Isaac Babel

Posted: January 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

The Odessa Stories (1923)

Review by Alex Wertheim

Babel, I., Nathalie Babel, and Peter Constantine. The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. Print.

Imagine a world of greed and excess, retribution and passion, and careless death; a world with feasts, lavish funerals and weddings, and staggering poverty all enveloped together. Fill this world with turmoil, fire, and Jewish gangsters, with both whimsical matchmaking and cold-blooded business.
If you are intrigued, then you are fortunate, as this world has already been constructed for you in Isaac Babel’s “The Odessa Stories.” Babel’s stories are vivid and range in topic, but all fall under the common setting of Moldavanka, Odessa, a sea port bustling with the business of Jewish gangsters in a time when Russian Jews were persecuted under the oppressive fist of the czar. Odessa is no Eden, and this is well reflected by Babel’s language; Babel’s stories are neither beautiful nor elegant, unlike the sophisticated prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but are told with a gritty realism that proves just as captivating. Babel’s characters speak without fluff or superfluity, but with spark, sincerity, and humor. Furthermore, his characters are not lovable, nor are they admirable, but they are compelling and full of life. Benya “The King” Krik, for instance, a mob boss who is pivotal in multiple stories, is intriguing not because he is a good or kind man. It is because he is passionate and charming, and, as old Froim Grach says in “How Things Were Done in Odessa”, “talks little, but talks with zest… talks little, but you want that he’ll say more.” (Babel, p. 147)
Babel has much more in common with the storytellers described in Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” than with the modern novelist; his stories are brief, but leave you begging for more. This is very much influenced by the fact that Babel’s characters are storytellers themselves; the old Reb Arye-Lieb is merely one of several, who recounts Benya’s rise to power in his chaotic raid on “Yid-and-a-Half”, Odessa’s richest man. We are left wishing to know what becomes of the “slippery old con” (Babel, p. 157) Zudechkis, who obtains modest power and wealth by cleverly relieving the mighty Lyubka (the Cossack) of the trouble of feeding her demanding baby Davidka. We are compelled to discover what becomes of Benya Krik (even though his death is revealed to us by Reb Arye-Leib) after the King’s unfortunate encounter with the Odessa police. We ache to learn what becomes of the vigorous Basya, Froim Grach’s daughter, who cannot find a man to marry because of her father’s sordid reputation, and to ascertain what causes her planned marriage to Benya to fall through.
If you’re looking for happy endings or heroes, you would be well advised to avoid Babel’s “Odessa Stories”; but if you want a captivating glimpse into a darker side of life, full of charisma, despair, wit and poignancy, Babel’s works do not disappoint.

Context Report by Paula Rambarat:
Isaac Babel and the Odessa Stories

Isaak Immanuilovich Babel (1894-1940) is widely recognized today as a leading twentieth century Soviet short story writer. His stories deal with a variety of themes ranging from war to the cheerful and exotic Odessa tales. By the 1920s, Babel had achieved considerable literary fame and was considered by many as an innovator and productive figure on the Soviet cultural scene. During the Stalinist purges of 1939 Babel was arrested and taken to prison in Moscow where he was charged, falsely, of espionage. His works were confiscated and destroyed, and eight months later, he was executed. Since his political rehabilitation in 1954, Babel and his works have aroused much attention from many literary scholars in Russia and around the world.
Babel was born in Odessa in the Moldavanka district to a Jewish shopkeeper, however, his family soon moved to the nearby town of Nikolayev. He attended the Nicholas I Commercial School of Odessa where he studied a great many subjects. After graduation in 1911, Babel went to Kiev and then to Petersburg in 1915 where he started taking his works to editing offices. Many of the editors didn’t care for his work, until he met Alexei Maximovich (Gorky) who published his first stories in the 1916 edition of Létopis. Babel’s gratitude toward his mentor and editor Gorky is apparent in his autobiography, “I owe everything to this meeting, and to this day I speak the name of Alexei Maximovich with love and reverence.” From 1917-1924 Babel was out in the world where he was a soldier on the Rumanian front, and then in the 1918 expeditions for provisions in the Northern Army against Yudenich. In 1920, during the Civil War, he joined the army again and was assigned to Budyonny’s cavalry. Babel became severely ill and moved back to Odessa where he was production supervisor in the Seventh Soviet Publishing House and then later a reporter in Petersburg and Tiflis. The next period of his life was by far the most productive; by 1924, the two works for which he is most acclaimed, the Odessa Tales and the Red Cavalry stories, were drafted or completed and appeared in Moscow and Odessa periodicals. Babel became an overnight sensation and many received his work as a harbinger of the new Soviet Literature, a literature that was born amid war and revolution.
The Odessa tales take place in Moldavanka, the same district that Babel was born in, and even though he was only an inhabitant of Odessa for about five years in his childhood, Babel considered Odessa his hometown. Since it was founded in 1794, Odessa was a diverse and multicultural city, probably because of its privileged location on the Black Sea. An international seaport, Odessa was a crossroad where many commercial routes intersected, and was seen as an islet of freedom by many Jews. In fact, at the time of Babel’s birth, Jews were one third of the population in Odessa and by 1917, they represented one half of the population. Many literary critics have speculated as to the importance of the Odessa tales to Babel. The Odessa described by Babel in the tales had changed in the 1920s when he was writing the stories, so some critics believe that writing was an outlet for Babel: only through writing about the old Odessa could he go on to accept the new Odessa. For others, the notorious Benya Krik and his world represent a branch of Jewish culture that pursues survival through rebellion and humor as opposed to acceptance, two conflicting attitudes that were present in Babel. A majority of Babel’s works are autobiographical, as Babel himself suggested quite interestingly, “A well thought story does not have to resemble real life, life itself tries hard enough to resemble a well-thought story.” It bears noting that the historical setting of many stories is also blurred, which gives the stories a curious quality of timelessness.



Isaac Babel Website at Stanford

Essays on Babel:

Nathalie Babel, “‘No Time to Finish’: Notes on Isaac Babel”, in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Summer, 1964), p. 514-532.
Cynthia Ozick, “Introduction”, The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, ed. Nathalie Babel, New York and London: Norton, 2002, p. 11-17.
Charles Rougle, “Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel (30 June 1894-27 January 1940)”, in Christine Rydel (ed.),

Russian Prose Writers Between the World Wars, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 272, Detroit: Gale, 2003, p. 3-22.

“Isaac Babel”, in Short Story Criticism, Ed. David Siegel, Vol. 16, Detroit: Gale Research, 1994, p. 1-61.

Boris Briker, “The Underworld of Benia Krik and I. Babel’s Odessa Stories“, Canadian Slavonic Papers 36.1-2 (March-June 1994), p. 115-134.

Milton Ehre, Isaac Babel, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986 (chapter 4: Odessa Tales).


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