Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Isaac Babel's Odessa Tales

Isaac Babel was the creator of famous stories about the thieves and rogues of Odessa and still more famous tales about the Russian Revolution. Babel was born in the Jewish Moldavanka district of Odessa in 1894. His grandfather was a victim of the 1905 pogroms which accompanied the failed revolution.

While educational opportunities were more open in Odessa than elsewhere, there were quotas on the number of Jewish students in Odessa's universities and on Jewish enrollment at all Russian institutions of higher learning. Babel was unable to enroll at the University of Odessa, so left in 1911 to further his education in Kiev. In 1913 he published his first story “Old Shloyme.”

Like Jabotinsky’s novel (which I wrote about yesterday), Babel’s stories are mined for historic details by social historians writing about the city and about the Revolution. "More than anyone else, Isaac Babel popularized the image of Odessa as a city of swashbuckling Jewish swindlers and sinners, who all at once embodied the physical strength, revelry, and wit for which Odessa was famous. The larger-than-life Jewish gangster emerged as the prevailing icon of Odessa in Soviet culture, and he was depcted in stark contrast to the stereotypically passive shtetl Jew of Eastern Europe..." (Jarrod Tanny, City of Rogues and Schnorrers, location 78 Kindle ed.)

Odessa historians especially cite Babel's rogue character Benya Krick the hooligan. Babel captured the atmosphere of contrasting poverty and wealth in the stories that took place before the Revolution, and captured the utter disorganization of the various revolutionary forces whose power shifted constantly and who killed one another ruthlessly. As historian Charles King says, "While Vladimir Jabotinsky was busy trying to create a fighting force for Palestine, his fellow Odessan was sitting on a horse in a Cossack cavalry regiment. It was an unlikely place for a Jew, to say the least." (Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, p. 183)

Babel’s Odessa stories and war stories are episodic and often broken off in what might be the middle of a longer development of character and plot – but the stories are about chaotic times with limited commitments; sometimes it seems as if only choppy stories can do justice to the unpredictable lives and times depicted. Or maybe Babel was just a little ahead of Hemmingway as a stylist, I don’t know -- he was a very near contemporary.

For example a story in the collection Benya Krik, the Gangster, is titled “In the Basement.” It begins: “As a boy I was given to lying. It was all due to reading.” The narrator's imagination combined with what he reads makes him well-liked, as he embellishes the historic narratives that he reads. His schoomate, the son of a rich man, finds him likable and invites him to his suburban villa.

The wealth and possessions of the friend’s family are vast: “His father … was one of those men who were making Odessa another Marseille or Naples. There was in him the mettle of the Odessa merchant of the old days.” And the villa was pure luxury, close to a beach with carefully tended flower gardens. Guests play cards, women come and go with “diamonds clapped on everywhere;” their host sits in a chair facing the sea and reads The Manchester Guardien.

The narrator, in contrast, came from a “destitute and freakish family.” His grandfather makes clever inventions, and his uncle is a successful rogue, but they live in a slum. However, he describes his feckless relatives to his schoolmate as widely traveled and accomplished, and invites the friend back to visit his hovel. The ensuing disaster is mitigated slightly by the efforts of his Aunt Bobka, who bakes a jam strudel and a poppy-seed cake, and helps him bribe his crazy and unmanageable uncle and grandfather to stay away. Obviously, it doesn’t work – they come back drunk and hurling Jewish curses and Russian obscenities. In the end, we readers have seen the two most extreme sides of Odessa Jewry.

Babel’s stories were widely read in the early Soviet era; then he fell out of favor and eventually died in prison.

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