- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel
Pablo Neruda famously once said of Julio Cortazar, “He who doesn’t read Cortazar is surely doomed.” If it hadn’t been said already, the same sentiment might now be offered on the publication of this magisterial collection of Isaac Babel (the first time his complete works have been gathered). Peter Constantine recounts, in his translator’s introduction, how he originally approached Babel’s daughter Nathalie with the idea of a translated edition of Babel’s then untranslated screenplays, including his collaborations with Sergei Eisenstein. Indeed these screenplays are, in many ways, the real find here. Readers of Babel’s Odessa Stories with their chronicle of street life and the rise and fall of the gangster Benya Krik will treasure the screenplay Benya Krik which further develops and enhances readings of stories like “The King” and “How Things Were Done in Odessa” as well as the play Sunset. Readers of the Odessa Stories know from the story “Froim Grach” of how in 1919 Benya Krik’s men were captured and punished for ambushing the rear guard of the Volunteer Army (the counterrevolutionary army who fought the Bolshevik forces in Southern Russia). Yet, only now with the translation of this screenplay do readers learn of Krik’s “terrible end” as Babel writes it, of what became of him once the Bolsheviks occupied Odessa in 1919.
Constantine also notes the difficulties inherent in producing a translation of all of Babel’s work within one volume. At no point, he attests, could he arrive at something he could point to as a consistent “Babelian” register. He notes how the tone and style of the volume’s opening story “Old Shloyme”—a brutally visceral story of a family forced by officially sanctioned antisemitism to renounce their faith—varies wildly from that of Babel’s second story “At Grandmother’s”—a tale of an earnest, observant schoolboy’s [End Page 176] gentle but exhausting Sabbath routine. It is perhaps this observation on Constantine’s part that makes for such a dynamic, almost crackling translation—a Babel who can tell of a tender, near connection between an itinerant businessman and an “ample bodied” prostitute in the story “Elya Isaakovich and Margarita Prokofievna” on the one hand, the collective consciousness of the quietly desperate patrons within the St. Petersburg library in “The Public Library” on the other, and then to the cynical comedy of the magazine editor in “Nine,” forced to hear pitches, bad poetry, and the complaints of his writers, all different, yet all desperate to avoid an ordinary existence.
Most provocative to this reviewer, from the time I first read Isaac Babel, were those stories Babel’s narrators allowed to remain untold and only made tantalizing references to. These untold stories within the stories are previewed at the oddest, most unpredictable times, sometimes as an offhand remark, a “remember when?” made by a character as in “At Grandmother’s” when the boy thinks about his Grandmother’s relationship with her dog: “I shall tell about what tight-mouthed, secretive friends they were another time. It is a very interesting and tender story.” Or the glimpse of another story offered as a dramatic punctuation of another longer narrative, as in Babel’s 1920 Diary where he ends the August 5, 1920 entry: “Six hundred horses got stuck in the marshes, unlucky Poles.” Indeed, the screenplay for Babel’s silent film, Roaming Stars, supplies much the same effect. Each scene in the screenplay is numbered, the action of the scene described in rich detail; each one of these vignettes one could almost visualize as its own story independent of the larger film. As in this scene designated #20:
The drunken peasants, giving up the idea of finding their houses, slowly kiss each other and sink to their knees. They kiss each other’s beards with utmost tenderness, scrupulousness, and care. Unable to stop kissing, they tumble, holding onto each other, into the torpid shtetl mud, and fall asleep...