Isaac Babel

Russian language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short story writer (1894-1940)

Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel (13 July [O.S. 1 July] 1894 – 27 January 1940) was a Russian writer, journalist, playwright and literary translator.

Isaac Babel

Quotes edit

  • At moments when such thoughts came to him, Shloyme became unnaturally animated, walked up to his son, wanted to talk to him with passion and at great length, to give him advice on a couple of things, but... it had been such a long time since he had spoken to anyone, or given anyone advice. And the words froze in his toothless mouth, his raised arm dropped weakly.
    • "Old Shloyme" anthologized in The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel’s Selected Writings (2010) edit

Translated by Peter Constantine.

  • 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 then the key must be turned once, not twice.
    • “Guy de Maupassant”
  • The vagrant moon trailed through the town and I tagged along, nurturing within me unfulfillable dreams and dissonant songs.
    • “Pan Apolek”

Quotes about Isaac Babel edit

  • When the mass terror erupted in 1936, however, Birobidzhan would be the stage of frightful liquidations, a real pogrom against Jewish communists, the pioneers of this 'centre of Jewish culture. From one day to the next, Professor Liberberg, president of the republic's executive committee, disappeared; a few months later, a newspaper revealed that he had been 'unmasked' as a 'cowardly counterrevolutionary and Trotskyist, a bourgeois nationalist'; in 1937 and 1938, his successors experienced the same fate. In all the regions where a Jewish population was concentrated, thousands of activists of the Jewish sections, party militants, journalists of the Yiddish press and other writers were arrested; among many others, such major figures as Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam vanished in the maelstrom.
    • Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism (2016)
  • if you want to read spectacularly graceful distillations of spectacularly intense, complex, ephemeral experience, you could hardly do better than stories in Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.
  • The two that I feel I have most responded to, and probably because they have lived through, and been inspired by, times of crisis, are Chekhov and Babel...when I had accepted my immigrant status in the New World, the energy and the brashness and the art of compression of The Odessa Tales by Isaac Babel even more forcefully. Chekhov and Babel were formative authors for me, but not models. Because in the seventies, eighties, and even early nineties, I was writing about North American residents who hadn't yet been written of too much in American fiction, I had to improvise a form. Babel's art of compression appealed to me. The art of compression is not minimalism. It's the exact opposite of minimalism. What I learned from Babel's stories is that you can pack in thirty kinds of emotional and linguistic nuances into one clause and thirty different historical, political conflicts and concessions into one paragraph.
    • 2007 interview in Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee Edited by Bradley C. Edwards (2009)
  • It sometimes appears that all I value as a writer are being deliberately denigrated or disregarded by the scholars. What is important to me is Isaac Babel saying, "A comma placed just right will stab the heart," whereas for a lot of these scholars, judging from the papers that I've read, to worry about artistic or meter-effective placement of punctuation is to be sort of right wing.
    • 1996 interview in Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee Edited by Bradley C. Edwards (2009)
  • Sometimes you come to literature that seems related to your own in some ways, but after you've been writing for a while. And then you feel terribly corroborated….Isaac Babel. When I read him, also after many years, I said, "Wow! He had the same Mommy and Daddy I had!"
    • 1981 interview in Conversations with Grace Paley (1997)
  • my favorite writer, the writer that I loved the most for a long time, was Isaak Babel. First of all, I was doing short stories then I began to read him—I hadn’t read him—and I felt, Oh my, it’s just what I want to do. He’s really writing about things he doesn’t exactly know and yet he’s trying to understand, he’s using writing to try to understand the world and that’s what I want to do. And that’s what I do. I write about things I don’t know all that well just to try and understand them. The act of writing is an investigative, learning act.
  • I read somewhere that Isaac Babel said that his main problem was that he had no imagination. And I thought about that a lot, because if you read him, you know that what he's trying to say-except for a few pieces, such as "The Sin of Jesus"-is very close to his life, the terrifying life that he led in the Cossack Red Army during, I guess, 1920, '21, ‘22. And so I tried to figure out exactly what he meant. I guess what he really didn't understand was the amount of imagination it had taken for him to understand what had happened, what was real. There were people in his unit who, if they had tried to tell him what was going on in this particular hut or pogrom-suffering village, couldn't have. Yet he was able to use what he did know about life and poverty and war to stretch toward what he didn't know about the Cossack Red Army. So I think about that as the fact of the imagination.

"Isaac Babel" (1996), Grace Paley edit

  • When I read Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozhkova's memoir of daily life with Isaac Babel I realized that I'd known very little about him. Only his death was famous. And of course until fairly recently most of us had that wrong, too. But I did know his work, though not until the early sixties, when the Meridian edition first appeared. One must begin by telling those who still don't know those stories that they are unusual in a particular way. That is, any one of them, those in Red Cavalry and Tales of Odessa, as well as those extracted only in the last few years from bureaus and closets of old Russian friends, can be read again and again. I don't mean every five or ten years. I mean in one evening a story you read just six months ago can be read a couple of times-and not because the story is a difficult one. There's so much plain nutrition in it, the absolute accuracy and astonishment in the language, the breadth of the body and the height of the soul. You do feel yourself healthier, spiritually speaking, if also sadder-or happier, depending on the story...The fact is, there's a larger, more varied population in Babel's four, five hundred pages of stories than in any three novels of most writers.
  • some stories, I must admit, you simply can't read more than once every couple of years, because in reading them, sorrow grips you so. An example would be the first story of Red Cavalry, "Crossing Over to Poland."
  • Among other intentions, I think Babel hoped to tell two kinds of stories-the first about lives absolutely unlike his own, in order to understand, or at least know and maybe even become like the "others." But a second need was to say, Look, that life is like mine. I am after all like him and he like me. What a relief!
  • We know that great boxes of his manuscripts were carted off by the NKVD. Among them, Pirozhkova is sure (and I am, too), was his book to be called "New Stories." Did "they" fear these stories! He held them up for the usual scrutiny-one day or one year too long. We really don't know about his production. We do know that we wish we had a lot more of his stories.
  • Babel's grandmother had admonished: "You Must Know Everything." He did try. And eventually he knew a great deal. He knew war. He knew work. He knew love. He gave long classical reading lists to Pirozhkova. He didn't like literary talk. He didn't want to discuss his work. Sad for her and sad for us. Maybe, among his other thoughts, he hoped to protect her, a powerful and responsible working woman important in the construction of the new Soviet infrastructure. Was he also trying to save her from the destructive forces of disillusion? When Lion Feuchtwanger visited, she asked Babel what they'd talked about. "He spoke of his impressions of the U.S.S.R. and of Stalin," he said. "He told me many bitter truths." Then Babel said no more.
  • For the most part, I have tried to say something in these few pages about what I feel for Babel's work. It was the work of a man who, like the Gedali character from Red Cavalry, longed for the joy-giving Revolution, thought he would wait as long as he could. He thought he could put his own joyful spirit out like an oar in history's river and deflect the Revolution's iron boat by acting in a straightforward way for others. He thought laughter and jokes might work. In fact, Pirozhkova learned that one of his arresters had been asked by the interrogator in charge, "Did he try to make a joke?"
  • Reading Pirozhkova's memoir, I feel I have come to know something of the man, to see Babel and his work in some common brilliant light of the hopeful Revolution, unending love of the people as well as people, darkened at the edges by fate, the busy encroachment of evil. But Antonina Pirozhkova will tell you the whole story. Though she lived only seven years inside it, hardly an hour escaped her loving attention, and then her memory. He is, as she was determined, restored to us a great writer, a good man.

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