to Babel by yet a third son, Vasily. The appalling cruelties are matched by the calculated subtlety of the narrative's ironies. The main thrust of the letter is prefaced by the tenderest of digressions — tenderness which, as it turns out, indicates a lack of affect. It concerns Stepan. It is several unpunctuated sentences before we realise that Stepan is not a child but a horse. 'Write to me a letter about my Stepan — is he alive or not, I beg you to look after him and to write to me about him, is he still scratching himself or has he stopped, but also about the scabs on his forelegs, have you had him shod, or not?' The father makes his first, unfavourable appearance in the context of the horse: 'I beg you, dearest Mama, Evdokiya Fyodorovna, to wash without fail his forelegs with the soap I hid behind the icons, and if Papa has swiped it all then buy some in Krasnodar, and the Lord will smile upon you' (my italics). The tenderness privileges the horse over the human being.
Like the peasant boy this soldier is, he then describes the local inhabitants, the crops, the poor soil, before broaching the story of his father's brutality: 'In these second lines of this letter I hasten to write you about Papa, that he hacked my brother Fyodor Timofeyich Kurdyukov to pieces a year ago now.' When the revenge is achieved, it is Greek in its restraint: 'Semyon sent me out of the yard, so that I cannot, dearest Mama, Evdokiya Fyodorovna, describe to you how they finished off Papa, because I had been sent out of the yard.' Who could have guessed that a null tautology — 'because I had been sent out of the yard' — in conjunction with the formulaic endearment and patronymic would manage to convey so vividly the hideously inept offstage murder? In the hobbled clumsiness of the prose, in the awkward, inappropriate expression of affection, Babel's oblique mimesis is horrifyingly exact. The letter concludes with other 'news' about the wet town of Novorossisk — which situates the letter's moral tone somewhere between the affectless and a misplaced sense of naive politesse.
(Babel is uniformly good on letters: 'Trunov scrawled gigantic peasant letters on a crookedly torn piece of paper' (my italics); Khlebnikov 'asked me for some paper, a good thirty sheets, and for some ink. The Cossacks planed a tree stump smooth for him, he placed his revolver and paper on it, and wrote till sundown, filling many sheets with his smudgy scrawl.' His comrades tease him as 'a regular Karl Marx'.)
The story of Vasily's letter concludes with a family photograph, showing his father and 'next to him, [his mother] in a bamboo chair, a tiny peasant woman in a loose blouse, with small, bright, timid features. And against this provincial photographer's pitiful backdrop, with its flowers and doves, towered two boys, amazingly big, blunt, broad-faced, goggle-eyed, and frozen as if standing at attention: the Kurdyukov brothers, Fyodor and Semyon.' What is the photograph telling us? Beyond, that is, the blunt irony of the photographer's 'flowers and doves' and the record of family togetherness? The photograph is eloquent about how little it is telling us. It confesses its fraud, its nugatory pretence. It keeps us out like that earlier repetition: 'because I had been sent out of the yard.'
'A Letter' is a story perfect in every particular — and therefore rare in Babel's consistently imperfect uvre. And the cause of the imperfections? So far selective quotation of the high points might imply that Babel is a realist — 'sisters with their little moustaches' — whereas he is only partly a realist. He has a fatal hankering for poetry, too. By which he understands something essentially anti-realist. Babel was a writer, uneasy with the idea of documentary. The editor of this sumptuous and thorough Complete Works, the writer's daughter, Nathalie Babel, emphasises in her headnote to the Red Cavalry stories that they were, 'as Babel himself repeatedly stressed, fiction set against a real backdrop'. Art, then, not reportage. According to Henry Gifford, Babel was a great reviser, taking twenty-two drafts to finish 'Lyubka the Cossack': he didn't want posterity to think him a passive onlooker and recording stenographer-angel merely taking down dictation. Lest we should undervalue the writing itself, Babel's opus includes a number of characteristically Russian over-statements about the writing process. They are fondly quoted by credulous admirers like Cynthia Ozick, who here contributes a breathless, brainless introduction. 'I spoke to her of style,' he writes in 'Guy de Maupassant', 'of an army of words, an army in which every weapon is deployed. No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.' This self-vaunting credo might carry more weight were it not for another obiter dictum about repetition on the same page: 'When a phrase is born, it is both good and bad at the same time. The secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernible. One's fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And the key must be turned once, not twice.' This is sound, subtle, tactful — and violated by Babel in the previous paragraph, where we are twice told that the maid had 'pointed breasts'. 'Debauchery had congealed in her gray, wide-open eyes,' Babel confides on one page, only to write on the facing page, 'turning away her eyes in which debauchery had congealed'.
Excerpted from More Dynamite by Craig Raine. Copyright © 2013 Craig Raine. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Books - Reading the Fine Print
Isaac Babel (2002) 3
Derek Walcott's Poetry (2000) 12
Raymond Carver (2009) 22
Elizabeth Bishop (2008) 31
William Golding (2009) 42
William Golding's The Spire (2011) 54
Updike: Just Looking (1990) 60
Updike Tribute (2009) 67
Memory in Literature (2005) 73
Kipling and Racism (1999) 83
Just So Stories (2001) 104
Stoppard's Trilogy (2002) 106
Stoppard: A Speech (2004) 118
Life Studies (2003) 121
Robert Lowell's Collected Poems (2004) 136
Lowell's Letters (2005) 152
The Lowell-Bishop Letters (2008) 164
Double Exposures: Ted Hughes (2006) 167
Ted Hughes's Letters (2007) 182
A. E. Housman's Letters (2007) 190
Marianne Moore (2004) 193
V S. Naipaul (2001) 204
J. M. Coetzee (2007) 212
J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace (2010) 215
Geoffrey Hill, Christopher Logue, Seamus Heaney (2005) 222
Kundera's Italics (2006) 232
Kundera's The Curtain (2007) 251
Christopher Logue (2007) 254
Counter-Intuitive Larkin (2008) 267
Rebecca Gilman: Dramatist (2004) 281
Joyce's Exiles (2006) 294
Harold Pinter Remembered (2009) 299
Short Bit about Beckett (2006) 306
Don Paterson (2007) 307
Kafka: The Trial (2001) 322
Laughter in the Dark: Nabokov (1998) 325
Paul Valéry's Notebooks (2000) 332
Auden's Early Poetry (2005) 338
Auden's Prose (2008) 345
Zbigniew Herbert (2008) 348
Not about Heroes (2006) 351
Opera as a Flawed Form (2004) 353
Influences (2004) 357
Poetry and Language (2004) 358
Short Introduction to T. S. Eliot (2008) 364
The Laureate (2005) 366
Consider the Hipster: How Good is David Foster Wallace? (2011) 370
Eliot's Inferno: The Letters (2009) 384
Bryan Forbes (2010) 392
Alan Bennett: The Angst in the Axminster (2009) 400
Salinger: A Perfect Day for Bananafish' (2010) 409
Sex: Mrs Whitehouse and Mrs Eagleton (2010) 415
Part 2 Art - Reading the Detail
Seurat's Courage (1997) 421
Old Friends in Venice (1995) 427
Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen (1999) 435
Masterpieces: Things in Particular (1997) 441
Frank Gehry (1998) 447
Ron Mueck (2000) 453
Mueck at Kanazawa (2008) 458
Mueck: Invitation au Voyage (2009) 464
Modigliani (2006) 467
Adam Elshefmer (2006) 472
Klimt (2008) 476
Richard van den Dool (2005) 482
Jeff Koons (2009) 494
Rodchenko (2008) 498
Sickert in Venice (2009) 503
Vorticists (2011) 508
Gerhard Richter (2011) 512
Hockney at the Royal Academy (2012) 517
Damien Hirst Retrospective (2012) 522
A Note on the Author 528