Babel in California
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.”