Babel in California

Isaac Babel, 1939
Isaac Babel, 1939. Courtesy of the David King Collection.

I. The Writer Vanishes

The “millennium” Russian edition of Tolstoy’s Collected Works fills 100 volumes, and weighs as much as two small women or a large timber wolf. When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together a collected works, they do not aim for anything you could put in a suitcase and run away with: Dostoevsky’s Works comes in thirty volumes, Turgenev’s in twenty-eight. The standard Pushkin is seventeen volumes, and Lermontov, a lyric poet killed in a duel at age twenty-seven, has four volumes. In France, things are different. Definitive editions are printed on “Bible paper”; even the Pléiades Balzac is comparatively slim.

The Collected Works of Isaac Babel fills only two volumes. Comparing Tolstoy’s Works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch. Babel’s best-loved works all fit in the first volume: the early stories published by Maxim Gorky in Letopis; the Odessa, Childhood, and Petersburg cycles; the Red Cavalry cycle; and the 1920 diary, documenting Babel’s career as “war correspondent” in the Russo-Polish War.

We sense the compactness of Babel’s oeuvre all the more acutely since we know it to be incomplete. When the NKVD came to his Peredelkino dacha in 1939, Babel’s first words were “They didn’t let me finish.” What didn’t they let him finish? We will probably never know. The secret police seized and confiscated nine folders from Babel’s dacha, fifteen from his Moscow apartment; they seized and confiscated Babel himself, on charges of spying for not just France, but even Austria. Neither manuscripts nor writer were ever seen again.

In the years following the arrest, Babel’s published works were removed from circulation. His name was erased from encyclopedias and film credits. Nobody knew where he was, or even whether he was alive. Babel was by that time an international celebrity, widely read in France and the United States. When friends abroad asked what had become of him, various stories were passed around: Babel was in a special camp for writers, he was writing for the camp newspaper. But no official news was released until after Stalin’s death in 1953.

In 1954, Babel was officially exonerated, and the dossier of his criminal case was finally made public. But inside was just one page: a certificate attesting to his death on March 17, 1941, in “unknown circumstances.” Like Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem,” Babel had vanished, leaving behind a single sheet of paper.

Nothing more was known until the 1990s, when Babel’s box in the KGB archives was declassified, and the story of his last days slowly came to light. It became known that the warrant for Babel’s arrest had been issued thirty-five days after Babel was arrested. Following seventy-two hours of continuous interrogation and probably torture, Babel had signed a surreal confession to the effect that he had been recruited into a spy network in 1927 by Ilya Ehrenburg and for years systematically supplied André Malraux with the secrets of Soviet aviation—the last detail seemingly borrowed, as in a dream, from Babel’s last known work: a confusing screenplay entitled Number 4 Staraia Square (1939) about byzantine intrigues among scientists in a plant devoted to the construction of Soviet dirigibles.

It became known that the writer was sentenced to death following a twenty-minute “trial” in the chambers of People’s Commissar Lavrenty Beria (a.k.a. “Stalin’s butcher”); we also learned from the transcript Babel’s last spoken words: “I am innocent. I have never been a spy. . . . I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others. . . . I am asking for only one thing—let me finish my work.” Babel was executed by firing squad in the basement of the Lubyanka on January 26, 1940, and his body was dumped in a communal grave. 1940, not 1941—even the death certificate had been a lie.


Who really killed Isaac Babel, and why? No literary scholar can resist a whodunit, and many competing theories are in circulation. Babel was all along someone you would expect to be killed. He was not a favorite with Stalin. Many people formulate the question differently: why hadn’t Stalin removed him sooner, during the Great Purges of 1934–38? One explanation is that Babel couldn’t be touched so long as his protector, Maxim Gorky, was living; but Gorky died in 1936, and Babel wasn’t taken until 1939, when World War II was just around the corner and Stalin had bigger fish to fry. The logical time for Babel to be eliminated had come and gone. What tipped the scale?

The most likely theory involves Babel’s affair, in the 1920s, with Evgeniya Gladun-Khayutina, who later married People’s Commissar Nikolai Ezhov, who administrated the Purges until his succession by Beria in 1938. It was said that Babel had continued his involvement with Ezhov’s wife into the ’30s, that he used to visit the couple at home, that they would play gorodki (a form of ninepins), while Ezhov told gruesome stories about the gulag. After Beria replaced Ezhov, he made a point of exterminating anyone who had ever had anything to do with his predecessor: when Ezhov vanished in January 1939, Babel was not long to follow.

Some scholars, however, claim that Ezhov is a red herring. Many attribute Babel’s demise to the brilliant Red Cavalry cycle, which was, indeed, condemned in the KGB files as an indictment of the “cruelties and inconsistencies of the civil war.” Red Cavalry is set during the botched Polish campaign of 1920: Babel’s unforgettable prose has, among other things, immortalized a military embarrassment. In 1924, Commander Semion Budyonny of the First Cavalry publicly accused Babel of “counterrevolutionary lies” and character assassination; indeed, Babel depicts Budyonny as an uneducated Cossack, in over his head, and generally without a clue. (Babel’s Budyonny gets up, after some fanfare, to address the soldiers before battle: “Men! Our situation’s . . . well, it’s . . . bad.”) With the help of Gorky, Babel won the ensuing skirmish in the press. But in later years, as Budyonny rose in the Party system—he was named marshal of the Soviet Union, first deputy commissar for defense, and even “Hero of the Soviet Union”—Babel fell.

Other evidence suggests that Babel was arrested in preparation for one last “show trial,” in which Stalin was planning to accuse the entire intellectual elite, from film legend Sergei Eisenstein to little-known polar explorer Academician Otto Shmit, but which was called off in September when Hitler invaded Poland. It seems likely, too, that the Nazi-Soviet pact signed in 1939 played a role: Babel had close ties with the French left, so as long as relations had to be preserved with France, Babel had to be visibly living; but once Stalin sided with Hitler, leaving a good impression on French radicals was no longer a priority.

Then again, there are those who attribute Babel’s arrest entirely to the 1939 screenplay about dirigibles, which had, and/or was perceived as having, a subversive political subtext; others vigorously insist that Babel was arrested “for no reason at all,” and that to say otherwise is to commit the sin of attributing logic to the totalitarian machine.

In the end, asking who killed Isaac Babel is like asking which of the firing squad’s bullets was the fatal one. The question is overdetermined and undetermined at the same time: probably, more than one bullet hit its mark; probably, we will never know the answer.


I was first introduced to the work of Isaac Babel as a college sophomore, when “My First Goose” was assigned in a creative-writing class. The instructor, Robert Cohen, was a melancholy Jewish novelist with a beard, whom I remember primarily for the time he suddenly realized the truth of human mortality, right there in the classroom. He pointed at each of us around the seminar table: “You’re going to die. And you’re going to die. And you’re going to die.” I remember the expression on the face of one of my classmates, a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife. The expression was confused.

Today I think of “My First Goose” as a haunting and unforgettable story. But for some reason, it made absolutely no impression on me at the time. Of this first reading, all I remember is that the goose dies at the end, and that it seemed like the kind of story that would reveal its full meaning and beauty only to a Jewish male reader, and that it was “bad value” for me to spend too much time on it.

Years passed. I went to Moscow to study, and learned to accept the “you don’t understand my pain, white lady” rhetorical offensive (“It’s interesting that you study our literature, since you haven’t lived through what we have”). Even the immigration official who stamped my student visa at the airport gave me one last chance to turn back, suggesting that there might be some American writers, “Jack London for example,” whom I could study in America: “the language would be easier and you wouldn’t need a visa.”

The resistance is especially tough when it comes to Babel. You really never know who will give you a hard time. Babel is not only Russian, but a Jew; not only a Russian Jew, but a Russian Jew from Odessa. His writing is famous for its Odessan slanginess, which many Odessans believe to be funny and comprehensible only to other Odessans. Some even become upset when outsiders claim to find Babel funny, because his is the humor that Odessa Jews earned the hard way.

Tolstoy observed, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and he was right: surely everyone on this earth, vale of tears that it is, is entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering. But in the end, I am too deeply invested in the idea that literature can render comprehensible another family’s unhappiness. For this reason, I once became impatient with a colleague I met at a conference in New York, who was insisting that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov’s “specifically Jewish alienation.”

“Indeed,” I finally said, “as a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.”

He nodded: “So you see the problem.”


The second time I was introduced to Isaac Babel was after I came to Stanford to get a doctorate in literature. My classmate Jakov convinced me to take a seminar in the history department, on literary biographies.

“The professor, Steven Zipperstein, he’s wonderful. He’s a textbook Jewish intellectual from New York,” said Jakov, a Catholic intellectual from Zagreb. “He’s a historian, but a literary historian. He’s crazy about Isaac Babel. When he talks about Babel, he gets so excited, he starts to stutter. It’s not the annoying kind of stutter that obstructs understanding. It’s an endearing stutter that makes you feel sympathy and affection.” Already partially convinced, I consulted the syllabus and saw Boswell’s Life of Johnson—at the time, the key to all my mythologies—and registered for the class.

I came for Boswell and stayed for Babel. I read the Red Cavalry stories and the 1920 diary on a rainy weekend in February, while baking a Black Forest cake. As Babel has immortalized for history the military embarrassment of the 1920 Polish campaign, so he immortalized for me the culinary embarrassment of this cake, which came out of the oven looking like an old hat and which, after I had optimistically treated it with half a $2 bottle of Kirschwasser, produced the final pansensory impression of an old hat soaked in cough syrup. I remember the condominium where I was living then: there was a floor-to-ceiling window with a sliding screen, and outside a vacant lot, a high wooden fence, palm trees, and telephone poles, and, in the distance, bluish mountains.

There are certain texts whose memory is inseparable, for me, from that of the material circumstances of reading: the place, the time, the physical copy of the book I read for the first time. There are other texts, equally dear to me, which I barely remember reading at all, as if they had just been uploaded into my head from the internet.

I think these categories must exist for others as well: texts that you remember in their materiality, as opposed to texts that you remember just as language. Often the categories are determined circumstantially. But I think the Red Cavalry works belong intrinsically to the first category.

The 1920 diary, there is something so precious and almost-lost about it—it’s perfect, perfect in its incompleteness, like Pushkin’s fragments. Even knowing nothing, or next to nothing, about Babel’s life, you still want to put it in your pocket and take it with you, to make sure it still exists.

The first surviving entry, June 3, starts on page fifty-five; the first fifty-four pages have never been recovered. After June 6, another twenty-one pages are missing. During that time, Babel loses the manuscripts he’s been carrying with him.

The next entry begins on July 11: “Slept badly, thinking of the manuscripts. Dejection, loss of energy, I know I will get over it, but when?”

For the next couple of days, Babel alternately “gets over it” and then remembers again.

“A peasant (Parfenty Melnik, the one who did his military service in Elisavetpol) complains that his horse is swollen with milk, they took away her foal, sadness, the manuscripts, the manuscripts, that’s what is clouding my soul.”

In the middle of his sadness about the lost manuscripts, Babel feels sorry for Parfenty Melnik and his horse; in the middle of writing about Parfenty Melnik who feels sorry for his horse, Babel feels sorry for his lost manuscripts.

“They took away her foal, sadness, the manuscripts”: “sadness” is the pivot from one story to the other: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but it is also true that every unhappy family is alike.

Two days later, July 13, is Babel’s birthday:

I’m twenty-six years old. I think of home, of my work, my life is flying by. No manuscripts. Dull sadness, I will get over it. I’m continuing my journal, it will be an interesting piece of work.

The clerks are young, handsome, the young Russians from headquarters sing arias from operettas, they are a bit corrupted by headquarters work. Describe the orderlies—the divisional chief of staff and the others—Cherkashin, Tarasov. . . .

That is what you want to put in your pocket—dull sadness; the resolution to go on; the observation of young, slightly corrupt administrators singing operettas at some Galician outpost. The heroic “getting over it” after which Babel always manages to refocus his interest outward, always seems to notice everything and everyone. Parfenty Melnik, Cherkashin, Tarasov: none are missing from these pages, and of all these unknown and unheard-of people, Babel demands: “What is he?” Always “what” (“chto takoe”), never “who.”

“What is Mikhail Karlovich?” “What is Zholnarkevich? A Pole? His feelings?”

Sometimes Babel answers his own questions: “What is Grishchuk? Submissiveness, endless silence, boundless indolence. Fifty versts from home, hasn’t been home in six years, doesn’t run.”

Of somebody called Vinokurov, Babel asks: “What is this gluttonous, pitiful, tall youth, with his soft voice, droopy soul, and sharp mind?”

“What are our soldiers?” “What are Cossacks?” “What is Bolshevism?”

“What is Kiperman? Describe his trousers.” (No job too big or small.)

“Describe the work of a war correspondent, what is a war correspondent?” (At the time of writing, Babel himself was a war correspondent.)

“I go into the mill. What is a water mill? Describe.” (Babel, like Don Quijote, is forever running into mills.)

“Describe Matyazh, Misha. Muzhiks, I want to penetrate their souls.”

“Describe the forest.”

“Two emaciated horses, describe the horses.”

“Describe the air, the soldiers.”

“Describe the bazaar, baskets of cherries, the inside of the tavern.”

“Describe this unendurable rain.”

“Describe ‘rapid fire.’”

“Describe the wounded.”

“The intolerable desire to sleep—describe.”

Sometimes, “describe” seems to contain an entire novel: “Absolutely must describe limping Gubanov, scourge of the regiment.” “Describe Bakhturov, Ivan Ivanovich, and Petro.”

“The castle of Count Raciborski. A seventy-year-old man and his ninety-year-old mother. People say it was always just the two of them, that they’re crazy. Describe.”

The great thing about the novel of Bakhturov, Ivan Ivanovich, and Petro, or the novel of the two mad Raciborskis, is that it doesn’t need to be written. “Describe” is less a promise than it is a performative. When Babel writes “describe,” he is doing the same thing as Watson when he mentions those of Sherlock Holmes’s cases that do not appear in his annals: “I find, on looking over my notes, that this period includes the case of the papers of ex-President Murillo, and also the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland.” The existing literature on Sherlock Holmes contains no other mention of ex-President Murillo or the Dutch steamship Friesland. Nor does Watson ever return to “the case of the Darlington substitution scandal,” the “singular affair of the aluminum crutch,” or “the mystery of the Giant Rat of Sumatra” (“for which the world is not yet prepared”).

Watson often promises to come back to these mysteries, but we know that he won’t: the world will never be ready for the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Similarly, Babel’s “describe” is a promise not meant to be kept; “what is” is a question never to be answered. True, observations marked “describe” in the diary do sometimes reappear in the stories; in “Berestechko,” Babel revisits the Raciborskis:

A ninety-year-old countess and her son had lived in the castle. She had tormented him for not having given the dying clan any heirs, and—the muzhiks told me this—she used to beat him with the coachman’s whip.

Babel has added the Zolaesque overtone of hereditary vitiation, the Turgenevian kinkiness of the coachman’s whip, the Soviet indictment of knightly Poland “gone berserk”—but the whole thing is still just two sentences, a mention more than a description, and one that makes any description unnecessary.


In Red Cavalry, “life flies by,” and with it, papers: letters, proclamations, newspapers, ancient books, telegrams, all are raised in a flurry by the galloping Cossack horses, with Babel in hot pursuit. In the aftermath of the Brody pogrom, while looking for oats to feed his horse, Babel stumbles upon a German bookstore: “marvelous uncut books, albums . . . a chrestomathy, the history of all the Boleslaws. . . . Tetmajer, new translations, a pile of new Polish national literature, textbooks. I rummage like a madman, I run around.”

In the diary entry on Castle Raciborski, civilization is destroying itself and leaving behind scraps of paper: “French letters dated 1820, notre petit héros achève 7 semaines. My God, who wrote it, when . . .” The 1820 letter reappears in “Berestechko,” with a one-line prequel: “Paul, mon bien aimé, on dit que l’empereur Napoléon est mort, est-ce vrai? Moi, je me sens bien, les couches ont été faciles . . .” How strongly Babel makes us feel the preciousness of this “torn fragment of a yellowed letter,” as delicately poised in human history as a seven-week-child, or a false rumor of Napoleon’s death: the “little hero” was only ten, a baby girl was born—his sister?—who would one day be a mad old woman, beating her son with the coachman’s whip while the Red Army circled the ancestral estate.

The narrative of Babel’s imaginary young couple—bien aimé Paul and his letter-writing Virginie—is resumed in another entry, in another looted manor, in a living room trampled by Cossack horses; here Babel discovers

the constitution approved by the Sejm at the beginning of the 18th century, old folios from the times of Nicholas I, the Polish code of laws, precious bindings, Polish manuscripts of the 16th century, writings of monks, old French novels . . . French novels on little tables, many French and Polish books about child care, intimate feminine accessories, broken, remnants of butter in a butter dish—newlyweds?

We are back on the trail of the 1820 letter (“My God, who wrote it, when?”). The search has become a murder mystery: somebody was killed in the manor, and butter is still in the butter dish. (“You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth to which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.”) The story of the newlyweds is pieced together from the story of Napoleon, the French novels, the Polish books on child care: “The core—a listing of the books,” writes Babel in his Red Cavalry notes. “Heloise and Abelard. Napoleon. Anatole France.”

“Books—I cannot tear myself away.—We gallop off—I keep throwing books away—a piece of my soul—I’ve thrown them all away.”


Every biography is a mystery story, a whodunit (here is the life, now give me the person who did it!). Boswell, the man who lured me to the biography class to begin with, met Samuel Johnson by chance in a London bookstore in 1763; immediately he recognized his subject. Boswell courted Johnson, won his friendship, took him to Scotland to meet his parents, got his permission to write a biography, pursued him literally until the end of his days. Today, Boswell’s Life is more widely read than anything Johnson ever wrote; it follows that we read Boswell less to learn about Johnson than to see what happens when somebody devotes a lifetime and 1,400 pages to figuring out who somebody else is.

Who is the person behind the deeds? This is Babel’s question, and one with a long history in Russian letters. When, for example, the narrator of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman (1835) intercepts the letters of the lapdogs Medji and Fidèle, he finds their correspondence lacking in personhood: “Uneven style; immediately clear the writer is not a person. It begins all right, but ends with some dogginess.” When Medji’s letter turns to the charms of the neighbors’ dog Trésor (“Ah, ma chère, what a muzzle!”), the madman exclaims: “What drivel! How is it possible to fill a letter with such stupidity? Give me a person! I want to see the person!”

The madman is reading the letters in order to figure out Medji’s owner, the department chief, whom he sees every day but whom he never really understands; the dogs infuriate him by writing about table scraps and dog courtship. The department chief wasn’t part of their story.

Well, the madman is a madman: even if your boss’s dog did write letters, what could they possibly tell you about his secret personhood? On the other hand—aren’t all readers looking for such a secret, just where it cannot be found? In Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859), Oblomov rejects all of modern literature in a scene which ends with his shouting: “Where is the person in all this? . . . The person, I demand the person!”

Babel is also looking for the person from all possible directions. But unlike Boswell—or Goncharov—he goes about it obliquely. He has written many little things, but no big thing. (Babel never wrote a novel.) When he addresses “the problem of the person,” he tackles it not head-on, but from all directions. “What is Mikhail Karlovich?” “What is Zholnarkevich?” “What is Kiperman?”

And yet—there is still one big question, beneath all the little questions. “Describe Matiazh, Misha,” writes Babel in the diary: “Muzhiks, I want to penetrate their souls.” And in the Red Cavalry cycle, when he does arguably penetrate those souls, he finds muzhiks wrestling with the same problem. Thus concludes “The Life of Matvei Rodionovich Pavlichenko”: “It sometimes happens that I don’t spare myself and spend an hour kicking the enemy, or sometimes more than an hour. I want to understand life, to learn what it really is.”

You can live with someone, follow him around, take him to meet your parents, kick him for an hour, kick him even for more than an hour, and still not know who he is.


Back in the biography seminar, Jakov and I had agreed to collaborate on an in-class presentation on Babel. We met one Saturday at a dirty metal table outside the library, where we compared notes, drank coffee, and went through nearly a whole pack of Jakov’s Winston Lights, which, I learned, he ordered in bulk from an Indian reservation. It was cold and gray out, and soon it started to drizzle.

We settled quickly enough on our “angle”: Babel was writing about the dismantling of the old world and its replacement by a new. But when it came to actually reading the stories, it seemed we could agree on nothing. We disagreed in particular about a certain line in “The Tachanka Theory”; we were reading from different English translations, and we went to the library to look up the Russian original. The story is about the transformation of warfare by the tachanka, a wagon with a machine gun attached to the back. Once it is armed with tachanki, a Ukrainian village ceases to be a military target, because the guns can be buried under haystacks. The sentence that sparked our disagreement was about these guns in haystacks. A literal translation is: “These hidden points—suggested, but not directly perceived—yield in their sum a construction of the new Ukrainian village: savage, rebellious, and self-seeking.” But even once we had the Russian text, we were still arguing over the “hidden points.” I remember Jakov saying, a bit irritably, “You’re making it sound as if he’s just adding things up, like he’s some kind of double-entry bookkeeper.”

“That’s exactly right,” I said, also irritably, “he is a double-entry bookkeeper!”

In the course of the next five minutes, we concluded that we would never agree on anything because I was a materialist, whereas he, Jakov, had a fundamentally religious view of history, and then we parted ways, Jakov to write about Babel’s replacement of old gods with a new mythology, and I to write about Babel as a bookkeeper.

“How good it is,” writes Mandelstam, “that I managed to love not the priestly flame of the icon lamp but the little red flame of literary spite!” For all I know, Jakov was working by the priestly flame of the icon lamp, but my path was lit by “literary spite.” I was determined to show that Babel “was really” a clerk: a list of hidden points in one column, a list of characteristics (“savage, rebellious, self-seeking”) in the other.

That night I reread “Pan Apolek,” a story about a Polish painter who calls the narrator “Pan Pisar”: “Mr. Clerk.” I consulted a dictionary and learned that, although “pisar” is Russian for “clerk,” “pisarz” is Polish for “writer:” Apolek was trying to call the narrator Mr. Writer, but the name got “translated” into that of a clerk. From this point on, I became convinced that I had accidentally stumbled onto the truth: the metaphorical relationship of clerkship to Babel’s writing.

This was the explanation for the endless lists, “the list of books,” the list always hinting at some greater, inarticulable sum. Opposed to the dream of the greater sum was the nightmare of the infinite list, the list that amounts to nothing. “Everything repeats itself,” writes Babel at a low point in the diary, “Poles—Cossacks—Jews—the new thing is communism.” The great fear was that the age-old “lists” of ethnic animosities would repeat themselves forever, that communism wasn’t anything new.

All through the diary, I found echoes of a list beginning with “night”:

“Night, lantern outside the window, a Hebrew grammar, my soul aches.”

“Night, threshing-shed, fragrant hay, but the air is heavy, I am smothered by something, by the sad unthinkingness of my life.”

“Night, corn, sister, daybreak: without a plot.”

These lists, “without a plot,” I suggested, were borrowed from Alexander Blok’s famous, depressing, lyric poem, “Night, street, streetlamp, pharmacy” (1912):

Night, street, streetlamp, pharmacy,
The world is dull and meaningless.
Go on, live another quarter century—
Nothing changes. There is no way out.

As a propagandist, however, Babel couldn’t exactly adopt the line that “nothing changes”; instead he reassured the Jews he met that their sufferings would bring about a better future; on July 23, he describes his encounter with a plundered Jewish family:

I tell [the husband] yes, everything will be for the better—my usual system—in Russia wonderful things are happening: express trains, free food for children, theaters, the International. They listen with delight and mistrust. I think to myself: a sky full of diamonds will be yours. . . .

Here (I said), Babel is uncomfortably reverting to an older literary form: the fairy tale with its magic carpets and self-cooking geese; the “theaters” with their old bourgeois illusions. Indeed, the “sky full of diamonds” is a direct quote from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which concludes with Vanya and Sonya alone on the estate, adding up accounts: “Total, fifteen—twenty-five,” Vanya concludes: “Oh my child, I am miserable; if you only knew how miserable I am!” Sonya comforts her uncle with a promise of a bookkeeping to end all bookkeeping: after they die, God will take pity on their suffering, and show them “a sky all in diamonds.”

That’s what Babel was afraid of: that the credit column would turn out to have nothing in it but Sonya’s pie-in-the-sky diamonds.

To be honest, I no longer remember exactly what I said in my presentation, but I remember that after I was done talking, everyone in the room was quiet and sad (except Jakov, who got nervous and started quoting Hannah Arendt from memory). The professor said he had never thought of Chekhov and Babel and Blok in this way; I was glad, and I thought that Babel and I were through.


But, I was wrong. That month, my friend Luba was the coordinator for the annual California Slavic Graduate Student Colloquium. This meant that all of Luba’s friends had to contribute papers. I submitted the Babel presentation, since it was the most recent thing I had written.

The colloquium took place in a certain lecture room in the Education building which is always extremely hot, regardless of the weather. Songbirds had long ago flown in through the open windows and built a nest on top of the video projector, up by the ceiling. Over the chirping of the birds, I read a longer version of my Babel presentation.

Also in attendance at the colloquium was Grisha Freidin, a Stanford professor who had rumoredly been working on a book on Babel for some years—“but nobody has ever seen a draft.” And here I was, writing about Babel without even consulting him. All through the session break, people kept looking at me as if they had seen a ghost. Apparently no student in Stanford Slavic had written anything on Babel for as long as anyone could remember, and there was Freidin’s manuscript slowly filling some unknown hard drive, and these two things were somehow connected. I felt a bit as if I had walked into a haunted house, or maybe a cuckoo clock. The temperature in the room seemed to defy the laws of science. High up near the ceiling, the birds chirped with incredible persistence.


The next week I emailed Prof. Freidin, and discovered that he had found my independent reading of Babel to be strange: “Why would you study the gospel with anyone but St. Peter?” I went to his office hours and we struck a deal: he would help me revise my Babel paper, and I would work part-time as a research assistant for the mysterious Babel book. This book, I learned, had evolved over the years from a literary analysis called A Jew on Horseback to a critical biography called The Other Babel. Through years of research into Babel’s life Freidin had discovered that Babel wasn’t who we all thought he was: he was this other person. Babel’s autobiographical writings, slender as they were, were full of untruths; for example, Babel’s claim that he was a soldier on “the Romanian front.” “Now you might think ‘the Romanian front’ is a joke,” Freidin said. “Well, it’s not, it seems it really did exist. But Babel was never there.” Elsewhere, Babel claimed to have worked for the Cheka starting in October 1917—two months before the Cheka was founded. And his life was full of inexplicable mysteries. Why had he returned to Moscow from Paris in 1933, after having spent nearly all of 1932 struggling to get permission to go abroad? Why, in 1935, just when the Great Purges were starting, did Babel begin making plans to bring his mother, sister, wife, and daughter from Brussels and Paris back to the Soviet Union? I sat in the Hoover archives, copying headlines from Russian émigré papers printed in Paris after Kirov’s assassination, to see how much Babel’s family knew about the purges.

In this way I managed to get locked in the archive; I was sitting at my carrel and lost track of time, and suddenly all the lights went out. When I got up, I realized that the entire library was not only dark but also deserted and locked. I banged on the locked doors for a while with no result, then felt my way in the dark into the hallway with the administrative offices, where I finally found a tiny Russian woman reading a microfiche and eating lasagna from a tiny plastic box. She seemed surprised to see me, and even more surprised when I asked for directions on how to leave the building.

“Get out?” she said. “Ehhh. I do not know.”

“Oh,” I said. “But—how are you going to get out?”

“Me? Well, it is . . .” She looked evasive. “But! I show you something.” She got up from her desk, took a flashlight from a drawer, and marched me down the hallway, coming to a stop in front of a door marked “OPEN ONLY IN CASE OF EMERGENCY—ALARM WILL SOUND.”“Go, go!” she said. “It is not locked—but behind you, it will lock.”

The alarm did not go off. I found myself in a staircase which came out through the basement. Outside was a bright and sunny day. Two Chinese women wearing enormous straw hats were standing on the steps of the tower, rapping at the door. I rode my bike home and typed up my notes. I had no idea why Babel wanted his family to come back to the Soviet Union in 1935.

II: Stanford Prepares

There is a kind of academic block around Babel. People start working on him, and don’t finish, just as Babel himself didn’t finish. Babel suffered for most of his career from writer’s block. As early as 1928, he was reproached in the press for his “literary silence”; in his 1934 address to the First Union of Soviet Writers, he referred to himself as a “past master of this genre [of silence].” Babel didn’t finish, and then the NKVD took him away. Antonina Pirozhkova, with whom Babel lived the last years of his life, claims that these years were productive ones; but, as I overheard one scholar put it, “We only have her word for that.”

When Freidin organized an international Babel conference at Stanford last year, he decided to call it “The Enigma of Isaac Babel.” I did some work for the conference, mostly helping to curate an exhibit, “Isaac Babel: A Writer’s Life in Context,” at the Hoover Institution Archive. The contents of the 100-plus boxes on Babel turned out to be extremely diverse, a bit like the “German bookstore”: copies of Red Cavalry in Spanish and Hebrew; the most ghastly “original watercolors” of the Polish conflict, circa 1970; a Big Book of Jewish Humor, circa 1990; an original copy of LEF; The Way They Were, a book of childhood celebrity photographs, in alphabetical order: fourteen-year-old Babel in a sailor suit, opposite high-school student Joan Baez; Nikita Khrushchev facing Oliver Hardy. There was a 1921 book on the Cavalry Army designed by Alexander Rodchenko that included, among other marvels, a photograph of General Budyonny’s mother Melaniya Nikitichna, squinting at the camera outside some kind of hut, bearing in her arms a baby goose. (“Budyonny’s first goose,” observed Freidin, “—and Budyonny’s trousers.” Sure enough, somebody’s pants were hanging on a clothesline in the background.) I went through this box in the reading room of the Hoover Archive, where all the researchers wear standard-issue white gloves, like at Alice’s mad tea party.


One afternoon, the exhibitions coordinator took me into a labyrinthine basement, where a new collection of Polish war posters was still being indexed. Freidin had asked me to find two propaganda posters from 1920: one from the Poles, one from the Soviets. There in the basement, lying on top of a wall of filing cabinets, were original Polish posters representing Russia as the Whore of Babylon, or as the four horsemen of the apocalypse, on horses with Lenin and Trotsky heads; one showed Christ’s body lying in the postapocalyptic rubble (“This is How All of Poland Will Look, Once Conquered by the Bolsheviks”). It looked like an illustration of Babel’s diary entry of August 7: “A terrible incident: the looting of an old church . . . what its eyes have seen these past 200 years . . . how many counts and serfs, magnificent Italian art, rosy Paters rocking the infant Jesus, Rembrandt. . . . It’s very clear, the old gods are being destroyed.”

“I’m sorry we don’t have any Russian propaganda posters,” the coordinator said. “I’m afraid it’s a bit one-sided.”

“But no,” I said, noticing some Cyrillic script in the stack. “Here is one in Russian.” I carefully drew out an enormous poster showing a slavering bulldog wearing a king’s crown: “Majestic Poland: Last Dog of the Entente.”

“Oh, sure,” said the archivist, who didn’t read Russian, “there are posters in Russian, but they aren’t pro-Bolshevik. These are all Polish posters.”

And yet, there was a second poster announcing that “The Polish masters want to turn the Russian peasants into slaves!” featuring a fat little capitalist with a mustache and a derby hat: a twin of the man from the Monopoly board, only with a whip. I suggested it was difficult to interpret this as a pro-Polish poster. The coordinator nodded enthusiastically: “Yes, these posters are full of ambiguous imagery.”

I followed her back upstairs to the reading room, where she sat me down with a box of Polish memorabilia from the 1920 war. I used my white gloves to lift from the box, one by one, all the sorts of things that turn up in archival boxes: photographs of posters, typed lists of items that were in other archives, newspaper clippings, and I don’t remember what else. Then my eye was caught by a single yellowed sheet of paper with a printed Polish text signed by Commander-in-Chief Józef Piłsudski, July 3, 1920: “Obywatele Rzeczpospolitej!”

I couldn’t believe it. On July 15, Babel had found a copy of this very proclamation on the ground in Belyov (“‘We will remember you, everything will be for you, Soldiers of the Rzcecz Pospolita!’ Touching, sad, without the steel of Bolshevik slogans . . . no words like order, ideals, and living in freedom”). In the Red Cavalry cycle, Lyutov discovers the same proclamation while accidentally urinating on a corpse in the dark:

I switched on my flashlight . . . and saw lying on the ground the body of a Pole, drenched in my urine. A notebook and scraps of Piłsudski’s proclamation lay next to the corpse. In the . . . notebook, his expenses, a list of performances at the Krakow Dramatic Theater, and the birthday of a woman by the name of Maria-Louisa. I used the proclamation of Piłsudski, marshal and commander-in-chief, to wipe the stinking liquid from my unknown brother’s skull, and then I walked on, bent under the weight of my saddle.

I suppose that thousands of copies were printed in 1920, so why shouldn’t one of them have ended up in the archive—it’s not as if the Hoover had received the exact copy with Babel’s urine on it; although Freidin did start making jokes to the effect that I should exhibit the proclamation “side by side with a bottle of urine.” This was for the benefit of the Hoover staff, who kept hinting that “more three-dimensional objects” would improve the accessibility of the exhibit to the general community. Somebody suggested we construct a diorama based on the ending of “The Rabbi’s Son”: pictures of Maimonides and Lenin, a phylactery; Freidin maintained that, if we included the phylactery, we would have to have “the withered genitalia of an aging Semite,” which also appear at the end of the story. “What do you think? Hm? Hm?” (Prof. Freidin never failed to impress the archive staff with his fresh take on “the writer’s life in context.”)


After finding the Piłsudski proclamation, I had the idea of looking for materials related to my favorite character from the diary: Frank Mosher, the captured American pilot, whom Babel interrogates on July 14:

A shot-down American pilot, barefoot but elegant, neck like a column, dazzlingly white teeth, his uniform covered with oil and dirt. He asks me worriedly: Did I maybe commit a crime by fighting against Soviet Russia? Our position is strong. O the scent of Europe, coffee, civilization, strength, ancient culture, many thoughts. I watch him, can’t let him go. A letter from Major Fauntleroy: things in Poland are bad, there’s no constitution, the Bolsheviks are strong. . . . An endless conversation with Mosher, I sink into the past, they’ll shake you up, Mosher, ekh, Conan Doyle, letters to New York. Is Mosher fooling—he keeps asking frantically what Bolshevism is. A sad, heart-warming impression.

I love this passage, because of the mention of Conan Doyle; because of the way a worse-for-wear American pilot can remind Babel of ancient European civilization and coffee; because Mosher is carrying a letter from somebody called Major Fauntleroy; and because of Babel’s “sad, heart-warming impression.”

What makes it even more amazing is that “Frank Mosher” was the alias of Captain Merian Caldwell Cooper, future creator and producer of the motion picture King Kong. This is a historical fact: in Galicia in July 1920, the future creator of King Kong was interrogated by the future creator of Red Cavalry.

I looked up Merian Cooper in the Hoover catalogue, and it was like magic: they had the complete collection of his “papers.” Scotland Yard once thought Paris was the center of the world—but indeed it is California where everyone winds up.

Merian Cooper was born in 1894. He served as a pilot in WWI, fought in Tours and England, commanded a squadron in the Battle of St. Mihiel, was shot down in flames in the Argonne, and spent the last months of the war in a German prison, where he “was thrown with Russians a good deal” and developed his lifelong aversion to Bolshevism. In 1918, he was awarded a Purple Heart. In 1919, he joined nine other American pilots in the Kosciuszko Air Squadron, an official unit of the Polish Air Force, to combat the Bolshevik menace under the command of Major Cedric Fauntleroy.

On July 13, 1920, the Associated Press reported that Cooper had been “brought down by Cossacks” behind enemy lines in Galicia; according to local peasants, Cooper had been “rushed by horsemen of Budyonny’s cavalry,” and would have been killed on the spot, had not an unnamed English-speaking Bolshevik interfered on his behalf.

The next day, July 14, the Frank Mosher entry appears in Babel’s diary. Cooper had taken his pseudonym, Corporal Frank R. Mosher, from the waistband of the secondhand underwear he had received from the Red Cross. Babel sounds a thousand years older than Cooper; but in fact, both men were 26.

Alas, if Cooper left a “sad, heart-warming” impression on Babel, it seems that Babel left no particular impression on Cooper, who never recorded anything of their “endless conversation”; of his time in the Red Cavalry, he has written only of his interrogation by Budyonny, who asked him “to join the Bolshevist army as an aviation instructor. This,” Cooper continues, “I repeatedly refused to do. I was then made the ‘guest’ of a Bolshevist flying squadron for five days. I escaped, but was recaptured after two days, and taken under heavy guard to Moscow.”

Cooper spent the winter shoveling snow from the Moscow railway line. In April 1921, he escaped Vladykino Prison in the company of two Polish lieutenants, and “hopped” freight trains up to the Latvian frontier (“We adapted the American hobo methods to our circumstances”). At the border, they were obliged to bribe the guards; Cooper, who was apparently forever losing his shoes, handed over his boots, and made a barefoot entrance in Riga.


The Hoover staff was extremely supportive of the Merian Cooper line of investigation—you could see them thinking, “Let’s encourage this, over the withered genitalia of the aging Semite”—and directed me to the collection of Kenneth Shrewsbury, one of Cooper’s fellow-pilots in the Kosciuszko Squadron. Shrewsbury, unlike Cooper, had taken photographs, incredibly moving photographs, on a dry-plate camera. There was a group portrait of the entire squadron “outside the Paris Ritz,” en route to Riga; a long shot of an incredibly empty-looking Champs Elysée, with a horse-drawn carriage, a few 1920 cars, and in the distance the Arc de Triomphe; there was the Eiffel Tower, a swan in a park, and a picture of a man in a suit, staring at a public fountain, subtitled: “an American.” And, there was a complete scrapbook of the Polish campaign.

For weeks I had been looking for photographs of Galicia and Volhynia in the 1920s; I had flipped through endless photograph albums, scrolled through the entire YIVO photograph archive, and even though the dates and the places were right, the atmosphere just wasn’t the same as in Babel’s writing. I had concluded then that Babel had invented this atmosphere, and that it didn’t exist in the real world; but it is there, it really is, in Shrewsbury’s album. The great Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky once wrote that “Babel saw Russia as it might have been seen a century earlier by a French writer accompanying Napoleon’s Grande Armée”; now I recognized Babel’s vision of Russia in the photographs of an American aviator volunteering for the Polish army.

Everything was there: a village clumped at the foot of a medieval castle, a church “destroyed by the Bolsheviks,” airplanes, Major Fauntleroy (not, incidentally, a bad-looking guy), pages of serious “Polish women troopers”; “Jews leveling a field”; “Polish mechanics”; mounted troops riding past a pharmacy in Podolia; a gorgeous panorama of an old fort, composed of five separate shots.

And then there was Cooper himself, much as Babel described him: a big American, with a neck like a column. In posed photographs he smiles slightly and holds a pipe—cultivating, it seems, something of the air of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was also a veteran and a writer of prehistoric romances. How much would I have given to know what Babel and Cooper had said on July 14 about Conan Doyle! The three were so similar, Babel, Cooper, and Conan Doyle: all deeply concerned, in one way or another, with the question of violence and evil; all literary men; all in pursuit of what Cooper called “adventure in a good cause.”


Cooper first turned to filmmaking in 1923, in collaboration with fellow Russo-Polish veteran Captain Ernest B. Schoedsack. Looking for “danger, adventure, and natural beauty,” they went to Turkey and filmed the annual migration of the Bakhtiari tribe to Persia. I watched the resulting film, Grass (1925), in the library: the Bakhtiari cross the snowy mountains barefoot, but Cooper is wearing shoes.

Next, Cooper and Schoedsack went to Thailand to shoot Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), a semidocumentary about a resourceful Lao family who dig a pit outside their house to catch wild animals. All kinds of animals turn up in the pit: leopards, tigers, a white gibbon, some kind of armadillo, and, finally, a mysterious creature referred to as chang, which turns out to be a baby elephant.

In 1931, the year Babel published “The Awakening” and “In the Basement,” Cooper thought of the premise for King Kong: a documentary filmmaker and his team would discover on a remote island the “highest representative of prehistoric animal life.” The documentary filmmaker would bear a resemblance to Cooper: “Put us in it,” Cooper instructed the scriptwriters. “Give it the spirit of a real Cooper-Schoedsack expedition.” The team would bring the prehistoric monster to New York City to “confront our materialistic, mechanistic civilization.”

I watched King Kong for the first time that week, and it looked strangely familiar—not just from seeing clips, but as if I had seen it before in a dream. Finally, in the famous scene with King Kong swiping at biplanes on top of the Empire State Building, I realized that Babel had described nearly the same thing, in “Squadron Commander Trunov”:

Trunov pointed to four dots in the sky, four bombers that came floating out from behind the shining, swanlike clouds. These were machines from the air squadron of Major Fauntleroy, large, armored machines. . . . The airplanes came flying over the station in tighter circles, rattled fussily high in the air, plunged, drew arcs.

Trunov stands on a hill with a machine gun to take on four planes from the Kosciuszko Squadron. Like King Kong, Trunov has no plane; like King Kong, he goes down.

From the DVD notes, I learned that the pilots in the close-up shots of the Empire State Building scene were none other than Schoedsack and Cooper themselves, acting on Cooper’s suggestion that “We should kill the sonofabitch ourselves.”


I reported these findings to Prof. Freidin, who became very excited. “There he is! Squadron Commander Trunov!” he said, pointing at the film still I had brought of King Kong and the Navy planes. “The image must have been in the collective unconscious,” he mused. “You know what we should do? We should go back to Hoover and look at all the anti-Bolshevik posters. I am certain that we will find one representing Bolshevism as a giant ape.”

Before my eyes he called the archives and asked them to run a search for ape and propaganda in the poster database. I headed back to Hoover and picked up the resulting eighteen-page printout—which unfortunately included not just the keyword ape but any entry including an ape- (“Aperatura a sinistra,” “25 lat Apelu Sztokhomskiego”).

When I finally managed to separate the apes from the apertures, the former were quite few in number. First was a German poster of an ape in a Prussian hat, grabbing a woman in one paw, and holding in the other a club labeled “Kultur.” I had no idea how to begin to interpret this, so I moved on. I found a Hungarian poster whose central figure, described in the catalogue as an “ape man,” looked to me more like an extremely ugly human. He was covered in blood, which he was attempting to wash off in the Danube at the foot of the Parliament. This wouldn’t do, either. I was starting to wonder how I would break the news to Freidin about there being no portrayal of Russian Bolshevism as an enormous ape, but just then I found an Italian poster from World War II: “La monstruosa minaccia torna a pesare sull’Europa.” The monstrous menace of Bolshevism, embodied as a slightly shamefaced red ape, was actually standing on a map of Europe and brandishing a sickle and hammer; to reinforce the point, a masked figure of Death was standing behind his shoulder.

One ape on a map of Europe, the other on the Empire State Building. I took off the white gloves; my work here was done.

III: The Babel Conference

But then there were so many problems. First, my copy was sent back to me with a note: “Please call ASAP regarding portrayal of Cossacks as primitive monsters.” It turned out that my copy was lacking in cultural sensitivity toward Cossacks. I tried to explain that, far from calling Cossacks primitive monsters, I was merely suggesting that others had considered Cossacks to be primitive monsters. The coordinator, however, said that this was my mistake: others didn’t consider Cossacks to be primitive monsters; in fact, “Cossacks have a rather romantic image.”

I considered quoting to her the entry for Cossack in Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas: “Eats tallow candles”; but then the burden of proof would still be on me to show that tallow candles are a primitive form of nourishment. Instead I adopted the line that the likelihood of any Cossacks actually attending the exhibit was very slim. But the editor said this wasn’t the point, “and anyway you never know in California.”

Next came the return of the “three-dimensional objects.”

Archive personnel started calling me at home. “Elif, I’m so glad I found you! How would you feel if we put a fur hat in your Red Cavalry display case?”

I considered this. “What kind of fur hat?”

The administrator sighed. “Well, that’s the thing, I’m afraid it’s not quite authentic. Margaret’s husband bought it at a flea market in Moscow. But it looks, you know, like a Russian fur hat.”

I had no idea how to respond to this. Finally I had the brilliant idea of deferring the question: “Thanks so much for asking me,” I said, “but I really think it should be up to Professor Freidin.”

“Oh,” she said. “Professor Freidin is not going to want that hat in the display case.”

“No,” I acknowledged.

The next day, my telephone rang again. “Elif, great. Tell me what you think. We’ll put, sort of lying along the bottom of your display case—a Cossack national costume.”

“A Cossack national costume?” I repeated.

“Well—well—OK, the problem is that it’s child’s size. It’s sort of a children’s Cossack costume. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. I mean, because it’s in a child’s size, it will definitely fit in the case; which might not happen with an adult-size costume.”

Nearly every day they thought of something new to put into one of the cases—a samovar, a Talmud, and a three-foot-high rubber statue of King Kong. Finally they settled on an enormous Cossack saber, also, I suspect, acquired by Margaret’s husband at the flea market. The unfortunate thing was that they put the saber in a section with no semantic link to sabers, so that several people came up to me at the exhibit when it opened and asked why the saber hadn’t been placed under the illustration of “My First Goose,” in which the narrator kills a goose with a saber. “It’s not my saber,” I would say, unconvincingly. “I didn’t put it there.”


By that time, the conference had started. Scholars came from around the world: Russia, Hungary, Uzbekistan. One professor came from Ben-Gurion with a bibliography called “Babelobibliografiya” and a talk on “Babel, Bialik, and Bereavement.” But the star guests were Babel’s last remaining relatives. There were his two living children: Nathalie, the daughter from Babel’s wife Evgeniya; and Lidiya, the daughter from Antonina Pirozhkova, with whom Babel lived for his last years. To great scholarly amazement, Antonina Pirozhkova herself had also agreed to come.

This was great news for my classmate, Josh, who was also working on the exhibit, and who had somehow developed a crush on Pirozhkova, based on the pictures from the 1930s which show her to be, indeed, an extremely attractive woman. Josh’s parents were Star Wars fans and his full name is Joshua Sky Walker; to differentiate him from other Joshes, he is often called Skywalker.

“Man, do I hope I get to pick her up from the airport,” Skywalker said of Pirozhkova.

“I hope so too,” I said, “but you do realize she must be more than ninety years old.”

“I don’t care—she is so hot. You don’t understand.”

Alas, I did understand; one develops strange ideas working in an archive. I had noticed some Cossacks in the Rodchenko book whom I would gladly have picked up from the airport, were it not that, in accordance with my prediction, none of them came to the conference.

The luminaries arrived in San Francisco on the last weekend of February. I was frantically studying for my University Orals, reading Balzac like crazy. Skywalker and his friend Fishkin—a native Russian speaker, with a car—had been appointed to pick up Pirozhkova and Lidiya from the airport, to Skywalker’s enormous satisfaction. I was initially supposed to pick up Nathalie Babel, but Nathalie Babel had called the department administrator to warn that she had a very heavy trunk with her: “You must send me a strong male graduate student. Otherwise, do not bother. I will take a bus.”

So I was at home reading Louis Lambert when the telephone rang. It was Skywalker calling to say that he had broken his foot the previous night at the Euromed 13 dance party.

“Do you think you can get Pirozhkova and Lidiya from the airport? You can’t miss them. It’ll be, like, a ninety-year-old woman who is gorgeous and a fifty-year-old woman who looks exactly like Isaac Babel.”

“But—but what happened to Fishkin?”

“Fishkin went to Tahoe.”

“How do you mean, he went to Tahoe?”

“Well, it’s kind of a funny story, but maybe I should tell you later. The thing is that their plane lands in half an hour.”

I hung up the phone and rushed outside to dump all the garbage that had accumulated in my car. I realized then that I didn’t remember Antonina Pirozhkova’s patronymic. I ran back inside and looked her up on Google. The patronymic was Nikolaevna. I was halfway out the door when I realized I had forgotten how to say “He broke his foot” in Russian. I looked that up, too: “slomal nogu.” I wrote “BABEL” in big letters on a sheet of paper, stuffed it in my bag, and ran out the door, repeating “Antonina Nikolaevna, slomal nogu.”

I drove over the speed limit but got to SFO ten minutes after their plane had landed. For half an hour I rushed around the terminal holding a paper labeled “BABEL” and looking for a gorgeous ninety-year-old woman and a fifty-year-old woman who looked like Isaac Babel. There were many, many people at the airport that day, but none who came close to matching this description. In despair, I called Freidin from my cell phone and explained the situation.

He didn’t take it well. “They won’t be looking for you,” he said. “They’re expecting a boy.”

“That’s the thing. What if they didn’t see a boy and, you know, they took a bus.”

But Freidin said his gut feeling was that they were still there, in the airport. He had been right about the Bolshevik ape, so I said I would keep looking. And then, ten minutes later, I found her, in a corner, surrounded by suitcases: a tiny and very old woman with a white headband, who was nonetheless recognizable as the beauty from the archive photographs.

“Antonina Nikolaevna!” I exclaimed, beaming.

She glanced at me and turned slightly away, as if hoping I would vanish.

I tried again. “Excuse me, hello, are you here for the Babel conference?”

She quickly turned toward me. “Babel,” she said, sitting up. “Babel, yes.”

“Oh, I’m so glad—I’m sorry you were waiting. A boy was going to get you, but he broke his foot.”

She gave me a look. “You are glad,” she observed, “you are smiling, but Lidiya is suffering and nervous. She went to look for a telephone.”

“Oh no!” I said, looking around. There were no telephones in sight. “I’ll go, I’ll look for her.”

“Why should you go, too? Then you’ll both be lost. Better you should sit here and wait.”

So I sat, trying to look somber out of sympathy for Lidiya. It occurred to me then to call Freidin, to say that all was well.

“Thank goodness,” he said. “I knew they would still be there. How is Pirozhkova? Is she very angry?”

I looked at Pirozhkova. She did look a bit angry. “I don’t know,” I said.

“They told me they would send a Russian boy,” she said, loudly enough for him to hear. “A boy who knows Russian.”


The car ride was somehow not cheerful. Lidiya, who did indeed look exactly like her father’s photographs, sat next to me in the front, reading aloud from every billboard that we passed. “Nokia Wireless,” she said. “Johnny Walker.”

Pirozhkova sat in the back and spoke only once the whole trip: “Ask her,” she told Lidiya, “what is that thing on her mirror.”

The thing on my mirror was a Happy Meal toy, a tiny stuffed Eeyore wearing a tiger suit. “It’s a toy,” I said.

“A toy,” Lidiya said loudly, half-turning to the back seat.

“Yes, but what toy? It’s an animal, but what kind?”

“A donkey,” I said. “A donkey in a tiger suit.”

“You see, mother?” said Lidiya loudly. “It’s a donkey in a tiger suit.”

“I don’t understand. Is there a story behind this?”

As it happened, there was a story behind it: Tigger had developed an anxiety about not having any heritage, so Eeyore put on a tiger suit and pretended to be a relative. As I was thinking of how to explain this, another patch of orange caught my eye. I glanced at the dashboard: the little hieroglyphic gas tank had lit up.

“It’s not my donkey,” I said, switching off the fan. “It’s my friend’s donkey.”

“What did she say?” Pirozhkova asked Lidiya.

“She said that it’s her friend’s donkey. So she doesn’t know why he’s wearing a tiger suit.”

“What?” said Pirozhkova.

Lidiya rolled her eyes. “She said that the donkey put on the tiger suit, in order to look stronger in front of the other donkeys.”

There was a silence.

“I don’t think she said that,” said Pirozhkova.

I put on a Duke Ellington CD, hoping that the CD player didn’t use gas. We drove by another billboard: “Ted Lempert for State Senate.”

“Ted Lempert,” Lidiya mused, then turned to me. “Who is this Ted Lempert?”

I said that I didn’t know, but that I thought he wanted to be a senator.

“Hmm,” she said. “Lempert. I knew a Lempert once—an artist. His name was Vladimir. Vladimir Lempert.”

“Oh,” I said, trying to think of something to say. “I’m reading a novel by Balzac now about somebody called Louis Lambert.” I tried to say “Lambert” to sound like “Lempert,” but I guess the connection was still pretty weak. We drove the rest of the way to the hotel in silence.


According to Viktor Shklovsky, Babel spent the whole year 1919 writing and rewriting “a story about two Chinese.” “They grew young,” Babel’s Chinese, “they aged, broke windows, beat up a woman, organized this or that”; he hadn’t finished with them when he went to the front in 1920. In the diary, “the story about the Chinese” somehow becomes part of Babel’s Bolshevism sales pitch, along with the express trains:

I tell fairy tales about Bolshevism, its blossoming, the express trains, the Moscow textile mills, the universities, the free food, the Revel Delegation, and, to crown it off, my tale about the Chinese, and I enthrall all these poor tortured people.

Which brings me to the really amazing thing about the “Enigma of Babel” conference: in attendance were two Chinese filmmakers whose adaptation of the Red Cavalry cycle, Qi Bing Jun, was projected to open in Shanghai in 2005. Now we really had it all: a university, free food, and, to crown it off, the Chinese.

The screenwriter, Tianbing Wang, was tall, smiled a lot, and spoke good English; the director, Delin Ma, was short, serious, and didn’t seem to speak at all. Both wore around their necks enormous cameras. I first saw Wang and Ma at the opening reception, outside of which I also met Babel’s first daughter, Nathalie. She looked younger than her age (seventy-six), but her voice was ageless. It was a deep sepulchral voice, heavy with French rs. We shook hands. “YOUR HAND IS VERY COLD,” she said.

“We have black squirrels here at Stanford,” one student told Nathalie Babel, pointing at a squirrel. “Have you ever seen a black squirrel?”

Nathalie looked vaguely in the direction of the squirrel. “I CANNOT SEE ANYTHING ANYMORE,” she said. “I cannot hear, I cannot see, I cannot walk. For this reason,” she said, eyeing the steep cement stairway to the Hoover Pavilion, “everyone thinks I am always drunk.”

At the top of the stairs, you immediately noticed Wang and Ma taking turns photographing each other with Viktor Zhivov, a visiting Russian professor with a kind expression and a tobacco-stained Old Believer beard.

“Lots of Chinese,” I overheard someone say in Russian.

“True. It’s not clear why.”

“They’re taking pictures with Zhivov.”

“They want to prove that they have been to California. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Feeling an urge to make a friendly gesture, I walked up to Wang and introduced myself and told him how excited we all were by their movie.

“Thank you,” said Wang, shaking my hand.

I asked whether there would be Cossacks and Jews in his version of the Red Cavalry. He replied that the Cossacks would be represented by Northern Chinese, “barbarians from the north”; the Jewish narrator would be represented by a Chinese intellectual.

“There are not so many differences between Jews and Chinese,” Wang explained. “They give their children violin lessons, and they worry about money. Lyutov will be a Chinese, but he will still have ‘spectacles on his nose, and autumn in his heart.’” At “nose,” he touched his nose, and at “heart,” he struck his chest. The silent cinematographer nodded.

After the reception was a dinner, which began with toasts. One professor proposed the strangest toast to Pirozhkova. “In Russian we have an expression,” she said in Russian, “a little-known but good expression, that we say when someone dies: ‘He ordered us to live a long time.’ Now I look at Antonina Nikolaevna and I think of Babel who died before his time, and I think, ‘Babel ordered her to live a long time.’ We are so lucky for this, because she can tell us all the things that only she knows. A long life to Antonina Nikolaevna!”

In honor of this depressing toast, I drank down my whole glass of wine and immediately became drunk to the extent that I almost told a dirty joke to Freidin’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Anna. Anna, who was applying to colleges that year, had asked about undergraduate advising at Harvard. I told her about my freshman advisor, a middle-aged British woman with a kind, weary demeanor, who worked in the telecommunications office and had never once known the answer to a single question I had asked.

“The telecommunications office?” Anna repeated.

I nodded. “I would see her when I went to pay my phone bill.”

“Did she have any other connection to Harvard, other than working in the telecommunications office? Was she an alumna?”

“Yeah, actually, she got an MA in the seventies, in Old Norse literature.”

Anna stared at me. “Old Norse literature? What good is an MA in Old Norse literature?”

“I think it’s useful in telecommunications work,” I said. This was supposed to be a joke, but she didn’t laugh.

“Old Norse literature,” she repeated. “Hmmh. Well, it must be a fecund area of study. Aren’t the Norse the ones who invented Thor, god of thunder?”

“Oh—I know a joke about Thor!” I exclaimed. The joke involves the comic exchange between Thor and a young farm girl: “I AM THOR!” says Thor, to which the farm girl replies: “I’m thor, too, but I had tho much fun!”

“So Thor comes down to earth for a day,” I began, when I suddenly became conscious that Joseph Frank (an eighty-year-old emeritus, author of the five-volume canonical biography of Dostoevsky) had abandoned the lively discussion he had been having with Robert Alter about Louis XIII. Both were regarding me from across the table with unblinking interest.

“You know,” I said to Anna, “I just remembered it’s kind of an inappropriate joke. Maybe I’ll tell you another time.”

“Oh,” said Anna. “OK.”

By now, every single person at the table was staring at me. Frank leaned over the arm of his wheelchair toward Freidin’s wife, Victoria Bonnell, who is a professor at Berkeley and who was also in a wheelchair. “Who is that?” he rasped.

“That is a graduate student who has been very helpful to Grisha,” she replied.

“Ah.” Joseph Frank nodded and went back to his pasta.


These events took some kind of toll on me and the next day I managed to sleep through the 9 am panel, the one on biography. I got to the Tressider Center as everyone was leaving for lunch. In the crowd I immediately spotted my dear friend Luba, who is my height, with huge, sad, gray eyes, and an enormous quantity of extremely curly hair.

“Elishka!” she exclaimed when I had manifested myself. “I missed you all morning.”

“I didn’t wake up,” I said. “How was it?”

“It was amazing. But I wrote everything down for you.” She pulled from her bag one of the Soviet-style graph-paper notebooks for which she suffers various inconveniences to keep herself supplied. We sat under a tree and she read to me her copious notes.

No fewer than three people were—and still are—writing biographies of Babel. The first was Freidin, who read a paper about the Other Babel. The second, an American journalist called Patricia Blake, had talked at the panel about her early experiences researching Babel’s life in 1962 Moscow, where she interviewed Pirozhkova, Ilya Ehrenburg, Gorky’s widow, and Babel’s old acquaintance, the French charge d’affaires, Jacques de Beaumarchais (descendant of the author of Figaro). Blake had been followed by the KGB, whom Beaumarchais gallantly instructed “Fichez le camp!” but the KGB got her anyway, took her in for questioning, and quoted to her verbatim from her conversation with Pirozhkova, revealing that they had bugged the apartment.

Last had been Reinhard Krumm, a German historian from Tashkent. His paper, “Writing a Biography of Isaac Babel: A Detective’s Task,” was mostly about how he, Reinhard Krumm, had gotten kicked out of different archives in Russia, and thus had been largely unable to find information on the life of Isaac Babel. On the premise that “good detective work means returning to the scene of the crime,” Krumm had made pilgrimages to Babel’s old house in Odessa, his apartment in Moscow, the dacha in Peredelkino—only to find that all had been torn down. Undiscouraged, he rode a bus to Lemberg, for Budyonny’s decision not to attack Lemberg in 1920 had been noted in Babel’s diary: “Why not? Craziness, or the impossibility of taking a city by cavalry?” Krumm went to Lemberg and looked around. He concluded that, as Babel had implied by calling Budyonny’s withdrawal “crazy,” Lemberg was indeed a beautiful city. Finally, Krumm made some gestures toward situating Babel’s case in a larger hermeneutic context: “I would need a lot of detective work indeed if I was to come to know the enigma of Babel.”

Unfortunately, Krumm’s talk was poorly received. Luba heard someone mutter, “For an incompetent scholar, everything is ‘a detective’s task.’” It seems that many of the documents that Krumm had been unable to access in the archives had long since been published. “You can buy this in the Barnes & Noble,” someone said.

Krumm had also made some provocative claims about the twenty-four—in his telling, twenty-five—folders, which led finally to a free-for-all about whether the folders were still conceivably buried in some archive, and what was, or had been, in them. Suggestions included a sequel to Babel’s mysterious play Maria, a novella called Kolya Topuz (the socialization of an Odessa gangster), more Red Cavalry stories, and a full-length novel about the Cheka. Some debate surrounded the subject of the Cheka novel; many protested that Babel had never written nor intended to write any such thing. But others believed in the Cheka novel and said that anyone who didn’t was trying to sanitize Babel’s biography.

“Empty!” some unknown Russian had shouted. “The folders were empty!”

When it seemed that things could get no worse, the Chinese had even started asking questions, understood, it seemed, by nobody. “There was some hostility to the Chinese coming from the Russian community,” Fishkin later explained to me. “This one lady said, ‘Look. We don’t touch your I Ching . . .’”

Finally, Steven Zipperstein had succeeded in quieting everyone down and turned the floor over to Nathalie Babel—“the best part,” Luba said.

She sat up straighter and read from her notebook in a deep, sepulchral voice: “WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL, I WAS TOLD THAT MY PUPPY WAS A WRITER.” Pause. “LATER I HEARD PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT ISAAC BABEL, SAYING THAT HE WAS A GREAT WRITER.” Pause. “TO ME, HE WAS MY PUPPY.” Long pause.

“I AM CONFUSED.”

Another pause.

“I AM CONFUSED.”

Everyone waited for her to continue. One minute, two minutes passed, in total silence. Finally, somebody asked whether it was true that she was “still sitting on some unpublished letters.”

Nathalie Babel sighed. “LET ME TELL YOU A STORY ABOUT LETTERS.” The story was that Nathalie Babel had come into possession of a trunk of her father’s letters. (“Her puppy’s letters,” Luba explained, which made it sound like Gogol.) “I KNEW THE BIOGRAPHER WOULD COME,” she said, “BUT HE ANNOYED ME. SO I GAVE THE LETTERS TO MY AUNT. WHEN THE BIOGRAPHER CAME, I SAID, ‘I HAVE NOTHING.’” Naturally, the next question involved the fate of the letters; to which Nathalie Babel allegedly replied that she didn’t know, they were probably under her bed or in her attic! The panel ended in pandemonium.


At six I rode my bike back to the graduate-student housing complex, where I almost ran over Fishkin, who was standing outside wearing pajamas and smoking a cigarette. I welcomed Fishkin back and asked how he was enjoying the conference. Fishkin, I learned, was not enjoying the conference. Not only was he in trouble for going to Tahoe instead of to the airport, but also the well-known scholar Alexander Zholkovsky had given him the finger in the parking lot.

“Is that a joke?” I asked.

“N-n-no!” said Fishkin, who stuttered at emotional moments. “He really did it, I swear!”

“But,” I said, “how could he?”

I had been having doubts about Zholkovsky all day, ever since the discussion at the end of his panel. Robert Alter had just finished comparing a passage in Madame Bovary, in which flies are dying in the bottom of a glass of cider, to Babel’s description of the death of Squadron Commander Trunov. The similarity was supposed to be that both Babel and Flaubert were aestheticizing the banal.

The moderator was my advisor, Monika Greenleaf, a person known for her brilliant and wild connections. At a slow moment in the discussion, Monika returned to the flies in the cider, and started making a point related to the inkwell full of dead flies which appears on the miser’s estate in Dead Souls, and also to Dmitry’s lyric about cannibalistic flies in a glass of water, from The Brothers Karamazov. Listening to her, I grew convinced that she was really on to something about drowning flies. Babel, too, has a passage about “flies dying in a jar filled with milky liquid” in a Tiflis hotel (“Each fly was dying in its own way”). But for some reason, these references seemed to irritate Zholkovsky, who told Monika: “Robert Alter’s example was pertinent, but your example is not pertinent.”

I felt so betrayed when he said this, because I had really liked his talk. He had sounded so smart and reasonable—and now he was siding with this vague argument about aesthetics and the banal and the “rapture of perception”? When there was Monika, who had at her fingertips every fly that had ever drowned in all of Russian literature?

All I needed to hear was that this man had given the finger to Fishkin. “What a monster!” I exclaimed.

The story turned out to be a strange one. Fishkin had his turn signal on and was about to pull into a parking spot, when suddenly a car came around the corner from the opposite direction and slipped in before him. Then the driver of this car proceeded to give Fishkin the finger—and, as if that weren’t enough, he had gone and turned out to be Zholkovsky. It was an improbable story, and yet I somehow believed it.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I-I-I turned my head, like this.” Fishkin turned his head to the left. “So that he wouldn’t see my face. Then, I drove away.”


Half an hour later, I was driving down El Camino Real to get something to eat, when my cell phone started ringing. The phone played a cheerful melody, but the letters on the screen spelled: “FREIDIN.”

“Professor Freidin!” I said, answering the telephone. “What a pleasant surprise!”

“Elif, hello. I don’t know if this is pleasant or a surprise, but, yes, this is Grisha.” Freidin was at the dinner for the conference participants. He was, he said, experiencing confusion due to the total lack at this dinner of any graduate student presence. “You are not here,” he explained, “and Fishkin isn’t here. Josh isn’t here. Nobody is here. It looks—well, it looks strange. It’s a bit embarrassing.”

I considered this for a moment. “But we weren’t invited to the dinner,” I pointed out.

Silence.

“I see. You were waiting to be invited.”

I got into the left lane and made the next available U-turn.


The first thing you noticed when you walked into the special dining room was Luba, who looked as if she had been painted by Toulouse-Lautrec: severe, and with an appearance of having already seen this all before. When she caught sight of me, she assumed a mournful expression: her table was already completely full. In fact, all the tables were completely full, except for one, which was completely empty. I was just considering whether to sit at the empty table by myself, when Freidin noticed me and made a space. I sat between Freidin and Carol Avins, a professor from Rutgers; the others at the table were Babel’s daughter Nathalie, the detective Reinhard Krumm, Patricia Blake, Zsuzsa Hetényi, a Hungarian scholar, and Peter Constantine, who had translated the English Complete Works.

The atmosphere struck me as a bit chilly when I sat down, but Freidin was extremely convivial; he introduced me to Avins, who had edited the first English translation of the 1920 diary, and suggested that we might like to talk about King Kong. It became clear very soon that she and I had very little to say to each other about King Kong; and then what little spark there had been in this conversation was soon extinguished by the circumstance that Nathalie Babel was staring fixedly at Carol Avins, with a not-entirely-friendly expression. An uneasy silence descended upon the table.

“CAROL,” Nathalie said finally, in her sepulchral voice. “IS IT TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME?”

Carol Avins turned to her calmly. “I beg your pardon?”

“IS IT TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME?”

“I can’t imagine what makes you say that.”

“I say it because I would like to know if it is TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME.”

“That is an extremely odd question. What gives you an idea like that?”

“I just think you were told that I’m a NASTY OLD WITCH.”

“This is really extremely odd. Did someone say something to you?” She frowned slightly. “You and I have barely had any interactions.”

“Even so, I had the impression—that you DESPISE ME.”

This conversation continued for longer than one would have thought possible, given how clear it was that Carol Avins, for whatever reason, was just not going to tell Nathalie Babel that she did not despise her. Looking from Avins to Babel, I was struck by the nontrivial truth behind the Smiths song: “Some girls are bigger than others.” It wasn’t that Nathalie Babel was physically so much larger; but it was visibly clear that she came from a different time, when the human scale was different—when people had been more colorful, and in scope just much bigger.

“Come on, Nathalie,” Freidin interceded. “Clearly there is some misunderstanding.”

She turned and fixed him with her deep, watery eyes. “SOME PEOPLE DO DESPISE ME, YOU KNOW . . .” She sighed. “Tell me, is this my glass, or is it that one?” She indicated two wineglasses near her plate.

“In fact,” said Freidin, “I think they’re both yours.”

“Oh? I can’t see anything. Which is water?”

“It looks to me like they’re both white wine.”

Nathalie fixed him with her deep, watery eyes. “AND WHY DO I HAVE TWO GLASSES OF WINE?”

“Come now, you say it like it’s a bad thing! If it were me, I would think, ‘This must mean that I’ve done something very good.’ . . . Here is your water glass.”

“Ah.” Nathalie Babel took a drink of water and silence again descended.


“So,” Krumm said to Freidin, as the waiters were bringing out the entrées. “I hear that Slavic department admissions are declining in the United States.”

“Oh, do you? Well, you’re probably right.”

“Do you notice a decline in your admissions here at Stanford?”

“Well, I’d say we’ve had a pretty fair enrollment the past few years.”

“What about graduate students—do you have many graduate students? I have somehow not seen your students.”

“Well, here is Elif,” said Freidin. “She is one of our graduate students.”

Krumm peered at me over the rims of his glasses.

Apparently this was my moment. I ventured a small wave.

Krumm continued to stare at me for several seconds, then turned back to Freidin. “Yes—so. I see you have one specimen. But are there many others?”

By this point we had all been served some kind of cutlets, swimming in a sea of butter. It was truly an awful dinner and I think it depressed everybody. The Hungarian scholar even sent hers back, with detailed instructions; it reappeared a few minutes later, presumably with some modification, but one not visible to the naked eye.

At some point during this dismal repast, Lidiya Babel came over from her table, stood behind Nathalie’s chair, put her arms around her shoulders, and patted her head. “My darling,” she said in Russian, “how I love you! How good it is that we are all together!”

Nathalie glanced over her shoulder at Lidiya, with the expression of a cat who does not want to be picked up.

Freidin looked from Lidiya to Nathalie and back. “Thank you!” he exclaimed unexpectedly. “Thank you, Lidiya!”

Lidiya glanced at him with a shade of disapproval. “What for?”

This had Freidin stumped, but only for a moment. “For coming! In your place maybe I would have hesitated.”

“What are you trying to say—that you would find it difficult to travel with my mother?”

I was starting to feel extremely sorry for Freidin. “No, but,” he said, “well, it’s far away, it’s a long trip, it’s an unknown place.”

“It’s California. Even my mother and I have heard of California. It’s not the jungle.”

“Speaking of your mother,” Nathalie said, looking up at Lidiya again, “how old is she anyway? Some people say ninety-two, some people say ninety-six. Or is it a secret?”

“Of course it’s not a secret,” said Lidiya. “My mother is ninety-five.”

“Oh, ninety-five?” said Nathalie.

“She doesn’t look a day over ninety-three,” said Freidin gallantly.

Lidiya laughed, but quickly became serious again. “It’s true, she’s in good health and looks well,” she said. “However, not as well as she looked two years ago. But that isn’t the main thing. The main thing is that everything is still all right here.” She tapped her temple. “Her memory and her understanding.”

When Lidiya went back to her table, Nathalie followed her with her eyes.

“THAT OLD WITCH WILL BURY US ALL,” she remarked.

“Nathalie,” said Freidin.

She fixed him with her deep watery eyes. “DO YOU THINK I HAVE MISBEHAVED?”

“I am not telling you how to behave,” said Freidin.

“BUT YOU DISAPPROVE OF ME?”

“Of course not. Nathalie, you and I have known each other for years. One of the things I’ve learned about you is that you call it the way you see it—and that’s one of the things we love about you. But…”

“BUT SOMETIMES I SHOULD KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT?” she asked. “But—WHY? WHAT DO I HAVE TO LOSE? I HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE.”

Freidin looked nonplussed. “Well, then, I guess you should risk everything,” he said.

A moment later came another brilliant coup of changing the subject.

“Nathalie, now that you’re here, there is something I’ve been dying to ask you. What was your aunt’s name? One sees it written so many ways,” he said. “Meriam, Miriam, Mary, Maria—which was it?”

At the prospect of another clue, Krumm immediately sprang to attention. “Oh! Do tell us the correct spelling!”

Nathalie looked at him. “I don’t understand what you mean by the correct spelling. Some called her Meriam, others Mary, others Maria. Different people called her all three.”

“That’s interesting,” said Carol Avins, turning to Freidin. “I’m surprised you haven’t already gone to Odessa and looked it up in the Municipal Register.”

“I’m afraid there are many other surprises where that came from. I’ve always wanted to go to Odessa and look all these things up, but it somehow never happened.”

“Why don’t you go now?”

“For the same reason that the Babel conference is here, at Stanford: I don’t really travel.”

“Why not?” asked Patricia Blake.

Freidin explained that his wife had some health concerns that kept him in the area; I thought this would end the conversation, but it didn’t.

“Well, your daughter still lives with you, doesn’t she?” someone asked.

“Yes, she does.”

“Can’t your daughter stay with her?”

“Anna,” Freidin said, “is an enormous source of support and happiness, but she is eighteen years old, and she has a busy life of her own.”

Patricia Blake appeared to consider this. “You know what I think?” she said. “I think you should get her a dog.”

Freidin stared at her. “Excuse me?”

“You should get your wife a dog,” Patricia Blake explained. “It will change her life.”

“I really don’t see what a dog has to do with any of this.”

“The dog will change her life!”

“What makes you think that her life needs to be changed?” Freidin said sharply. There was another silence. “There are various things that cannot be accomplished by a dog,” Freidin said, after a moment.

Patricia Blake looked downcast. “I just thought that if she’s sick, the dog can cuddle with her,” she explained.

“Cuddling is not the problem,” said Freidin firmly.

Patricia Blake nodded. “I can see I’ve said something wrong,” she said. “But I’m just crazy about dogs.” She said it with great melancholy, as if she had gone through her whole life pursued by this mania for dogs, which caused her to estrange the people she held dearest.

Even Freidin appeared to feel sorry. “We did have a dog once, years ago,” he said, in a conciliatory tone, “called Kutya.”

Zsuzsa Hetényi, a sorrowful-looking woman in gray, looked up with interest. “Kutya means ‘dog’ in Hungarian!” she said. She spoke in a head voice, almost a falsetto, like a puppet.

“We think Kutya might have had some Hungarian blood. He had a complicated heritage—part German shepherd, part Labrador retriever, and part bass baritone.”

“Your dog could sing?” said Zsuzsa Hetényi, in her unusual voice. “Did he also speak? We had a cat once who could speak.”

Silence.

“What—” I ventured, and cleared my throat. “What did your cat say?”

She looked at me. “‘I’m hungry,’” she sang out.


By this point, everyone at the table had pretty much had the opportunity to act out his or her genius, with one exception: Peter Constantine, Babel’s most recent English translator, who had preserved an enigmatic silence throughout. Constantine’s year of birth on the copyright page was 1963, but the man who came to the conference might have been in his early thirties. Unlike many members of the academic community, he was tall and handsome, with high cheekbones, narrow eyes, and a faintly contemptuous expression, as if he were about to accept a challenge to a duel. He spoke British English, with some very faint, unidentifiable foreign accent.

His translation itself was enigmatic; there were passages of complete brilliance, such that you would stare from the original to the English and wonder how anyone had arrived at such an unlikely and yet dead-on word. On the other hand, there were strange mistakes. For example, at the end of “My First Fee,” Babel writes, literally: “I will not die before I wrest from the hands of love one more—and this will be the last—gold coin”; Constantine’s translation reads: “I will not die until I snatch one more gold ruble (and definitely not the last one!) from love’s hands.” All over there are tiny changes, which I am unable to understand. Babel says “at nine o’clock”; Constantine says “shortly after eight.” Babel says “at midnight”; Constantine says “after eleven.”

The story “Guy de Maupassant” contains one of Babel’s rare sex scenes: “Night bolstered my hungry youth with a bottle of ’83 Muscatel,” he writes. Constantine’s version is: “Night obstructed my youth with a bottle of Muscatel ’83”—as if he were the attorney, not the translator.

In preparing the English text for the exhibit, it had seemed logical to use Constantine’s translation for the quotes, since we knew he would be there; but everyone found something wrong with it. Freidin didn’t like the way Constantine translated “giving him the fig” as “thumbing your nose at him”; he didn’t like the passage in which the homeless poet during the Petrograd famine has “Siberian salmon caviar and a pound of bread in [his] pocket.” (On the grounds that “homeless people do not carry caviar in their pockets,” Freidin considered the correct translation to be “salmon roe.”) In the end we all wrote our own translations, with a note that “Many translations were used in the preparation of this exhibit, including Peter Constantine’s Complete Works.” Everything seemed fine until the end of the dinner, when Constantine suddenly turned to Freidin.

“You know,” he said, “I went to your exhibit yesterday, and I noticed something strange. Perhaps you can explain it to me.”

He had noticed his book, which somebody had put on display in a glass case, open to Babel’s story “Odessa”; next to it was a caption quoting “Odessa”—in a different translation.

“I really can’t understand how something like that happened,” Constantine said.

“The copy editor,” said Freidin, without missing a beat. “Hoover ran all our text through the copy editor. You would not believe the changes they made.”

Freidin told the (true) story of the editor who had translated all the italicized Yiddish, in such a way that “Luftmensch” (an impractical visionary) came out as “pilot”; “shamas” (the beadle of a synagogue) turned via “shamus” into “private detective.” Only after arduous struggles had these pilots and private detectives been converted back to dreamers and beadles.

Everyone laughed at this story, except for Peter Constantine.

“So you’re saying that the Hoover copy editors changed my translation?”

“I’m saying that these texts went through many different hands.”

“But what am I supposed to think, as a translator? My book is put on display next to something I didn’t write. Is it possible to take some sort of legal action?”

Freidin paused. “Peter. We all like your translation, and we are grateful to you. I want us to be friends. Let’s not talk about legal action. If you want to talk about legal action—it doesn’t even make sense. We didn’t charge admission for the exhibit.”

“That isn’t the point. The point is that there in the display case I see my book, and next to it I see a typed quotation with mistakes. And you’re telling me nobody can be held accountable because you didn’t charge admission.”

I glanced uneasily around the table. Patricia Blake looked like she was about to make Peter Constantine buy a dog.

“Peter,” Freidin said, “I want us to be friends. Now let’s be honest. Were there mistakes in the exhibit? Yes! There are mistakes everywhere. There are mistakes in the Collected Works, if it comes to that.”

This didn’t go over well. Peter Constantine sat up even straighter. “What mistake? Do you mean in the notes? That was corrected in the paperback.”

“No, I’m not talking about the notes.”

“Well, frankly, I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Peter, I want us to be friends. The Collected Works are very, very good. We all like it very much. But in translating Babel—in translating anyone—mistakes are unavoidable. I have found mistakes. Elif has found mistakes.” Constantine turned his hooded eyes briefly in my direction. “But I want us to be friends.

IV: Denouement

“Do you see what I’m up against?” Freidin demanded. The dinner was somehow over and we were standing outside the conference hall, where the panel on Babel and Film was to be held. A visiting junior professor of Symbolism was standing nearby, smoking.

“What happened?” the Symbolist asked Freidin.

“What didn’t happen? It was a dinner from Dostoevsky, that’s all.”

“In what sense: ‘The Two Families’?”

“Well, there was that.”

“And what else?”

“Well—” Freidin broke off, glancing into the door, where two professors and one Chinese filmmaker were all crawling under a table, doing something with extension cords. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said, “my next ordeal is beginning.”

As Freidin disappeared into the conference room, Lidiya Babel came up the stairs trailed by several international scholars, hoping, I think, to learn the things that only she could tell us. “Do you know,” one of them said, “of those two Chinese, one is a Muslim?”

“Which one?”

“The short one.”

“Are there many Chinese Muslims?” Lidiya asked.

“He is not Chinese!” shouted a depressed-looking historian.

Everyone turned and looked at him.

“I don’t think he’s really Chinese,” the historian repeated.

“He does look—different,” said Lidiya.

“Maybe he is an Uyghur,” Zholkovsky suggested.

“Wha-a-at?”

“An Uyghur, an Uyghur, an Uyghur.”

“When I asked the other Chinese what his religion was,” continued the first scholar, “he said to me, ‘My religion is Isaac Babel.’”

“Very strange,” said the historian.

Everyone turned to Lidiya Babel, apparently wondering what she thought of the deification of her late father. “It’s an interesting thing,” she said. “I once knew a man who married a German woman, and they went to China and photographed Chinese children. Their pictures were put in a book, and published: a book of photographs of Chinese children. But the really interesting thing is that when they asked the man what kind of women he preferred, he would always say: ‘Oh, ethereal—like a butterfly.’ But when you saw the German woman—she was completely round.”

There was a long silence.

“Ah, yes,” said the Symbolist finally. “‘The eternal disjuncture between reality and the dream.’”

“Completely round,” repeated Lidiya Babel firmly. “Whereas later, she ate nothing but cucumbers and black caviar, and now she’s altogether thin. Of course, this was when black caviar in Russia sold for next to nothing.”

I thought for a long time about Lidiya Babel’s story: what if this was it, the thing that only she could tell us? What if this was the secret: that the photographer of Chinese children—who, it seemed to me at the time, must have been none other than the artist Vladimir Lempert—had married a German woman, who was completely round, even though he wanted someone like a butterfly, and then she went on a diet and became altogether thin?


Inside the lecture hall, Tianbing Wang and Delin Ma were sitting at a long table in front of a flickering screen. Wang smiled and made eye contact with people in the audience, while Ma preserved an impassive silence. I wondered what he was thinking about, and whether he was really an Uyghur. Gradually, the room fell silent, and Tianbing Wang began to speak.

“I used to be a student here at Stanford,” he said. “Right here. I used to study computer programming. I used to work all night in the Tressider computer cluster. Then I took a creative-writing class to learn how to write stories. There, my teacher assigned Isaac Babel’s story ‘My First Goose.’ This story changed my life.”

I was amazed anew at the varieties of human experience. I had been assigned Isaac Babel’s “My First Goose” in a creative-writing class, and it had meant nothing to me! And I had thought it was because I wasn’t Jewish. But even Ma, the Muslim Chinese, nodded when he heard “My First Goose.”

“Babel was like the father to me,” continued Wang. “I consider myself, Babel’s son.” Something in the air made me think that not all members of the audience had followed him in this logical step. “Therefore,” he continued, “Nathalie and Lidiya are my sisters. Today I was able to shake hands with Nathalie, Lidiya, and Pirozhkova. I feel that I touched Babel’s hand. I hope Babel is up there watching us right now.”

Then Delin Ma began to speak in Chinese, and Wang translated. “I had the foundations of my existence rocked by Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. His prose is so concise.”

Ma gave a little nod when Wang said, in English, “concise.”

“I especially like the relation between men and horses in the stories, because I am a horseman myself. I love to ride horses. I was cinematographer for more than twenty films. I was cinematographer for the film which is called the first Chinese Western. I have made films in all genres including action, war, and family. I am so grateful because here I met Babel scholars from all over the world and the universe. I saw so much passion! I can’t show you my film of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, because I haven’t made it yet. Instead I will show you some of my film, the first Chinese Western, called Swordsman of the Double-Flag Town. You will see horses galloping across the vast uninhabited West. Then you will see how I feel about horses, and maybe you will understand how I feel about Isaac Babel.”

Freidin brought out his laptop and Delin Ma put in a DVD. Nothing happened, apparently because it was a Chinese DVD. Finally an image appeared on the screen, but the sound didn’t work. Yellow dunes flashed by, a desert, the galloping legs of a horse, and a row of Chinese characters: “Swordsman of the Double-Flag Town!” cried Delin Ma, the first English words he had spoken at the conference, and he flung out one arm. But at just that moment the image disappeared, and the screen went blue.

After another five minutes, they coaxed the picture back: again the yellow dunes, again the horse’s legs pounding silently on the sand, again the Chinese characters. Again Ma cried, “Swordsman of the Double-Flag Town!” and this time the picture stayed on the screen. The camera zoomed out and now we could see the whole rider, hunched over his saddle, hurtling across the desert. Then, for some reason, the DVD went back to the beginning and replayed the same one-minute segment. We watched the sequence twice, three times, four times: the desert, the horse’s legs, the Chinese characters, and the rider. “Swordsman of the Double-Flag Town,” said Delin Ma, with a hint of satisfaction.

The swordsman had embraced eternal recurrence. He had achieved the hero’s fate.

We had watched it six times now. “Do you want it to stop?” asked Freidin finally, turning to the filmmakers.

“Stop, stop,” agreed Ma and Wang.

Freidin started hitting different buttons on the laptop. The sequence came to the end and started over again. “I don’t know how to make it stop,” he said, looking for a moment as if he were going to smash the computer, but in the end he managed to turn it off.

“Tianbing Wang, Delin Ma,” he said, looking up. “Thank you so much for coming. We all wish you great success.”


Later that night I met Jakov for drinks. Three years had passed since the biography class, and so many things had changed! Jakov now bought his cigarettes from Australia, instead of from the American Indians. I told him my story about the two Chinese, about Delin Ma being grateful to meet “scholars from all over the world . . . and the universe”: “I think I saw one of them at the afternoon panel,” said Jakov. “I saw one scholar, who was from the world, talking to another scholar, who was from elsewhere in the universe!”

Eventually Jakov asked how my Babel paper was going. This was one thing that had not changed in three years. I was still—am still—working on that paper. Like the story of the Chinese, it has changed many times. Most noticeably, it has gotten longer. I told Jakov about my latest theory, which involved Babel secretly modeling one of his stories on the biography of Cervantes, who had worked for seven years as a bookkeeper for the Spanish Armada.

“I’m convinced that it’s true,” I said. “He doesn’t actually mention Don Quijote in that particular story—but he mentions windmills. And in the companion story, which came out in the next issue of the journal, he meets a Spanish translator who has a 1642 edition of Don Quijote.”

Jakov listened to the whole story, about Cervantes’ clerkship and Babel’s windmills. “My fear when I listen to you,” he said when I had finished, “is that you remind me of this German critic.” The German in question, Leo Strauss, had written a commentary on Western philosophy in which he argued that all the really great philosophers had felt it necessary to encrypt their real ideas, to leave them unarticulated. So there was another Plato, a real Hobbes, a real Spinoza, all saying things that Plato and Hobbes and Spinoza never actually said—at least not outright. “A lot of the ideas he attributes to Spinoza are interesting—but if Spinoza really thought those things, why didn’t he say so?”

As I was considering this, we were joined by a slightly sheepish Fishkin, who was being walked over to us by Skywalker. “Elif!” said Skywalker. “Just the person we wanted to see.” Then to Fiskhin: “Isn’t that right, Fishkin?”

“Yes,” said Fishkin.

“You see, Elif, Fishkin has something to tell you.”

Fishkin took a deep breath. “Remember how I said yesterday that Zholkovsky gave me the finger?”

“Sure.”

“Well, actually it happened differently.” He stopped and looked at Skywalker.

“Go on,” said Skywalker.

“Actually,” said Fishkin, “I gave him the finger.”

“What?”

“Well I’m about to pull into a parking spot, and he comes speeding from the opposite direction and steals my spot. So, of course I give him the finger. Then he gives me the finger, and I see it’s Zholkovsky. Then, I drove away.”

“Ah, so the end of the story is still the same.”

“I meant to tell you the truth yesterday. But then when I said Zholkovsky gave me the finger, you seemed so angry, you were like ‘Oh my God, what a monster.’ So I was just . . .”


After Fishkin’s disclosure, I felt better and I felt worse. One mystery had been solved (the mystery of why someone would first steal Fishkin’s parking spot and then gratuitously give him the finger). On the other hand, I could no longer conclude that it was merely because he was a monster that Zholkovsky had disapproved of the analogy involving the flies in Gogol’s inkwell.

How easy it is for a story to take on a life of its own! How quick we are to collaborate in the distortion of human history! Fishkin had started to tell me a story about an event, and I had unwittingly caused him to tell a different story—and then only the arrival of Skywalker brought the Other Fishkin to light.


No one was more aware than Babel of the propensity of the story to escape its teller, especially when it comes to biography; we see this in “Guy de Maupassant,” a story about a young writer who gets a job translating Maupassant’s Complete Works (“twenty-nine petards crammed with pity, genius, and passion”!). The last scene shows the narrator reading from Maynial’s biography of Maupassant:

Having achieved fame, he cut his throat at the age of forty, bled profusely, but lived. They locked him in a madhouse. He crawled about on all fours and ate his own excrement. . . . He died at forty-two. His mother outlived him.

I read the book to the end and got up from my bed. The fog had come to the window, hiding the universe. My heart constricted. I was touched by a premonition of truth.

The really fascinating thing about Babel’s retelling of Maynial’s biography is that it isn’t true—as has been shown by none other than Zholkovsky (1994): “Neither Maynial nor any other biographer has Maupassant walking on all fours or eating his excrement.” Zholkovsky locates the image, rather, in Madame Bovary (a reference to Voltaire on his deathbed, “devouring his own excrement”) and Nana (Count Muffat crawls at Nana’s feet, thinking of saints who “eat their own excrement”). But Babel himself never mentions Flaubert or Zola—except to claim that Maupassant’s mother is Flaubert’s cousin—which isn’t true.


“Why didn’t Babel say so?” I don’t know, but he didn’t, and for every madman who insists upon the “Other Spinoza,” you will find ten sane people who insist upon the “Other Babel.” The writer whom Babel mentions the most frequently is Maupassant, and for this reason people claim Maupassant as his greatest influence. I do not think this is the case. Babel mentioned only obliquely the authors he had in mind. He hid his tracks. If only Babel had written that novel about the Cheka! If only some Skywalker would bring it down, from the “sky all in diamonds,” where Babel is watching his self-proclaimed Chinese sons! Of all of Babel’s contemporaries, only Fadeev was absolutely certain that Babel had written and completed the novel—that he had, furthermore, shown it to Stalin, who pronounced: “It’s good, but it can’t be published now—maybe in ten years.”

The pages either exist or they do not, but not knowing is maddening—quite literally maddening. If Babel had really written a novel about the Cheka—a novel about anything—he would be easier to understand.


Two NKVD mug shots of Babel were released after his “rehabilitation.” In the profile shot, Babel is looking into the distance, chin raised, with something of Lyutov’s pained resoluteness; face-on, his brow is furrowed and he seems to be looking only a short distance in front of him. He seems to be looking in the eye someone whom he knows to be on the verge of committing a terrible action.

Of these photographs, Reinhard Krumm has observed: “Both show the writer without his glasses and with one black eye, medically speaking a monocle haematoma, evidence of the violence used against him.” Even to a non-detective, the absence of glasses is somehow deeply appalling, violent. Babel was never photographed without his glasses. One of his most quoted lines, occurring at the end of an impassioned ode to a Finnish landscape, is: “I beg you, Alexander Fyodorovich, buy a pair of glasses!” Even in “My First Goose,” the real hook is when the divisional commander yells: “They send you over without asking—and here you’ll get killed just for wearing glasses! So, you think you can live with us?” (Yes, he can live with you! He will watch you with attention bordering on love itself, he will write everything down!)

Those glasses stand for Babel’s omnivorous vision, his relentless vigilance, the key to his genius. Reading Babel, you never get the feeling—as you do with many great authors—that he omitted part of his observations because they didn’t fit with the story he wanted to tell. For all their similarities, this is one key difference between Babel and Merian Cooper. Babel noticed Cooper, but Cooper didn’t notice Babel—in part, because Babel just wasn’t part of the story Cooper told himself. Cooper was in Poland to fight communism and have adventures. Fathoming the soul of a Bolshevik military attaché just wasn’t on the program.


In a 1936 article in Literaturnaia Gazeta, Babel discusses his genesis as a writer. Early in his career, he explains, he believed that the events of his time were so surprising, that all he had to do was write them down—“they would speak for themselves.” But this form of documentary literature failed; it came out “uninteresting.” Babel realized then that “a book is the world seen through a person”: “in my work there had been no person. The person had escaped himself.”

“The person had escaped himself.” What if Babel wrote his amazing enormous list, the list of everything he saw, the list with no plot and no account—and “the person” simply escaped, leaving a two-volume absence—the most suggestive absence in the world—into which the most varied people have plunged headlong?

In the 1990s, the KGB made public one of the most recent documents to emerge from the Babel archive: an inventory list of materials confiscated from Babel upon his arrest. It is the most affecting and pointless list:

Binoculars—2 pr.
Foreign newspapers—4.
Schematic map of the motor transport network—1 it.
Toothpaste—1 it.
Duck for the bath.
Soapdish—1.

These materials were to be held for three months before being surrendered to the state as “revenue.” For three months, Babel’s rubber duck sat in the Lubyanka, and “the devil knows,” as Gogol would say, where it went next.

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