Isaac Babel's Odessa Tricksters

The great Jewish writer evoked a city—now under threat from Russia’s armies—with a character of its own that has entered into folklore, literature, and the popular imagination.

From a poster of Benya Krik, the 1926 Soviet film adaptation of Isaac Babel’s short stories.

From a poster of Benya Krik, the 1926 Soviet film adaptation of Isaac Babel’s short stories.

Observation
April 18 2022
About the author

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas professor of the arts and humanities at Northwestern University and the author of, among other books, Anna Karenina in Our Time (Yale).

Over the past few weeks, American newspapers have been reporting the terrible destruction that Russian armies have been inflicting on Mykolaiv (in Russian, Nikolaev), a town close to Odessa where the great Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel spent the first ten years of his life. Conquest of Mykolaiv would open the way to Odessa itself (which, as I write this, is being bombarded from the sea), a city with a character of its own that has entered into folklore, literature, and the popular imagination. Babel’s evocation of the city’s spirit remains the most famous and is generally admired almost as much as his famous Red Cavalry stories.

Jewish families, Babel recalled, made their children take violin lessons in the hope they could be as rich and famous as Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, and other great Russian Jewish virtuosi, but the young Babel “had other ideas. I would have books by Turgenev and Dumas on my music stand—and as I sawed away at the instrument devoured every word.” Polyglot Odessa, then the fourth-largest city in the Russian empire, produced important Jewish writers in three languages: Mendele Mokher Sforim, who has been called “the grandfather of Yiddish literature”; the Hebrew poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik; and the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, who, like Babel, wrote in Russian. In Russia, literature’s prestige eclipses that of any other art or science, and the writer has enjoyed a status resembling that of a Hebrew prophet, so it is not surprising that so many talented Odessans, Jewish and non-Jewish, formed a recognized group in the 1920s and 1930s. It included authors familiar to anyone who studies Russian literature, including Valentin Kataev, Vera Inber, Konstantin Paustovsky, and some inventive satirists: Yuri Olesha, author of the brilliant psychologically acute novella Envy, and the team known as “Ilf and Petrov,” who wrote The Twelve Chairs, about a roguish con man. In that book and its sequel, The Golden Calf, they captured a key part of Odessa sensibility, the wit and ingenuity of the trickster. So did Babel.

“In Odessa there is a very poor and crowded, long-suffering Jewish ghetto, a very self-satisfied bourgeoisie, and a very Black Hundreds town council,” Babel explained, referring to a violently anti-Semitic right-wing group, but there is also joy, sun, and the potential, indeed the promise, of what Russia desperately needs, a literary messiah, “our very own and much needed national Maupassant.” Others might have spoken of a national Dickens, let us say, but Babel, who became one of the world’s greatest short-story writers, chose a master of brevity.

Babel obsessively re-edited his tales to make them more concise and intense—Paustovsky recalled that Babel rewrote his story “Lyubka the Cossack” 22 times—and his complete works easily fit into two volumes. (Chekhov’s occupy more than 30.) Most of his stories fall into two groups: Red Cavalry, dealing with the Russian civil war and the Bolshevik invasion of Poland, and tales set in the world of his childhood, Mykolaiv and Odessa. Some of the latter group are autobiographical, while others transmute the larger-than-life characters of Odessa folklore into narrative mixing realistic detail, epic exaggeration, and broad humor—a virtuoso symphony of discrepant tones.

 

More than anything, Babel was a master of clashing styles and a ventriloquist of strange voices. The Odessa stories make the most of the peculiar combination of languages, often called surzhik, that comprised a special Odessan dialect reflecting Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish influences. The word surzhik originally meant bread made from a mixture of grains including wheat and rye. Chemists distinguish between a compound like water, where the elements lose their identity in a new substance, and a mixture (think of succotash), where each element remains discrete while lending its character to the whole. Babel’s playful style is emphatically a mixture, in which clashing tonalities confront each other. Readers smile at the unexpected juxtapositions and wonder how long the trickster artist will manage to sustain the performance.

Translators have labored to find some English equivalent. In a recent edition of the Odessa Stories and in a wider collection, the translators Boris Dralyuk and Val Vinokur have caught something of the Odessa tales’ verbal pyrotechnics, but ultimately readers must take this aspect of Babel’s genius on faith.

Babel describes Odessa’s Jewish quarter, the Moldovanka, as a motley weave of the boring and the shocking, of the vulgar and poetic, and, above all, of tradition hostile to any change and inspiration receptive to anything not routine. “Connoisseurs of flattery say that it’s very effective if your ‘sweet talk’ is couched in abusive language,” observed Babel’s contemporary, the Formalist critic Victor Shklovsky. “Babel’s principal device is to speak in the same tone of voice of the stars and of gonorrhea.”

Monotonous Jewish traditions oppress the boy Babel, while the adult Babel, who recalls the town of his childhood with nostalgia, discovers beauty even in immobility. “Half of the town consists of Jews, and Jews are a people who are sure of a few basic things,” he writes in his early tale “Odessa.” “Poor Jews in Odessa can get very confused by officials and official forms, but it isn’t easy to shift them from their ways, their fixed and ancient ways. Shift they will not” even when it would be prudent and decent to do so. Wealthier Jews are worse. “At their comical vulgar dachas . . . the fat comical bourgeois lie about on their daybeds in white socks, digesting their full dinners.” And yet, all these Jews have imbibed the cosmopolitan spirit of a port city, where a hodgepodge of ethnicities greet “ships from Newcastle, Cardiff, Marseilles, and Port Said” bringing curious goods whose very names suggest adventure.

In the 19th-century American writer O. Henry’s sentimental tale “The Voice of the City,” a dreamer strives to distinguish amid the metropolitan din the “broad, poetic mystic vocalization” of New York’s “soul and meaning, . . . what it would say if it could speak.” He inquires of a policeman, a bartender, a paperboy—anyone in touch with the throb of New York life—but all are too busy to answer. “Wot paper do you want?,” the impatient boy demands. “I got no time to waste.” At first deeply disappointed at his failure, the narrator at last realizes that being too busy to answer is itself the voice of New York. Given O. Henry’s popularity in Russia at the time, Babel was probably familiar with this tale as he sought to convey “the soul and meaning” of his native Odessa and its surroundings.

Even endlessly repeated humdrum experiences can feed Babel’s imagination. Recalling his childhood days, Babel explains that his daily walk home from school “was surprisingly good for daydreams. . . . I knew all the signs, the shop windows, each stone in every house. I knew them in a special way that was just for me, and I was quite certain that I could see in them what was most important, mysterious, what we grown-ups call the essence of things”—what the town would say if it could speak. “And it was from these shops, people, breezes that I would compose my hometown. . . . I feel it, I love it; I know it the way we know our mother’s smell. . . . I love it because it’s where I grew up, where I was . . . full of dreams, passionately, incomparably full of dreams.”

Several stories depict a boy trying to escape his “poor and preposterous family” without realizing that their curses, obsessions, and weirdnesses comprise an unmannerly poetry of their own. So he loses himself imagining different, more exalted worlds. “I was a mendacious boy,” he begins his story “In the Basement.” “This came of too much reading. My imagination was inflamed.” He loves to tell stories based on real events, like incidents in the life of Spinoza, to which “I added much of my own. I couldn’t do without that.” His stories impress his wealthy schoolmate Mark Borgman, who invites him to his fabulously luxurious home and promises to visit Babel in turn. As the fateful day approaches, Babel arranges to get his most obstreperous family members out of the way, but they show up anyway just as Babel is trying to impress his friend by reciting Mark Antony’s funeral speech. As drunken relatives shout vulgarities, he tries to drown them out by reciting ever louder. The incongruity of Shakespeare’s poetic language and the utterly prosaic tumult only makes matters still more grotesque, and as we laugh, a shocked Borgman flees in horror.

The young Babel dreamed of pigeons. “As a child I really wanted to have a dovecote. Never in all my life have I desired anything more,” begins “The Story of My Dovecote,” the most famous of Babel’s Odessa tales. Despite the strict Jewish quota, the narrator manages to pass the entrance exam for the gymnasium’s preparatory class. When the examiner asks about Peter the Great, he panics, freezes, and can only keep reciting Pushkin’s verses about Peter—much as he repeated Shakespeare—and this feat so impresses the questioners that they admit him.

Elated, the boy goes out to spend the reward money from his parents on pigeons just as a pogrom, occasioned by the 1905 revolution against the autocracy, is taking place. On his way home from the market, the boy worries about the safety of his weird granduncle, Shoyl, who, also lives in a dream world. “I loved that boastful old man,” who sold fish at the market and whose hands “reeked of worlds that were cold, beautiful,” he explains. Shoyl loved to fabricate stories about his experiences during the Polish uprising of 1861. “Now I know that Shoyl was just an old ignoramus and a naïve liar, but his tall tales are not forgotten. They were good stories.” In Babel the world of dreams is as memorable, indeed as real, as actual experience. As the boy learns later, a mob has murdered Shoyl, who is discovered with one fish stuck in his mouth and another in a rent in his pants.

Carrying his bag of pigeons, the boy anxiously asks Makarenko, a legless man in a makeshift wheelchair who sells cigarettes, if he has seen Shoyl. Instead of replying, Makarenko fumbles in the boy’s bag, finds a pigeon, and hits him in the face with it. “Their seed must be wiped out,” his wife Katyusha snarls. “I can’t stand their seed.” A passage only Babel could have written follows:

I lay on the ground and the innards of the crushed bird trickled from my temple. They flowed down my cheek, wriggling, splashing and blinding me. The pigeon’s tender gut slid down my forehead, and I closed my last [poslednyi] unblinded eye so as not to see the world spreading out before me. This world was small and horrible. A little stone lay before my eyes, a little stone, chipped, like the face of an old woman with a large jaw, a piece of string lay not far away and a clump of feathers, still breathing. . . . I . . . pressed myself into the ground that lay soothingly mute beneath me. This trampled earth in no way resembled our life, nothing like the worrying about exams in our life. Someway far off woe rode across it on a great steed, but the hoofbeats grew weaker, died away, and silence, the bitter silence that sometimes overwhelms children in their misfortune, suddenly erased the boundary between my body and this earth moving nowhere. The earth smelled of raw depths, graves, flowers. . . . I walked along an unknown street . . . walked in a garment of bloody feathers, alone between the pavements swept clean like Sunday. I wept so bitterly, fully, and happily [gor’ko, polno, i schastlivo] as I never wept again in my whole life.

The brutal physicality of the scene, with the bird guts trickling down the boy’s face, yields, without losing any of its horror, to the poetic image of a stone resembling a woman’s face and the allegorical figure of Woe riding on a great steed. Oddities of expression multiply grotesqueries: Babel speaks of his “last” eye as if he had many of them, and of the feathers, rather than the dying bird, breathing. We enter into a childlike milieu of horror, very different from that of adults, a horror suffusing the whole world and making it small. There, far from the everyday world of exams, the boundary between body and earth disappears and extremity reveals life’s essence. The very thrill of such intense experience makes this weeping not just fuller and more bitter than Babel ever experienced again but also, to our amazement, happier.

 

The four tales Babel published under the title Odessa Stories mythify legendary Jewish gangsters. They center on Benya Krik, a gang boss known as the King, and describe his rise to eminence, his majestic character, and his many astonishing exploits. Unlike the Jews who run shops, take violin lessons, and prepare for exams, Benya is at home with violence.

This Achilles has his Homer, the shammes (synagogue sexton) and matchmaker Arye-Leib, who narrates tales about him. Babel begins “How It Was Done In Odessa” by describing the time he implored Arye-Leib to explain why Benya, and not some other gangster like Froim the Rook, managed to “climb to the top of the rope ladder while all the rest hung swaying on the lower rungs.” Every Babel critic I know has quoted Arye-Leib’s reply:

It’s like this—forget for a while that you have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart. Quit brawling at your desk and stuttering in front of people. Imagine for a moment that you brawl in the street and stutter on paper. . . . You spend the night with a Russian woman, and the Russian woman is satisfied.

Benya got his start by persuading Froim to give him an assignment testing his prowess. Froim instructs him to rob the wealthy Tartakovsky, whom people call “Yid and a Half.” In the course of the robbery, one of Benya’s men arrives drunk and needlessly shoots a clerk.

When Benya goes to the clerk’s mother, Aunt Pesya, to apologize for her son’s death, he finds Tartakovsky giving her a small pension. “You thug!” Tartakovsky berates him. “A nice custom you’ve taken up, killing live people!” Benya addresses Aunt Pesya:

Everyone makes mistakes, even God. A huge mistake has been made, Aunt Pesya. But wasn’t it a mistake on God’s part to settle Jews in Russia and let them be tormented worse than in hell? And would it have been so bad if the Jews lived in Switzerland, where they would be surrounded by first-class lakes, mountain air, and nothing but Frenchmen? Everyone makes mistakes, even God.

Readers of Russian literature immediately recognize this clever theological excuse as a comic rendition of Ivan Karamazov’s Job-like challenge to divine justice. Where else do we find a theological argument questioning divine justice made comic? This humor does not parody Russian literature’s penchant for ultimate questions, but somehow exists alongside it, like gonorrhea and the stars.

Benya forces Tartakovsky to give Pesya a truly gigantic pension and to pay for an extravagant funeral beyond the dreams of all Odessa. There Benya delivers the eulogy, in which he declares preposterously: “What did he perish for? He perished for the working class.” That is when people started to call Benya “the King,” Arye-Leib explains. “So now you know everything,” he turns to the narrator. “But what’s the use, if you still have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart?”

Benya is not so much an epic hero as a trickster, closer to Odysseus than to Achilles. Only someone with an imagination as rich as Benya’s (or Babel’s) could dream up the striking funeral details. In “The King,” just as his sister is celebrating her wedding, Benya learns that the new police chief plans to raid the ceremony to demonstrate who’s boss in the town. Benya knows exactly what to do. Just as the police are about to set off on their raid, their station catches fire, and the nearest hydrant turns out to have no water. Benya overcomes force with wit.

Of course, this is also Babel’s wit, and we appreciate that only his special brand of cleverness could give these tales their unique magic. They smell of fire and wedding cakes, bedbugs and summer. As imaginative with words as Benya is with schemes, Babel weaves incongruities together. Laughter and violence join in a dazzling performance in which the author, no less than his hero, proves a master trickster.

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More about: Arts & Culture, East European Jewry, Isaac Babel, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia-Ukraine war