Babel, Isaac: Odessa Stories

So were gathered together our group, perhaps with “spectacles on their nose, and autumn in their hearts’, as Jewish intellectuals were characterized by Isaac Babel in his book of short stories. These were written mostly in the 1920s and the edition we had in front of us was translated by Boris Dralyuk, known professionally by the proposer. His translation was generally considered superior to previous attempts. Indeed, the proposer substantiated this view by reading comparative packages from the earlier translation by Macduff. The earlier version seemed too literal, missing the feel of the original Russian in the proposer’s opinion. In particular, the audience noticed the superior dialogue which gave a much better rendering of the Jewish vernacular.  

We had a sustained discussion of the validity of the American colloquialisms to reinforce the texture and nuances of the plot. “All right. You got words. Spill” (Benja Krik in the King). “The chief, he got all the cops together …” and so on. On balance, the jury was split, with the majority perhaps favouring the transposition to low-life American. (See comments on Runyan below.)

Having visited the city as a tourist fairly recently, the proposer also wondered that the author and translator had been very successful in capturing the ‘tone’ of early 20th century life in Odessa. Arguably, port cities have a particular culture, maybe due to a strong itinerant population. Sometimes, there is a sense of lawlessness as in these stories. Think of Marseille as depicted in “The French Connection”. This book is centred on the Jews and their ability to rule the city through a gangster culture, portrayed in Odessa with a distinct mentality. Before WW2 it was permissible to depict the Jews as violent gangsters capable of random violence.

Babel was regarded as one of the most important authors in post-revolution Russian literature. He was brought up in Jewish community, and was interested in the art of the short story. Particular cited influences included Kipling, and Maupassant, as serenaded in the sketch of Odessa near the end of the book. He is the intellectual perhaps personified in the schoolboy. Although written in the first person, they are only semi-autobiographical and he has moved the elements about to make it work.

With a background in journalism, these could perhaps be considered as sketches rather than stories, and the parallel with Dickens’ observations of London life were noted. Babel fought in the Red Cavalry, and had an ambition to be a Soviet writer, but it is clear that his subject matter, sometimes satirical, did not endear him to the authorities.

The book was open to general discussion. All concurred with the quality of the dialogue, and loved some of the descriptive text, for example the descriptions of the sky, of the sun (“!a piece of jam”, “a decapitated head”). In Odessa he talks of the need for the sun, and of Gorky’s love of the sun, whereas people in Nizhny Novgorod etc. are flabby, heavy … incomprehensible, touching and immensely, stupefyingly annoying.

The characters were well drawn, with a real feeling of underclass. The similarities with Damon Runyan were noted by several readers, but I fear the MBG were not the first to observe this! However, Runyon could be considered a comic writer, Babel less so although “The End of the Almshouse” in particular is darkly comic. At least one of us dug out his copy of ‘Runyon on Broadway’ and tried to make a direct comparison. In general, he felt that the stories were also less well plotted than Runyon, and is some cases the motives and outcomes were not clear, for example in the killing of Froim the Rook after conflict with the Cheka or secret police.  On the contrary some said, this encapsulated the random nature of the Odessan violence. Another point of difference from Runyan was the greater emphasis on casual, random violence, as in the instance above when Froim is killed for no strong, apparent motive.

Strong socio-economic clashes were brought out so well in Babel’s text, again notably in the story of the Almshouse. “We’ve crushed the Tsars.. no more Tsars, no-one gets a coffin”. Alas, someone does get the coffin. And so the Department of Communal Economy reorganizes the cemetery and organizes their attack against the Burial Brotherhood who made a few coins by use of their coffin for hire.

A comment was made on ethnic characteristics, always a bit risky these days. He drew the co-occurrence between the many red-headed characters that were Jews and Scots. For example, Babel refers memorably to the “bosun, a pillar of red meat, overgrown with red hair”.

We further complimented the descriptive prose; the book’s strengths lay not only in the dialogue. For example, “their journey took them down a joyless, scorched, rocky road, past mud-brick shanties, past fields smothered by stones past houses gutted by shells, and past the plague mound” or “the whistle of asthma, the wheeze of submission escaped from the chests of retired cantors, wedding jesters, circumcision cooks and spent sales clerks”. This is powerful stuff!

Oh well. Having concentrated to a greater degree than is perhaps usual on the book in hand, without too much digression on historical inaccuracies or perverse analogies, it was left to X to introduce a note of trivia. Did we know that Efrem Zimbalist Senior, the Russian violinist mentioned in “The Awakening”, was the proud father of Efrem Zimbalist Junior who appeared in 77 Sunset Strip. No we did not! Subsequent browsing suggested that Junior was even held up as a role model for real FBI employees. Hmm, and you’ll be telling me next the actor who almost got the part of  Rick in Casablanca (played by Bogart) became President of the United States. Then you’ll be telling me that a reality TV …. (Leave it there! Ed.)

Finally, there was a discussion on women’s’ versus men’s’ versus mixed book groups. I don’t recall all the main issues but I do know we did a straw poll on how many male and female authors we have read. If you want to know the answer, it is easy. Just look at our index of authors.

We had now left the text completely. We realized it was time to home.