Terrible Beauty

Ben Ehrenreich

Isaac Babel’s mugshot from Stalin’s dreaded Lubyanka prison, where he was executed in 1940.
We have needed Isaac Babel sorely these past few years, during which weve had to depend on the treacly fantasies of Spielberg and Hanks for too much of our understanding of war. Weve needed him even more these past few months, as carnage has yet again been dressed up as moral crusade. It is hard to think of anyone who has written about war with as much subtlety, honesty and devastating beauty as Babel, whose Red Cavalry stories fictionally recount the months that he, a bespectacled Ukrainian Jew, spent riding with a brutal and anti-Semitic Cossack cavalry unit on the Polish front in the Russian Civil War.

Take the first of those stories, Crossing the River Zbrucz, which begins with the image of the sun rolling across the sky like a severed head, in which the exhausted narrator finds lodging in a Jewish home, ransacked by the retreating Poles, and lies down next to a sleeping old man. He is awoken by the mans daughterhe has been yelling in his sleep, thrashing about. She pulls back the blanket covering the old man beside him, revealing that his gullet has been ripped out, his face hacked in two.

I want you to tell me, she demands, I want you to tell me where one could find another father like my father in all the world! There is no comfort here in the glories of brotherhood, sacrifice and duty, only, as Babel put it in his diaries, unbearable baseness and crime, and the discomforting pleasures of Babels flawless prose.

Babel has been lost to the world since 1939, when, just 44, he was arrested in Moscow and charged, absurdly, with espionage. His real crime was the honesty of his writing and his refusal to spout the Stalinist line. It wasnt until 1954 that it was revealed he was dead, shot by a firing squad eight months after his arrest and buried in a mass grave. And it wasnt until 1990 that the details of Babels secret trial were released. His last recorded words: I am asking for only one thinglet me finish my work.

Perhaps in part because his life and work were cut so tragically short, and because his name lingered for so many years in oblivion, Babel is not better known in the West. Adored by a relatively tiny cult of serious readers and scholars, in the common imagination Babel has not been elevated into the pantheon of Russian literary greats, however much he may deserve to join them.

During his lifetime Babel enjoyed an international reputation unmatched by any living Russian writer save his longtime mentor Maxim Gorky, who christened him the great hope of Russian literature. Red Cavalry was first published in English as early as 1929; other collections of his work have been translated here over the years. Until now, though, his oeuvre has been scattered among different collections, some of them out of print.

The publication of The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, edited by Babels daughter Nathalie, is thus a fairly monumental occasion. Its nearly 1,100 pages include all of his stories, some previously unpublished, his journalism, two chapters of an unfinished novel, his diary, plays and screenplays. The project began in 1998, Nathalie Babel reveals in her foreword, when translator Peter Constantine approached her about publishing the screenplays. Instead they printed all there was to print. Three years is not much time to translate a work of this size and depth, and the haste shows.

Particularly in Red Cavalry, the rhythm of Constantines translation tends to be clunky, his word choices ill-considered. In the story Salt, for instance, Constantine comes up with this nearly unreadable sentence: The initiative showed by the fighters who jumped out of the train made it possible for the struggling railroad authorities to emit sighs from their breasts. (Compare Walter Morisons tidier version from 1955: The initiative of the men that had scrambled out of the coaches gave the insulted railway authorities their breath back.) Such blunders too often deprive Babels stories of their lyrical punch, sharpening his prose where it should be soft, muddying his metaphors, and failing to live up to his dictum that no iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.

Some of the translations, though, are excellent, especially the later stories. Many of them are complex coming-of-age tales that combine in a few deft moves a simultaneous awakening to sex, cruelty and artistic beauty, as in the tender In the Basement, which ends with the young narrator weeping and suddenly seeing that the world of tears was so immense and beautiful that everything except my tears disappeared from before my eyes.

This ability to find beauty amidst squalor is one of the hallmarks of Babels work. It is, for him, a solemn task to preserve ambiguity and avoid judgement, not to squeeze the world for morals, to save every ounce of splendor the world offers, no matter its origins. In Pan Apolek, he writes of a drunken old painter who travels the countryside and wins the ire of the Catholic Church for painting religious scenes for pious peasants, with the saints faces modeled on the peasants own. In the most impoverished and foul-smelling hovels, Apolek leaves images of Josephs with gray hair neatly parted in the middle, pomaded Jesuses, many-childed village Marys with parted knees. Babel writes: I took a solemn oath to follow the example of Pan Apolek. The sweetness of dreamy malice, the bitter contempt for the swine and dogs among men, the flame of silent and intoxicating revengeI sacrificed them all to this oath.

He follows through on his vow, portraying the sensual joys of living without papering over the miseries that shadow them. One of the most salient images in the collection comes at the end of The Father, one of Babels wild tales of dashing Jewish gangsters (who reappear in Babels plays and screenplays) in pre-revolutionary Odessa. Two gangsters walk past a cemetery, plotting extortion and revenge. The story ends with the sentence, Young men were pulling girls behind the fences, and kisses echoed on the gravestones.

Constantine generally does a better job translating the Odessa stories, and all the stories that rely on a more vernacular style. Babels 1920 Diary, which became the basis for the Red Cavalry stories, is very forceful here, recording his steady loss of faith in his Bolshevik ideals. Why am I gripped by a longing that will not pass? he asks. Because I am far from home, because we are destroying, moving forward like a whirlwind, like lava, hated by all, life is being shattered to pieces, I am at a huge, never-ending service for the dead. And later, This is not a Marxist Revolution, it is a Cossack uprising that wants to win all and lose nothing.

The exhaustion and revulsion expressed in the diary contrast with the propaganda he simultaneously penned. If in his diaries he admitted that the Red Armys treatment of the Jews was no better than that of the counter-revolutionary Whites, in an article recounting a pogrom conducted by the latter he was nonetheless able to froth: Slaughter them, Red Army fighters! Stamp harder on the rising lids of their rancid coffins!

These contradictions survive in the Red Cavalry stories, which gain their force from the tension between Babels alienation from the Cossack soldiers around him, his disgust with their brutality, and his longing to be as strong and cruel as they. In After the Battle, the narrator (named Lyutov, the alias adopted by Babel to hide his Jewishness from the Cossacks) is cursed for his cowardice by the one Cossack he has managed to befriend. The village floated and bulged, crimson clay oozing from its gloomy wounds, he writes. I was exhausted, and, crouching beneath the crown of death, walked on, begging fate for the simplest abilitythe ability to kill a man.

Babel never shies away from wars real horrors, never sweetens them with false sentiment, but neither does he cover over wars pernicious but equally real attractions. Again and again, violence and eros stand disturbingly side by side. In My First Goose, he admires the brutal figure of his division commander: I was taken aback by the beauty of his gigantic body. His long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots.

Elsewhere this awful sensuality resides in the landscape, A naked corpse lay on the embankment. And the rays of the moon streamed through the dead legs; and in the universe itself, The sky changes colortender blood pouring from an overturned bottleand a gentle aroma of decay envelops me.

Its not surprising that there is nothing as dangerous as eros, or as subtle as truth, in the discourse surrounding our latest war. Sixty years later, its hard not to mourn Babels death, to regret that theres no one around to tear aside the pious lies, to wrench some fragile beauty from this world of tears.

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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