Babel in California

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

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.”

More from Issue 2

Issue 2 Happiness

Novelists said again and again they would never represent happiness.

Issue 2 Happiness

The two grand abdications: one occurred in academic philosophy departments, the other in American fiction.

Issue 2 Happiness

A reading is like a bedside visit. The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair.

Issue 2 Happiness

As soon as you hear, “We’re all writers here, what’s to disagree about?” you know we’re sunk, intellectually.

Issue 2 Happiness

I am depressed. Things are worse here than I thought. It’s a mess and what’s more it’s a provincial mess.

Issue 2 Happiness
Among the Believers
Issue 2 Happiness

A curse is a formula that becomes a doom. The two-party system is the curse of American political life.

Issue 2 Happiness
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Issue 2 Happiness

In this gentle and permissive way we were enjoined to get high on pot and take up oral sex, but not do any favors for Philip Morris.

Issue 2 Happiness
Trends in Network Television Comedy
Issue 2 Happiness
The Reaper
Issue 2 Happiness
The Vice President’s Daughter
Issue 2 Happiness
The Concept of Experience
Issue 2 Happiness
Three Poems
Issue 2 Happiness

Diana slides out of bed naked, feeling as if she has learned something about Coetzee in her sleep.

Issue 2 Happiness
At the 2003 International Security Conference
Issue 2 Happiness

Hitchens might want to insist, contrarily, that although he has changed his allies, he has not changed his opinions.

Issue 2 Happiness

For people stunned by the Seattle demonstrations, Klein’s book was a field guide; for people inspired by them, it was a bible.

Issue 2 Happiness

What a strange book Philip Roth has written.

Issue 2 Happiness

A German friend asked me if graphic novels were erotic. I said, “No, they’re neurotic.”

Issue 2 Happiness

The growing influence of the Italian philosopher’s work seems in many respects to depend on his remarkable sense of taste.

Issue 2 Happiness

Keith Gessen replies: The genital flag?

More by this Author

Issue 3 Reality Principle
Issue 7 Correction

Go to Uzbekistan now . . . or you will never get departmental funding ever again?

Issue 9 Bad Money
Summer in Samarkand, Part II
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Short Story & Novel