Friday, March 9, 2018



When I was living in Russia for a year (1999-2000), teaching on a Fulbright Scholar Grant in the city of Great Novgorod, I traveled all around the country, giving lectures, in Russian, on the writer Ivan Bunin, whose stories I had translated into English. Once, while appearing at St. Petersburg University, I was asked what it was like lecturing in a language that was not one’s native language. I said that when I lectured in English, it was like swimming in broad, smooth strokes through the water. In Russian it was the same, except that it was like swimming with a brick in one hand.

Translators of literary works, when translating fiction heavily imbued with illiterate language, face a no-win situation. You can (1) try to get the underclass language by using underclass locutions in the target language. Which doesn’t work, or works only imperfectly, because if, say, you use the illiterate language of the American South your Russian peasants or workers sound, incongruously, like American underclass Southerners. Or you can (2) translate the illiteracies into something that more resembles literary speech in the target language. Which doesn’t work, or works only imperfectly, because any reader knows that Russian peasants or workers do not speak in a literate way.

I know of at least five translators of Isaac Babel’s “Sin of Jesus” into English. All of them do a commendable job, and reading the story in their variants is still worth your while. But all of them, nonetheless, are swimming with that brick in one hand. Now I have found a way to put down the brick and swim without it. As far as I know, no one has ever done this before, at least not with Babel’s “Sin of Jesus.”

I have translated the tale into Southern American English, but in so doing I have also translated the locales and the characters. The story is the same, but everybody is in Georgia, and, consequently, everybody speaks like people in Waycross or Bainbridge. What do I gain by doing this? I gain reams and reams of literary effect. The brick is gone, and we now have the full-throated expression of the illiterate language of the original.

Furthermore—in response to Babel’s use of Old Church Slavonic, high-style words—I have used King James English in my translation. Certain changes have been made. For example, when Babel gives us a nature description, describing fir trees in the North of Russia, I write a similar description, but using pine trees and palmettos in Georgia. When Babel has his main character buying her angel fancy duds from the milieu of 1922 Russia, I have my (still his, though, actually) main character shopping at the Magnolia Mall.  

The story remains essentially the same. The same orchestration of voices, the same underclass, half-crazed narrator, the same shocking blasphemy and obscenity, the same typically Babelian irony. But the brick is gone. Other translators may wish to try the same thing. Say, you live in Brooklyn: translate the action of the story and the characters to Brooklyn; tell the thing in Brooklyneez. Say, you live in the North of England: translate, by goom, the thing into some-utt like what coomes out of the mouths, luv, of the skels of the moors and dales. Following the same logic, we could take Babel’s story all over the English-speaking world (Australia, New Zealand, etc.). We could publish a whole book full of translations into English. Titled Sins of Jesus.


Isaac Babel
Иисусов грех” (“The Sin of Jesus”) written in 1922
(translated into Southern American English, with Southern American Characters and Locales, by U.R. Bowie)

The Sin of Jesus

Juanita Blitch, she was a chambermaid, working in the Nathan Bedford Forrest Hotel, Waycross, Georgia. Yet one more associate at that there establishment was the handyman, Herschel Jones. And between them two there was shame. On Palm Sunday Juanita didst bear Herschel a pair of twins. Water floweth, stars shineth, man ruts. Juanita, then, she once more come to be in the family way, her sixth month was rolling on—them months of a woman, they sure do roll. Now, Herschel, just then he gets hisself drafted. What a sorry rigamarole.  
Juanita, she ups and declares, “Waiting for you, Herschel Jones, don’t make no sense. We’ll be apart, like, four years, and in them four years I’ll bring, like, three more into this world. Making up rooms, why, that’s like going around with no drawers on. Whoever passes by, he’s got to have him some, be he a nobody, be he even a Jew. You get back from the army and my innards, they’ll be plumb wore out; I’ll be a wasted woman, no match for such as you.”
“Ain’t it the truth,” opined Herschel, nodding.
“Now, there is them such as would take me for wife. The contractor Lyman Fesmire, say, but he’s a lowlife piece of work. Or, say, old man Melvin Blackwelder, deacon at the First Baptist, a grungy little twerp, not got much juice in him—but then, your strong juices, Herschel, they done sapped my soul clean dry. I tell you the God’s truth, I’m beat down and bushed. Some three months on from now I’ll spill my load, I’ll put up the spawn for adoption, and then I’ll bestow my hand upon Melvin.”
When Herschel heard that he took his belt off and went at Juanita, popping her about the midsection real hero-like.  
“Hold on, now, you,” says the woman. “Go easy on that belly there; it’s your stuffings inside, not nobody else’s.”
And so didst come the thing of the beating and thrashing, and so didst flow the tears of man, and didst flow the blood of woman, but, in the end, it all don’t amount to nocount of nothing. That’s when the woman, she cometh unto the Lord Jesus Christ and she doth saith, “This and that and the other, Lord Jesus. I am the woman Juanita Blitch, chambermaid at the Nathan Bedford. You know? Down on Martin Luther King Boulevard? Well, making up rooms, that’s like going around with no drawers on. Whoever passes by, he’s got to have him some, be he a nobody, be he even a Jew. Now, trekking this God’s green earth of yours is the handyman, thy servant Herschel Jones. Just this past year, on Palm Sunday, I gave birth to twins of his.”
And Juanita proceeded to lay it all out for the Lord.
“So what if it was to be that Herschel don’t go in the army after all?” saith the Savior, putting on airs.
“Naw. They’ll come drag him away, the draft board.”
The Savior hung his head. “Oh, yeah, the draft board. I done forgot about them folks . . . but listen: maybe thou couldst live not in sin for a spell. Like, chaste.”
“For four years?” answered the woman. “To hear You tell it folks has all got to de-animalise theirselves; that’s the same old way-back-when story from you. But where is, then, the go ye out forth and multiply to come from? Try talking some sense, Lord.”
At this point a blush did burgeoneth upon the cheeks of the Lord, for the woman had touched a right sore spot, but the Savior held his peace. Ain’t no way you kiss your own ear, and even God knew that.
“Tell you what, now, God’s faithful servant, illustrious sinner, the maiden Juanita,” proclaimeth then the Lord in all His glory. “There’s this here little angel, a-twiddling his pinkies up in my Heaven, name of Alfred. He’s done got out of hand, whining and weeping all the time: ‘How come, Lord, thou taketh me, and I ain’t but nineteen, and made a angel out of me, and me still full of piss and vinegar, how come?’ So what I reckon we’ll do is we’ll give unto thee, God’s servitor, this here angel Alfred to be your husband for four years. He shalt be thy prayer, he shalt be thy succor, and he shalt be thy pretty-boy love. And won’t be no giving birth to young’uns out of him, not even a duckling, cause he’s got spunk aplenty in him, but not one drop of earnest.”
“That’s just what I need,” implored the maiden Juanita. “On account of that menfolks’es earnest, me, I nearabout croak three times every two years.”
“Thou willst have sweet solace, child of God Juanita; thou willst have the lightest of prayers, soft as a song. Amen.”
So it was decided. They brought in Alfred. A scrawny fellow he was, delicate; behind his sky-blue shoulders he’s got two wings all a-quaver, lambent with a rosy glow, like doves aflutter on high. Juanita grabbed him in her big bear’s paws; she’s sobbing with tenderness, womanly gush.
“Sweet wittle Alfie, my consolation, betrothéd unto me art thou.”
The Lord then, however, admonisheth her, that prior, like, to going to bed, you gots to take the angel wings off. Which, them wings, is on hinges, sort of like on a door, so you gots to take them off and like wrap them up in a clean sheet for the, like, night. On account of any sort of turns and tosses, and a wing can get broke, for them wings is made of pure sighs of babes, and not nothing else.
The Lord had one last go at blessing this sacred union. For the occasion He summons up a mixed choir of Holy Rollers, Primitive Baptists and Pentecostals, and, them folks, I mean they didst fulminate out their song. Weren’t no refreshments, of course, not a drop or morsel, that ain’t allowed up here, and then Juanita and Alfred, all wrapped up in each other’s arms, they run down a, like, silken ladder to the earth down below.
They strolled MLK Boulevard, then dropped in at the Magnolia Mall; that there was the woman’s bright idea. For you see Alfred, not only was he lacking in britches, but he was in a total buck nekkid state. So she bought him designer jeans from Gap, all checks and polka dots, and a neato new blue sweater from Tommy Hilfilinger, and even a Nike Air max prime running shoe, white as heavenly respiration, costing woo-ey God knows how much!
“As for the rest, little buddy of mine,” she says, “we can find what we need at home.”
Juanita didn’t make up no beds that day; she begged off work. Herschel, he dropped by to stir up a ruckus, but she never even come out. She says from behind the door, “Herschel Hezekiah Jones, I am at present a-bathing my feet, and I’d thank you kindly to go on about your bidness, and not raise no more cain.”
The scoundrel didn’t say a word to that, just made himself scarce. That there was already the power of the angel kicking in.
Juanita, she fixed supper, and she put on a feast for kings, dang, that woman, she had a devilish pride inside her. A fifth of Jack Daniels on the table, Mogen David wine, and then come collards, black-eyed peas, Southern fried chicken, green beans boiled to total limpness, corn bread, mashed taters and rutabagas, Vidalia onions, cheese grits and chitlins, I mean to tell you. Alfred, not no sooner did he partake of them earthly delights than he just plumb conked out. Quick as a flash Juanita unhooked his winglets, packed them away, and bore him off to bed.
So there he lays, that white-as-snow marvel, on her eiderdown quilt, on her crappy much-sinned-upon bed, wafting a celestial glow, and pillars of lunar light, blended in with red, went flicking about the room, swaying on radiant legs. And Juanita didst weep and rejoice, didst sing and pray. Beneficence unheard-of on this battered ole earth hast fallen to thy lot, Juanita; blessed art thou among women!
The two of them had polished off the fifth of Jack. And you could tell they had. No sooner they was asleep then she ups and rolls that belly—lit up red hot and six months gone with Herschel’s seed—she plops that thing on Alfred. No, it ain’t enough for her to have a angel to sleep with, it ain’t enough that nobody laying next to her don’t spit on the wall, don’t snore and drool; all that ain’t enough for this febrile ravening wench. No, she’s got to warm, as well, her gravid guts, all swelled up and burning. And she smothered him, the angel of God, all drunked up she was, joyfully befuddled, she overlaid him like a week-old babe, crushed him under her weight, and demisement come unto Alfred, and from the wings, wrapped up in that sheet, pallid tears didst drip.  
Then came the dawn and the trees bowed down to the pastures and palmettos. In the evergreen forests of Georgia each and every pine tree became a parson; each pine bent its knees and knelt.
Once more the woman, hefty, broad in the shoulders stood before the throne of the Messiah, and in her ruddy-red arms lay a young corpse.
“Behold, Lord.”
That’s when the gentle heart of Jesus could take no more, and He didst most vehemently chastise the woman.
“As it beest on earth, Juanita Blitch, so shall it be with thee.”
“What do you mean, Lord?” replieth the woman in a whisper of a voice. “Was it me made this here heavy body of mine? Was it me brewed Tennessee whiskey? Was it me dreamed up this lonesome, all-on-its-ownsome, stupid womanly soul?”
“I do not wish to have no more truck with you,” exclaimed the Lord Jesus. “You done smothered my angel, you foul slut.”
And in a purulent wind Juanita was blown off back to earth, down to MLK, to the rooms of the Nathan Bedford Forrest and her just deserts. When she got there things was like, whoo, Katy, bar the door. Herschel was kicking up one last drunken spree, before they took him in the army. The contractor Lyman Fesmire, just back from a trip to Bainbridge, he seen Juanita, all spiffy she was and red in the cheeks.
“Oho, you little swellied-up belly,” says he, and more sorts of stuff like that.
Old man Melvin Blackwelder, he heard about that cute swelly-belly, so he comes around wheezing out through his nostrils.
“Being as all that has transpired,” says he, “I cannot enter into holy matrimonial, but, by that there same token, I can sure enough still lay with you.”
Melvin, now, he belonged to be laying in damp mother earth, instead of getting ideas, but then, he, too, must have him a spit into her soul. Then it were as if the whole bunch of them had slipped their chains: dishwasher boys in the kitchen, travelling salesmen, even furriners. A bidnessman, he needs his fun.
And here’s how the parable ends.  
Just before giving birth, being as three months of time had done clicked by, Juanita went out behind the hotel, next to the Dempsey dumpsters, raised her hideous abdomen to the silken skies, and blurted out stuff and nonsense.
“Yea, lo, take a gander, Lord; this here is a belly. They pound at it like conk peas falling in a pot. And what’s it all about, no way I’ll ever know. Anyways, again, Lord, it don’t much please me, this here.”
In reply Jesus laved Juanita in His tears; the Savior got down on His knees.
“Forgive me, my precious Juanita, forgive thy sinful God, for what I hast done to thee.”

And Juanita answereth unto Him, saying: “No forgiveness you ain’t getting from me, Lord Jesus Christ. Nope. Not none.”



Orchestration of Voices

Babel’s fiction owes a lot to Nikolai Gogol. While writing his unique works of fiction, the great Gogol stood at a lectern, alone, ventriloquizing. He would amble about the room, talking to himself, doing the voices of the different characters. Gogol often writes not exactly a narrative, but an orchestration of voices. The best example of this is his “Overcoat”—probably the most famous story in all of Russian literature—featuring, as so often in Gogol, a rather underclass, seemingly half-crazy narrator who  orchestrates the voices as he tells the tale.

All different characters come to life in the voices, and the narrator himself becomes a background character in the story. Funny, ironic effects are created by blending all different stylistic features: illiterate words with highly literary words, with Ukrainianisms with words from the lexicon of the Orthodox church.

Such writing cries out to be read aloud and lends itself to public performance. Gogol was an actor and a master at performing his works in public readings. He was so proficient at reading in public that he often had his audiences in stitches, rolling on the floor and holding their sides with laughter. Those who heard him read from his play, The Inspector General—still the best play in all of Russian literature—remarked that no actor on stage could hope to perform his role as successfully as Gogol did in public readings.

Babel’s Story “The Sin of Jesus”

Those not familiar with Isaac Babel’s writings may be shocked at the blasphemy in this story, as well as the attitude toward women (and men too, for that matter). Keep in mind that Babel, like Kafka, was a subversive writer, the kind of writer who wanted his fiction to be a blow to the head of his reader. 

It is also worthy of note that this story was written in 1922, at the dawning of the new Soviet Union, an atheistic state. Before the Russian Revolution Babel had once been sued for obscenity for one of his published stories. Only five years earlier, in 1917, “The Sin of Jesus” could never have been published, if not for its obscenity (and it is often obscene), then surely for the way it depicts Jesus Christ.

“The Sin of Jesus” is a highly Gogolian story, notable for its orchestration of voices. The narrator, apparently underclass and rather ignorant, is a background character. The basic trope involves having everyone, the narrator, even Jesus Christ, speaking the language of the Russian underclass. Blended in with the illiterate speech are other levels of style, sometimes highly literary. Old Church Slavonic words—OCS is the language of the Russian Orthodox liturgy—show up side by side with peasant vulgarities. Occasionally, the narrator throws in highly lyrical descriptions of nature. Taken as a whole, this mélange of voices makes for a bizarre, often funny, very ironical effect. Despite its complexity, the story is also oddly moving, especially at the end, when Jesus begs forgiveness of an underclass women, and does not receive it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018



Babel was among the most renowned of Soviet writers to be purged in the Stalinist terror. He was arrested on May 15, 1939 and shot on January 27, 1940. What went on in the interval between those dates is not pleasant to contemplate. Babel was forced to write denunciations of his writer friends, accusing them of all sorts of outlandish crimes. He was forced to plead guilty to spying for foreign powers.

Babel spent the last eight months of his life at Lubyanka Prison, and, apparently, part of the time at another notorious jail, Butyrki. As far as I know, there is no documentation of what, exactly, was done to him there, but we can read the testimony of others who survived and told their gruesome tales. 

Or, for example, we have letters of the avant-garde Soviet theater director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose imprisonment overlapped Babel’s at Lubyanka and who was shot on February 2, 1940. Meyerhold and Babel apparently were both interrogated by, among others, a man named Schwartzman. Meyerhold describes in detail how he was tortured.

As for the shooting, the official tale is that when they finally got through tormenting and humiliating Babel, they held a trial in Beria’s quarters, pronounced him guilty of spying, and then executed him by firing squad in the early morning hours.

Who knows exactly how they killed Babel, but the reality of most Soviet executions was different. The usual thing was for your jailer to do the deed—the same man who had been escorting you back and forth from interrogations, and who softened you up by beating you, knocking out your teeth, depriving you of sleep. The death sentence was concealed from the prisoner. He would be walking down the corridor, as if on the way to one more interrogation, and his jailer would kill him with a pistol shot to the back of the head.

Knowing what happened to Isaac Babel at the end of his life, you can look back—at both his life and his fictional works—and you find eerie forshadowings of what was to come.

When giving writerly advice to young Dolya, a neighbor kid in Odessa who wanted to be a writer, young Babel said in passing, “in war it’s better to be killed than to be listed as missing in action (literally: disappeared without a trace)” (reminiscences of Sergei Bondarin). After Babel was arrested he disappeared without a trace. For years no one knew if he was dead or alive. There were rumors, some of them apparently propagated by the secret police, that Babel was still alive, serving a sentence in the Gulag. His wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, was finally informed of the date of his death only in 1954.

At a public reading in Odessa in the 1930s Babel begins with a joke: “I can already foresee what exactly will do me in. My nasty character. That’s what will crash my boat on the reefs” (reminiscences of Sergei Bondarin).

“He loved to hide away, without telling anyone where he was; his days resembled the comings and goings of a mole. In 1936 I wrote this about Isaak Emmanuilovich: 

‘His personal destiny resembles one of the books he has written; he himself cannot untangle the complexities. Once he was on his way to see me. His little daughter asked, “Where are you going?” He felt obliged to answer; after that he changed his mind and didn’t come to see me…

In fleeing from predators, an octopus expels a cloud of ink; all the same they catch him and eat him. A favorite dish among Spaniards is “octopus in its own ink.”’ I wrote this in Paris at the very beginning of 1936, and I’m in awe when rewriting those lines now. Could I have imagined how they would sound several years later?” (reminiscences of Ilya Erenburg) [To be precise, only four years after these words were written the Soviet secret police hunted down Babel, caught him, and soon devoured him in his own ink.]

When he got to Lubyanka in 1939 Babel probably came across familiar faces among the jailers. These were most likely the same kind of people he had encountered in the Red Cavalry: single-minded, uneducated, thoughtlessly cruel and unmerciful. It must have occurred to him, as well, that he was face to face with his own literary personages. 

Babel had always “wanted to know everything,” and now, in the final days of his life, he was given to experience things that—even had he lived—he may not have had the fortitude to describe in fictional art.

He may well have experienced what his character, the landowner Nikitinsky experienced at the end of his life—in “The Life Story of Pavlichenko, Matvei,” the tale of a former serf who becomes a Red General and returns to wreak his vengeance on his former master. Here is the ending of that story:

“You got the soul of a jackal,” he [Nikitinsky] says, and he’s give up trying to get free. “I treat you like I was talking to a officer of the Russian Empire,” he says, “and you smuthound guttersnipes, you all sucked the teats of a she-wolf. Shoot me, then, you son of a bitch.”

But I wasn’t about to shoot him, wasn’t no way I owed him a shooting. I just dragged him back upstairs to the parlor. Up there was his wife, lady Nadezhda, setting there plain out of her gourd, and she’s got the bare-blade of a saber in her hands, sashaying around the room and watching herself in the mirror. 

And when I dragged Nikitinsky in there, she run off to have a seat in a armchair, she’s got a velvet crown with feathers sprucing up her head, and she sets there in that chair all pert and presents arms to me with her saber.

Then I commenced to tromping on my master Nikitinsky. I tromped him for a hour, maybe even more, and during that time I come to know what life was all about. Shooting, now—I’ll be honest with you—shooting’s just a way to get shed of a fellow. Like granting him a pardon, and for yourself it’s just a lousy too easy thing to do. With shooting you don’t get down to the soul, to where it’s at inside a fellow and how it makes itself shown. But me now, there’s times when I don’t take no pity on myself, I been known to tromp on the enemy for a hour, even more, cause I have this desire to learn about life, what our life on earth amounts to. . .

You can’t help cringing as you imagine Babel in the hands of his tormentors, who are trying to get deep down in his soul, where they can extract confessions to anything they dream up. The ironies pile up late in the life of the great ironic writer. In prison the blocked Babel, who had published practically nothing in years, was forced to write once again. And write a very crude kind of fiction: denunciations he knew to be falsehoods and confessions to spying (more falsehoods). The man who wanted to know everything, to experience everything spent the last eight months of his life experiencing the utterly unspeakable.

On Sept. 11, 1939, four months into his incarceration, he sent a letter to Beria, the head of the secret police. This is the kind of letter a writer sends at the end of his rope, a letter steeped in the kind of fiction that they beat out of you.

“The Revolution opened the path of creation for me, the path of useful and happy labor. My individualism, false literary opinions, and the Trotskyite influences I fell under from the earliest days of my work turned me away from this path. With each passing year my writings became a bit more useless and hostile to Soviet readers. But I thought I was right, and they were wrong. This lethal separation dried up the very source of my creativity. My attempts to free myself from the hold of that blind and egotistical narrow-mindedness proved pitiful and vain. My liberation came while I was in prison. During these months of incarceration, I have perhaps understood more things than in my entire previous life. I’ve seen with horrible clarity the mistakes and crimes I’ve committed” (David Remnick article in NYRB, Apr. 10, 1997, p. 33). 

The passage that I have italicized at the end demonstrates, perhaps, one glimmer of truth that shines through the rest of the total fabrication. He certainly must have learned and understood some things in those last months. And “My liberation came while I was in prison.” True. It came in January, 1940, with that bullet to the back of the head.

Monday, February 26, 2018



This is, first of all, assuming that there was logic in the years of the Stalinist terror, or that it really mattered who they arrested, exiled to labor camps, or murdered. As long as the quota was met. But some writers were arrested and killed, others not. Babel, it appears, was a firm supporter of the Revolution and the Soviet system, but that did not really matter. There are, however, several reasons for his peculiar susceptibility. Here are some of them.

Even though Jews were instrumental in making the Socialist Revolution in Russia, being a Jew at a time when scapegoats are sought is never an advantage.

Babel openly cultivated relationships with foreigners. For years his roommate in Moscow was Bruno Steiner, an Austrian engineer. Another friend was the French writer Andre Malraux. Furthermore, Babel’s first wife, along with his mother and one daughter, Natalya, lived in France and Belgium, and he took trips abroad to visit them. They refused to return with him to the Soviet Union.

Babel’s intense curiosity was dangerous. This man who “wanted to know everything” hung out with various unsavory types, including members of the secret police. He was friends with the head of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda. He once supposedly asked Yagoda how one was to behave, “if he finds himself in your hands.” Yagoda told him to deny everything, to reply “No” to any accusation made. 

This, as Yagoda surely must have known himself, is useless advice. They deprive you of sleep for a day or so, while beating on you incessantly, and you don’t deny anything anymore. You even write denunciations of all your friends, as Babel later was forced to do.

Babel supposedly even had an affair with Yagoda’s wife Yevgeniya, a Jewess from Odessa. In her memoir Nadezhda Mandelstam writes that her husband Osip, the great poet, once asked Babel why he was friends with Yagoda—did he wish to put his fingers on death itself? Babel replied, “I don’t want to touch it with my fingers, but I’d like to have a good sniff, to see what it smells like.”

Maybe the most important thing is this: Babel’s fiction is subversive, dangerous fiction. He described Soviet heroes, such as the soldiers in the Red Cavalry, as mindless brutes. He did not shy away from descriptions of gross violence and gang rape. He could be ironic in his fiction; true believers hate irony. 

He wrote the kind of fiction that directly challenges thinking in clichés, lazy thinking—including the simple-minded, received lazy ideas of the socialist utopia. By the 1930s the powers that be in the U.S.S.R. demanded of their writers encomiums and distortions of reality. Babel could not write the oversimplifications they wanted. He fell silent. But his body of published work, small as it was, was still there to be read and mulled over. Still as complex and incendiary as ever.

Saturday, February 24, 2018


“Точность и краткость есть первые достоинства прозы. Precision and brevity are the primary virtues of prose.”
 Babel quoting Pushkin

“Никакое железо не может войти в человеческое сердце так леденяще, как точка, поставленная вовремя. No iron can stab the human heart with such chill as a period placed just in time.” 
…Probably the most famous line Babel ever wrote, from his story, “Guy de Maupassant”


Letter written in Odessa, May 28, 1926: “Все было бы хорошо, если бы мне не приходилось возить по всем городам глупые мои нервы, не умеющие работать и не умеющие спать. Everything would be fine, if I were not obliged to transport to all different cities my stupid nerves, which cannot work and cannot sleep.” (there’s an echo of Gogol here)


“You know that I’ve never written any novels. I’ll tell you frankly: my greatest desire in life is to write a novel. And many times I’ve started doing it. Unfortunately, it never works out. What comes out is short. Maybe for that reason I’m in awe of people who write novels. I write short fiction. Such, it turns out, is my psychological mindset, such is the configuration of my soul.” (from the reminiscences of G. Markov)


“When I start working I always think that I’m not up to doing it. Sometimes I weep out of sheer exhaustion . . . . If a certain sentence won’t come out right I get palpitations of the heart. And so often it is that they won’t come out right, the damned sentences.”

“I don’t have an imagination; I don’t know how to make things up. I must know everything, down to the last minute detail; otherwise I can’t write. The motto engraved on my shield is ‘authenticity.’ That’s why I write so slowly and get very little written. It’s hard. After every story I age several years. 

Какое там к черту моцартианство, веселье над рукописью и легкий бег воображения! Don’t tell me this damn stuff about Mozart, about the joy of working on a manuscript and the light flow of imagination!" (from the reminiscences of Konstantin Paustovsky)


As early as 1915, barely having begun his career as a writer, Babel, whose home town was Odessa, said that he was looking in literature for the sun full of bright colors. He exulted in Gogol’s Ukrainian stories and regretted how Petersburg had won out over Poltava. He strove for a certain verve, splashes of brightness not typical of much Russian literature. 

But by the beginning of the 1930s Babel was criticizing his earlier works for what he saw as overdone stylistic effects. He stated that he wanted to write more simply, to free himself from use of excessive imagery. Now he declared that the Gogol of “The Overcoat” (a story set in St. Petersburg, the frigid north) was dearer to him than the Gogol of the Ukrainian stories. But since he published very little in the 1930s, the bulk of his fiction is still characterized by the bright imagery of the south, of Odessa. (from the reminiscences of Ilya Erenburg)


“First of all, I cut all the superfluous words out of the sentence. You need a very sharp eye, because the language cleverly hides its garbage, its repetitions, synonyms, its simply nonsensical stuff; the language is all the time trying to outsmart you . . . . Each time I begin rewriting a text I work until my most beastly caviling can no longer detect in the manuscript a single grain of dirt.”

“I check the freshness and precision of all the images, similes, metaphors. If your similes are not precise better to use none at all . . . . a simile must be as exact as a slide rule and as natural as the smell of dill.” (from the reminiscences of Paustovsky)


"There are times when you've been agonizing over one page for a month or two and suddenly you find a certain word that leaves you in awe of your very self, how perfect it is! On such occasions I tear out of the house and go running through the streets, like the town crazy." (from the reminiscences of V. Fink)


What does Odessa have for a writer? “Lots of ocean [said Babel], sun, beautiful women and lots of food for thought.” Babel loved all of the above, plus horses. In mentioning a friend from his Red Cavalry days, a man named Khlebnikov, Babel said that “Both of us looked at life as if looking at a meadow in May, a meadow through which walked women and horses.”

Friday, February 23, 2018


Boris Pasternak's Dacha in Peredelkino; Now a Museum Devoted to Pasternak


Isaac Babel seems to have been afflicted with a near lifelong writer’s block. After he had published Red Cavalry and the Odessa stories, he spent the remainder of his life trying to get the writing juices flowing. He wrote screenplays, but never really seemed to like that kind of writing. He preferred the short story form. He had a way of dropping out of view for weeks at a time, and no one knew where he was. He often fled to the boondocks, where he would take a room in a small village, living with some old woman. There he would write. Or try to. Sometimes he would move in with friends, or stay in a hotel for several weeks.

He met Antonina Pirozhkova for the first time in the summer of 1932. They began living together at the very end of the year 1933, and stayed together until May, 1939. After they had a child, Lida, some of Babel’s bizarre behavior was toned down, but never completely.

He hated having discussions about literature and often preferred the company of workers, peasants, and oddballs to the company of fellow writers. He hung out around the hippodrome in Moscow, where he could indulge his love for horses, and his interest in the people who rode them and trained them.

Babel belonged to the Union of Soviet Writers and was widely recognized as one of the best writers of fiction in the country. That gave him the right to a villa in Peredelkino, a writers’ colony some twenty kilometers from Moscow. “Villa” is probably too grand a word. When Babel and Pirozhkova moved to Peredelkino in April, 1938, the small cottage was badly in need of repair. They ended up living there for only one year.

Babel had resisted moving to Peredelkino for some time, but was assured that he could live there without close association with the other writers. When asked how he was liking it in Peredelkino, Babel replied, “Being in the midst of nature is wonderful, but there’s something terrifying about the realization that dozens of people to the right and left of you are sitting there composing.”

Babel had trouble working in Peredelkino, just as he had trouble working practically everywhere. Pirozhkova writes that he was tormented at Peredelkino by graphomaniacs, who kept bringing him their writings and asking his opinion. Babel was too polite to tell them what they wrote was bad; he tried to encourage them. So they would rewrite their stuff and then bring it back to him again. Babel at Peredelkino took to answering the telephone in a woman's voice, "No, he's not home. No, he's gone out."

Babel spent his last happy year in Peredelkino, where he was arrested in the middle of the night, May 15, 1939, and taken to Lubyanka Prison. The recent documentary film, “Finding Babel,” shows Babel’s grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel, on a journey to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of Babel’s death. Andrei travels  back to Ukraine and Russia, visiting places where his grandfather had lived and had his being.

One of the places Andrei goes, in seeking the great writer’s roots, is Peredelkino, Babel’s last place of civilized residence on earth. He arrives at the location of the small cottage/villa only to find it gone—replaced by a chic new edifice, complete with high walls, obviously the domain of some nouveau riche Russian. 

Andrei rings the doorbell at the gate, and all the bodyguards come out. He tries to explain to them who he is and what he is there for. These men appear never to have heard of Isaac Babel. Not only do they not admit him to the property. They threaten the photographers with the video cameras and then bodily remove Andrei from the premises.

Much of the land in this lush pine forest now appears to have been bought up by the new Russian ruling class of the rich. A commentary on the meretricious new capitalist Russia that has replaced the socialist Soviet Union of Babel’s time. Everything in Mother Russia changes; and everything stays the same. At least in Putin's Russia they are no longer arresting, torturing, murdering writers as a matter of course.

Thursday, February 22, 2018



[all details here are from I. Babel: Reminiscences of Contemporaries, M. 1972; in Russian]

The leitmotiv of tea runs through all of Babel’s life.

      From the reminiscences of V. Khodasevich, a woman who worked with Babel as an editor. Moscow, 1936-1937: She dropped by Babel’s apartment to go over some manuscripts:

“Babel suggested I sit down at the table, said that, before getting down to business, he wanted to treat me to tea. I sat, while Babel cried out to someone down below, ‘What’s up with the hot water!’ I heard steps below. Babel went down the staircase and returned with a tray containing a huge teapot still pouring out steam and another, also quite large, porcelain, for brewing the tea, a cup, a glass with holder, a spitting basin, a sugar bowl. 

After this began the businesslike, serious and lengthy ritual of brewing the tea and preparing it. I was thinking, Is this some kind of game, or is it all in earnest?

“I won’t describe in detail how the tea was brewed and how it was left to stand—a very complicated affair! The thing that struck me was the sheer volume of tea for each cup: three or four spoonsful heaped high. And you had to drink it almost burning your lips—otherwise the aroma would evaporate.
. . . .

“When the whole procedure was done, Babel remarked in utter seriousness, 'That’s the only sensible way to drink tea. Would you like to do it all again?' No, I did not want to; I dreamed only of getting our conversation on work matters done, as I was in a hurry to return to the editorial office.”

         From the reminiscences of L. Borovoj, who met Babel in the office of a friend, a journalist and official in cinema:

“Meanwhile, Marya Romanovna brought in tea and poured us each a glassful. Babel never even touched his lips to the glass. He picked it up, examined its color, and exclaimed, ‘I knew it. That’s not tea; it’s some squirrley mixture of something, but not tea.’”

After that Babel took it upon himself to prepare the tea. Coming back from the kitchen, he said, ‘The secret of brewing genuine tea is very simple: you need two teaspoons of tea for each cup and you have to let it stand properly. So I just put it on back there, and we have twenty minutes now to talk about literature. Tea loves to stand brewing all on its own, and in the presence of conversation on literature.'”

       From the reminiscences of Antonina Pirozhkova, Babel’s wife:

“In our home there was a tea cult. The ‘first guy’ ('первач') was Babel’s word for the first glass of brewed tea. He seldom gave the first guy to anyone but himself . . . . But if we had a very dear guest Babel might yield to him rights to the first glass, saying, ‘Take note, please; I’m giving you the first guy.’
. . . .
Babel once elaborated on the ritual:

‘Genuine tea drinking these days is hard to come by. They used to drink tea from samovars, and they never sat down at the table without a towel. That was for wiping the sweat away. At the end of the first samovar they wiped sweat off the brow, and when the second samovar was on the table they removed their shirts. They began by wiping the sweat off their necks and chests, and when the sweat came out on their abdomen, only then was a person considered to have really got into his tea drinking (напился чаю). They used to call it “drinking tea down to the beads on your gut.”

“Babel drank his tea with bits of Antonov apples; he also loved raisins in his tea.”

The secret police came for Babel in the middle of the night on May 15, 1939. They let his wife Pirozhkova ride with them in the car, all the way from Peredelkino, back to central Moscow and the Lubyanka Prison. Babel got out of the car at the main gate, said goodbye to her, and walked through the gate, never to be seen again.

Her mind was in a fog, and she could think of nothing better to do with the day than to go to work. She was a civil engineer, at that time supervising construction of the metro (subway) station Paveletskaja. She worked all day, one thought running through her mind: “I hope they let him have his tea in the morning; he just cannot function without his tea.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


The Mating Dance of the Blue-Footed Booby


“I didn’t choose my nationality,” he suddenly said in a breaking voice. “I’m a Jew, a Yid. There are times when I believe I can understand everything. But there’s one thing I’ll never understand: the reason for that black, base thing that is so banally termed antisemitism” (reminiscences of Konstantin Paustovsky).

Babel translated into Russian several stories by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. His wife Antonina Pirozhkova summarizes the plot of one of them that he read aloud to her (Reminiscences of Contemporaries, p. 370). It is instructive that Babel would find this story amusing.

“Two Ukrainian Cossacks were out in the steppe, preparing kasha over a campfire. Down the road nearby walked a disheveled hungry Jew. They saw a chance to have some fun, so they invited him over to share their kasha. The Jew accepted their invitation, and they gave him a spoon. But no sooner had he dipped the spoon into the kasha and brought it to his lips than one of the Cossacks cracked him on the head with his spoon and said to the other, ‘Your Jew is out-eating my Jew; he’ll eat up all the kasha, and nothing will be left for my Jew.’ Then the other Cossack cracked the Jew on the head with his spoon, saying, ‘No. It’s your Jew who won’t let my Jew eat.’ And so they went on beating him, each of them pretending he was looking out for his own Jew, while beating the other fellow’s Jew.”

What a parable for those times; and for our own times as well.



Konstantin Paustovsky on Babel: “По натуре Бабель был разоблачителем. By his very nature Babel was an unmasker [a divester, one who strips away the clothing on imperfect man and shows his pristine nakedness]. He loved to back people into a cul de sac, and because of this he had a reputation around Odessa as a difficult and dangerous man.” 

In I. Babel: Reminiscences of Contemporaries (Moscow: 1972), from which this quote is taken (p. 11), not much is said about the sinister side of Babel. The sneakiness, the mockery. The way he had of looking at cruelty and brutality, and sometimes finding grace. His wife Antonina Pirozhkova, editor of this collection, who contributes a long piece to it, says, in essence, nothing about this side of her husband.

As if she had not read stories not for the faint of heart, such as those in Red Cavalry. “My First Goose” and “Makhno’s Boys” (“Батька Махно”). The goose story describes how a Jewish intellectual ingratiates himself with Cossacks, who are described as beautiful, amoral animals. He commits murder, but cannot rape a woman to get in their good graces, as he is advised to do. Rather, the best he can do is kill a goose. This ironic story ends with a description of the narrator and the Cossacks sleeping together, legs intertwined, while the narrator dreams of women. But his heart, “stained crimson by the murder [of the goose],” sleeps uneasily.

“Old Makhno’s Boys,” probably the most perverse piece of fiction that Babel ever wrote, features a narrator much like himself, who goes by out of literary curiosity, to see what a woman looks like the day after she is gang-raped. In his works Babel seems to be saying what he often repeated in his life: You must look at everything.

Babel, says his friend, the actor Leonid Utesov, was a man “with curious eyes and curious ears.” Once Babel invited Utesov to dine with a friend of his, a military man (see Reminiscences, p. 264). After the meal the old trooper said, “Come outside; I want to show you something.” Out in the courtyard there was a wolf in a cage. The trooper took a sharpened stick and began poking through the bars, tormenting the wolf, saying, “How do you like that, you sucker? Huh?”

Utesov whispered to Babel: “Tell him to stop,” but Babel answered, “Be quiet, old buddy. Man must know everything. This is not very nice (невкусно—not appetizing), but it’s interesting (любопытно—curious).” Somewhat in his life, and very much so in his fiction, Babel likes to walk a tightrope over an abyss of immorality and cruelty. He sees the cruelty all over the place, and he wants his reader to see it as well. He appears to believe that, in writing fiction, total indifference toward the cruelty described is the best narrative stance.

So that, in the upshot, we sometimes end up with a narrator who is the same cretin morally as those perpetrating violence or condoning it. The degenerate boy soldier in “Makhno’s Boys”— who walks around on his hands and mocks the Jewish girl who the day before had “taken on six Cossacks”—is despicable. But so is the narrator who drops by to have a literary look at the girl. 

Where do the sympathies of Babel himself, the man, lie? Almost certainly with the raped girl. But you would never know that when reading the story, where the figure closest to Babel, his alter ego the narrator, is portrayed as not the least sympathetic; he is, rather, an artist out gathering material.

This is a brave, but dangerous stance for a writer to take. In condemning Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, Marshall Budyonny, leader of the Red Cavalry, made special mention of “Old Makhno’s Boys,” and came to the easy conclusion that Babel himself is the flawed narrator of the story. The collection ends “with a display of the author’s scientific curiosity [wrote Budyonny], when he wishes to see what a Jewish woman raped by about ten Makhno men looks like.”

Babel is Kafka’s kind of writer, Kafka, who once said, “We must read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow to the head, then what are we reading it for?” Babel’s stories are blows upside the human head. Or, to put it differently, Babel was an incendiary, burning down received ideas and warm, comfortable truths, by which people live their lives. Reading Babel makes for discomfort in the reader. Like Kafka, Babel most likely would approve of the discomfort.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018



"Шакал стонет, когда он голоден, у каждого глупца хватает глупости для уныния, и только мудрец раздирает смехом завесу бытия."

[The jackal whines when he is hungry, every fool has folly enough to lose heart, and only the sage can tear the veil of being with his laughter.]
                                                                                   ...from Babel's story "The Rabbi"

Joseph T. Shipley’s Dictionary of Word Origins has an appendix on the sources and meanings of given names. Under Isaac we read, “Heb. Laughter.”

Isaac the Laugher in the Bible

Genesis 18: 10-15

“And he [the Lord] said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”

[Commentary: the Book of Genesis is full of hilarious passages, but you wonder how much of the humor is intentional. Try reading, for example, about how God commands Abraham, age 99, to circumcise himself, his relatives and all his manservants. Try reading that without laughing. But the God of the Old Testament seems none too keen on laughter. Sarah imagines herself (what is she, 98? 99?) copulating with her old husband (see above) and she cannot help laughing. God takes umbrage]:

“And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the time appointed I will return to thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh.”

[There seems to be some laughing taboo operative in this ancient myth from the bible. At any rate, the Supreme Deity does not appreciate someone laughing at His plans. Being sore afraid of offending, Sarah tries to weasel out of her laughter: “No, I didn’t laugh.” But God says, “Oh yes you did.”]

Genesis 21: 1-8

And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken [Did exactly what? Impregnate her Himself? Is this an early example of parthenogenesis?] For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him. And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him. And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me. And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have borne him a son in his old age. 

[Why does Sarah bring up her faux pas again here, after God earlier made it clear that he disapproved of her laughing? Is she trying to justify the earlier laughter by asserting that everyone now has a joyous occasion for laughter, the birth of a child? Who, to boot, they name Isaac, Hebrew for “he who laughs or will laugh.”]


As for Isaac Babel, his father was named Emmanuel, who in modern-day New Jersey would probably be called Manny. The father and mother are not alive, so we cannot ask them why they chose a laughing name for their son, the writer-to-be. Possibly after his grandfather, who was an Isaac.

But the name is appropriate. Isaac Babel laughed his way through life. As his wife Antonina Pirozhkova has attested, merriment was extremely important to him. In the same story quoted above, "The Rabbi," Gedali asks the narrator Lyutov (Babel's alter ego, the Jew who rides with the Red Cavalry), "What is the Jew seeking?" The answer is one word: "Merriment." When sending New Year's cards to his friends, wishing them a Happy New Year, Babel would write: "Желаю вам веселья, как можно больше веселья, важнее ничего нет на свете. I wish you merriment, as much merriment as possible; there's nothing on earth more important."

Jokes were ever on his lips; he was a practical joker. In his works he often laughed ironically, and sometimes at things that are none too laughable. Like the Old Testament God, the Soviet authorities were uncomfortable with laughter and irony. True believers do not like their dogma undermined by some laughing Jew with a sly grin on his face. Laughter in the Soviet Union was dangerous. Babel went on laughing all the same. 

In the middle of the night on May 15, 1939, he was arrested at his villa in Peredelkino (a writers’ colony outside Moscow). As he rode with the secret policemen on the way to Lubyanka Prison—where he would live the last eight months of his life in hell, before they finally, mercifully, shot him in January, 1940—he could not resist one last joke. He said to one of his arresters, “You must not get very much sleep,” and he laughed.

Monday, February 19, 2018


When a young Isaac Babel left his job as a literary editor in Odessa in 1920 and ran off to the Polish front, to ride with the Red Cavalry against the Poles, his family saw this as a suicidal act, something only an insane man would do. But two years later he came back home with a notebook full of literary impressions. Based on this notebook he wrote his Red Cavalry stories, which pull no punches in describing what war is like.

The caricature of  Babel above, by Boris Yefimov, references his famous story "Мой первый гусь," ("My First Goose"),  a first-person narrative that describes how a war correspondent, Jewish, in spectacles, joins up with a Cossack unit. One of them advises him how to behave: "No making it here with them glasses on your nose . . . . but go mess up a lady, a right and proper lady, and the boys will love you for it." 

Whereupon the bespectacled intellectual establishes his credibility with these savage warriors by acting the macho man. He kills a goose and orders an old woman to cook it for him. The Cossacks accept him, and the story ends with a striking homoerotic image of the narrator sleeping amidst the Cossacks, all of their legs intertwined, warming one another.

Murder sleeps easy, it appears, in the soul of a natural-born killer like a Cossack, but the bespectacled one sleeps fitfully. Here is the last line of the story: "Я видел сны и женщин во сне, и только сердце мое, обагренное убийством, скрипело и текло." "I had dreams and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, stained crimson by the murder, squealed and heaved."

With the double meaning of the word "goose" in English, the title of the story in English has an extra dimension (quite appropriate) not available in its Russian title.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

ON LITERARY TRANSLATION. Translating Substandard Speech (просторечие), IVAN BUNIN

On Translating the Language of Uneducated Speakers: The No-Win Situation

Text on translation from “On Translating Bunin,” in the book, Ivan Bunin, Night of Denial: Stories and Novellas. Translated, with extensive notes and a critical afterword, by R. Bowie. Northwestern University Press, 2006, p. 710. Quotation from “The Saviour in Desecration” is on p. 158.

Another problem for the literary translator—and the most maddening of all—is what to do about substandard speech. Translators intrepid enough to attempt works with dialogue featuring the underclass usually make their Russian peasants, workers, or merchants speak something relatively close to standard literary English. If you are British, you have those speakers speaking standard British English; if you are American you have them speaking standard American English. But either way, you have made for a big jarring effect: peasants, workers, and merchants don’t talk like that.

You can try for the underclass effects by using nonstandard syntax or other such tricks. That way you can doctor up the text at least a little bit. Why can’t you have them just speak underclass English? Because in so doing you must choose what kind of substandard, illiterate speech—the way the non-educated speak in, say, the American South, or Brooklyn, or Yorkshire, or in rural New Zealand. As soon as you make this choice, you run into the weirdly incongruous situation of having a Russian peasant woman speaking, for example, as if she grew up in the hills of West Virginia.

So, what to do? There really is no solution, but you have to make the effort to get some folksiness into the text. If you don’t, you are left with what Kornei Chukovsky calls gladkopis’ (Lauren Leighton has translated this as “blandscript”), a leveling out of earthy speech that ends up smoothing the earthiness out of it. The peasant woman says what would be in the American South something like, “It ain’t nobody’s bidness but mine,” and the translator writes, “That is no one’s business but mine.” This is something like building a Walmart Supercenter on what was once pristine forestland. To avoid the extremes above you try for a compromise. Maybe, “That’s not nobody’s business, only mine.”

My translation of Ivan Bunin’s “The Saviour in Desecration” starts out like this:

No, I mean to tell you, sir, not all folks gives glory unto the Lord, but the Lord, he will make known his ways. Now, when, and on what account, well, that’s something only He knows. Here in our parts just look how many there is of the famous icons and cathedrals, holy relics galore! And let me tell you what once we had to happen here. 

The daughter of one of our local merchants, she fell sick with a deathly illness, and God Above, Heavenly Mother, the things that man done trying to save his child! He sent away for doctors from Moscow, he ordered up the most costly of prayer services, and he took her off to make supplication at the relics in Moscow, then to the Trinity Monastery. He rooted out every last sacred cross or icon for miles around—but nothing helped. 

Meanwhile, the girl herself, she’s on and on repeating the same thing: “I’ll get well, I’ll be cured, no doubt about it, only not on account of all them things, but by the grace of the Saviour in Desecration.”

“Now, that’s wonderful,” her father says to her, and her mama too. “We believe you and we put our trust in you, only what is this Saviour in Desecration and where is he to be found?”

“Well, it’s something,” she says, “that I seen in a dream; it was the Good Lord granted unto me that vision.”

And so on. Does this translation get too much educated speech in here, or too much substandard? You walk the tightrope that most translators walk in this situation, trying for the flavor of the prostorechie (illiterate speech), while trying not to mark the speaker as native of, say, Georgia. The one in America, not the Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains. I would guess that most literary translators would judge my text here as too close to the Georgia in America, near which I grew up. But then, as I said above, the problem is really insoluble. Either way you work it, you can’t really win.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

BOOK REVIEW ARTICLE Lee K. Abbott, "All Things All At Once"

U.R. Bowie
Book Review Article
Lee K. Abbott, All Things All At Once: New and Selected Stories, Norton, 2006

Recently I’ve decided to read and review what are generally accepted as the best short story collections by living American writers. With publication of All Things All at Once (Norton, 365 pages), Lee K. Abbott, widely acknowledged as a “writers’ writer,” has seven collections of stories in print. His work has appeared in some of the most highly regarded literary journals. In addition, his stories have been featured in Best American Short Stories and have won O. Henry awards. This most recent collection features new stories, plus several previously published.

Now retired and living in New Mexico, Abbott made his living for years by teaching in the creative writing racket (Ohio State University). Most of his stories are anchored in the dreary genre of “domestic literary realism,” but Abbott is not afraid to challenge the conventions of that genre. His very style, highly literary and unique, his sui generis voice often produce fiction far superior to the usual trite tales of Mr. or Ms. Joe Blow average middle class American. For example, “Men of Rough Persuasion,” is about as far as you can get from the run-of-the-mill DLF that is published, alas, in massive globs of ennui all over the U.S. these days.

Here’s how that story begins: “Almost lost among the gabbies and goombahs, fakeloos and funnel-heads, Catamites and hypes, rajahs and ringers, and can openers and Visigoths in the twenty-plus chapters that are The Gates of Hell, a semi-sci-fi mystery with no little tally-ho at the end of it, is the skel Harbee Hakim Hazar—Triple H himself—an Ur-Dravidian whose opening line of dialogue, addressed to his image in a mirror, is this: ‘Behold, dips and dewheads, the baddest, blackest bindle-bopper to bo your peep.’” Of course, when a writer opens with a paragraph like that, lost and bewildered pin-brained readers are strewn all along the wayside behind the flow of his narrative. Abbott, apparently, doesn’t care; good for him.

In another of his experimental pieces, “As Fate Would Have It,” a musician/drummer, Noley Gilmore, is the main character. The story—a better title might be “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda”—features a strange conglomerate of modals and tenses. Largely eschewing the indicative mood, this story tells itself to a you in phrases such as “she should be mightily charmed,” or “you should feel your ribs cracking open,” “you must be introduced,” and so on. Occasionally the narrative hops into the future perfect tense: “’She weeps,’ Freddy will have said to you.” Quite an innovation, but God knows exactly what the purpose is of telling a story in language like this. Maybe because it’s fun to be different.

Another line from this skewed tale: “On the outside speakers, your only album, Wet Places at Noon, has to be playing” [why does it have to?]. If we look in the front matter, under OTHER BOOKS BY LEE K. ABBOTT, we discover the collection, Wet Places at Noon. Furthermore, reading two more pages into “As Fate Would Have It,” we learn that the title of the very book we hold in our hands—All Things All at Once—is the most famous song written by drummer Noley Gilmore. So it turns out that Noley, a rather piddling figure in this book as a whole, is doing yeoman service to its author. Abbott’s titles (of collections and of individual stories), by the way, are lovely: The Heart Never Fits Its Wanting, Love Is the Crooked Thing, Dreams of Distant Lives. You give a story a title like that, however, and, sad to say, the content of the story often struggles mightily to live up to the sparkle and gleam of the title.

Then again, DLF at its worst is, largely, plotless, and many of Abbott’s best stories have plots. “The Talk Talked Between Worms” tells of how, in the summer of 1947, a man witnessed the crash of a UFO near Roswell, NM, and came upon dead alien bodies. That encounter resulted in his departing forever from the anodyne life he had led: he ends up in mental institutions for the rest of his life. His sad tale is told by a narrator who is his son. Narratives of fathers and sons loom large in this collection.

“Gravity” begins with an apparent kidnapping: “They grab her—Tanya, my fourteen-year-old daughter.” The tale ends up being not about a kidnapping at all, but about the disappearance of a wayward child, and the narrator/father’s realization that his Tanya is not who he thought she was. “One of Star Wars, One of Doom,” my favorite tale in the collection, relates the events of a school shooting, through the point of view of (1) the shooters themselves, two puerile high school boys with problems, and (2) a rather sad-sack teacher, Mr. DeWine, who blunders his way to where he has no business being and gets himself killed. Allowed some final words before being shot in the head, DeWine says, “I’d like to say something about my father.” More fathers and sons. As good as this story is—and it is very good—it suffers somewhat by what is a characteristic feature of the Abbott narrative: the overabundance of verbiage, which retards the action of the tale.

I can single out for praise several other stories in this long collection of twenty-five. The narrator of “Dreams of Distant Lives,” who suffers, as do many of Abbott’s narrators, from the desolation that divorce wreaks, has a highly poetic sensibility—another common feature of Abbott’s first-person narrators. Among the victims of the separation is his dreamlife, which is shattered into flinders and fluff. The narrator is thirty-nine years old (typical of the narrator/characters in this book, late thirties or forties), he belongs to a country club and plays golf (also typical). In fact, golf is so omnipresent in Lee Abbott’s stories that you wonder what the characters would do with themselves if the sport, somehow, fell into desuetude.

Like so many of Abbott’s stories, “Dreams of Distant Lives” contains highly poetic writing. At the end of the tale the bifurcation of the main character—consequent upon the divorce—appears to be resolved. “And so I came to myself—observed the man I am now walk forward to the man I was then and take him, as you take your children, into his arms. The one held the other—the future cradling the present—and the one who had been left, the one whose interior hooks and hasps and snaps had come undone, gave himself up utterly.” Abbott’s characters frequently are held together by interior hasps and snaps, and those things, unfortunately, have a way of coming undone.

A kind of companion piece of “Dreams of Distant Lives,” and another of the best stories in the collection, is “The Who, the What and the Why,” in which the narrator, Bobby Patterson, describes himself as “a voice.” What this means is that he makes his living recording commercials for ad agencies in Dallas, Phoenix, and L.A. But having a voice as the first-person narrator of the story is totally appropriate for Abbott, in that nearly all his narrators are characterized by their unusual voices. Or, better to say, by one unique voice, since they all speak in the literary voice of the author. More on this later.

Following the death of his child, Bobby Patterson splits apart into several strange selves, who begin burgling his house in the night. He is at least half aware that he himself is doing the burgling: “a part of me in the here and now watched a part of me in the then and there go limping slowly into the darkness.” Abbott’s male narrators—and his narrators are always males—resemble one another almost to a fault. They are standard-issue middle class; they have wives with double names (Ellen Kay, Mary Sue); they belong to country clubs and play golf; they have a certain gratuitous poetic sensibility. In “The Who, The What” all of the doppelgängers of the narrator (the burglars) are underclass types, who seldom feature as major characters in Abbott’s prose; nearly all his main heroes are middle class.

“It’s an unsettling feeling to be in- and outside yourself at the same time,” but, as in “Dreams of Distant Lives,” the narrator/hero of “The Who, The What” appears to have resolved the duality in the end. In another wonderful story, “The View of Me from Mars,” the narrator, a Methodist minister, is one more split personality, torn asunder by his adulterous affair. He muses on “the men I am, the public one amazed by his private self.”  In a masterful way the story takes us right up to the point where the lie of long standing will be revealed—and the pretending of both husband and wife that nothing is wrong will end.

In the face of his wife’s ever more persistent questions, about where he was when, the narrator falls back on a lie involving his son Pudge. He has been that afternoon, ostensibly, at the golf course (golf again!) watching Pudge practice. The rest of the story involves the waiting for Pudge to come home, and “you are to imagine now how herky-jerky time moved in our house when Pudge drove up and came in and said howdy.” A subtle theme, really the main theme of this tale, is the way fathers betray their children, and how they must reveal their weakest selves to those children and hope for forgiveness.
So much for the strengths of Abbott’s writing. Now for a bit about the weaknesses. All Things All at Once comes complete with a plethora of blurbery, both on the back cover and in the front matter. Now, blurbs are, by their very nature, mostly mendacious. The writer’s agent or his publisher has solicited comments from other writers, the more famous the better. If you are writing a blurb under these circumstances, it is a given that you say positive things. A negative-blurbing blurber is a violator of the rules, and his negative blurb will never see the light of day. So, naturally, the blurbs for this book are all encomiums.

Of course, blurbs are often taken from book reviews, which, for establishment writers, are also almost totally positive. Why? I don’t know exactly why, but after a writer is in with the literary establishment, it is somehow not kosher to review his/her books critically. Despite all this game-playing, however, at times you can read between the lines of the blurbery to discover certain truths. At other times, the blurbers, whether consciously or subconsciously, hint at problems in the text.

When blurbers are searching for something good to say they often come up with “necessary.” As in the last blurb of the front matter: “What a magnificent and necessary collection.” The BS shows through in that sentence, whose author, wracking his brain for superlatives, ends his praising litany with the usual tripartite formula: “salutary, edifying, radiant.” Duh.

The first blurber in the front matter speaks of “the entertainment and vitality of Abbott’s prose,” of the way Abbott “grabs us with a moment that becomes sharply moving.” But in passing the same blurber mentions “narrative idiosyncrasies,” “loquacious banter,” the “eccentric and loose-limbed story.” Many of the blurbers mention “Abbott’s absolutely individual voice,” which “carries you irresistibly along.” It’s true, his voice is unique, while sometimes—at least for me—resistible. 

In fact, the voice can get aggravating. Another blurber: “Lee K. Abbott is a true American original, the owner of an unmistakable voice—at once funny, wise, loopy, and utterly unique.” That “loopy” in the middle of the wise and utterly unique stands out. On the back cover another mentions “loopy language.” Hmm, two readers who found loopiness. 

What aggravates about this book? The eccentricity, the narrative idiosyncrasies, the loquacious banter. Most of the stories are solid DLF, in that the narrator is a screwed up middle-class male, living, most often in Deming, New Mexico, suffering through the most common travails of the DLF character: divorce, the loss of a child, etc. See the beginning of this review for examples of how Abbott, by way of his unique style and writing skills—and his willingness to liven up the action, as in stories of UFOs and school shootings—transcends the limits of DLF at its worst. This part of the review is how he does not.

There is a certain persistent narrative pattern, and it gets old fast. The narration is most frequently first-person, told by the troubled narrator himself. Herein lies another problem. Although the narrator is your standard bourgeois middle-class American player of golf, he speaks in a voice that is highly literary; he makes frequent allusions to writers and to events in world history that he, logically, would know nothing about. The first eight stories in this collection feature, essentially, the same first-person narrator, speaking in the same voice—that highly literate eccentric voice that almost certainly is the voice of the author himself. The problem could possibly be ironed out, if only the stories were written in the third-person, but most frequently Abbott wants his main heroes themselves telling the tale.

Sometimes it might also help if there were more dialogue in the story. “How Love Is Lived in Paradise,” the tale of a football coach, would be much improved if some of the characters—say, the women, Stacy and Mary Louise, or, say, the football players—were given words of their own to speak. As is, the story is mediated through the mind of a totally unbelievable character. No football coach who ever lived or ever will live speaks the literary language of this one, a man who “wondered how love is lived in paradise,” who marvels at “the clatter my hooks and hasps made breaking loose.” A football coach speaks of “got to get out there and show some physicality, some athleticism, got to stay within our ownselves, got to play like a team.” I’ve never yet met a football coach who openly wonders how love is lived in paradise. It would be interesting to see this story rewritten in the voice a real coach would use. It ain’t rocket science, you know. It’s just cracking heads and wracking ass.

Then there’s the thing of the names. The narrator of the final story, Hobey Don Baker, Jr., is typical. Sometimes it seems as if the names were chosen for comic effect. As they pile up, the names, like the so-alike narrators, begin to grate. The golfing buddies are Hub Somebody, or Poot Somebody, or Dub Somebody. The women in the narrator’s life—most often women, rather than one woman, since the narrator is usually divorced or about to be—most frequently have double names: Ellen Kay or Mary Sue, etc. My favorite narrator, the one who made me laugh out loud, is Onan Motley, of “When Our Dream World Finds Us, and Those Hard Times Are Gone,” a Utah hillbilly—apparently named after the man who wastefully spilled his seed on the ground in the bible (Genesis 38:9) and invented the word ‘onanism.’

Loquacious banter. The eccentric and loose-limbed story. Loopiness. The biggest problem in Abbott’s style is the problem of excessive verbiage. In his worst stories, time and again, the telling of the tale gets in the way of the plot. Metaphors, similes, comparisons get in the way. Bracketed passages throughout the rest of this review indicate verbiage best omitted. Take his story titled “Martians.” Here we have two men playing golf. One of them, Newt Grider, believes in UFOs and is about to tell the other, our narrator Lamar Hoyt, how he plans to go off later that day and join the aliens. “’Boy, you don’t believe in nothing,’ I said; this was banter, [like that between Butch and Sundance]. He had just smacked a driver and was watching his ball soar off into one of those sunsets our New Mexico has a reputation for, [extreme and scary to the animal in us.]” 

The bracketed passages here are best omitted. Butch and Sundance play no role in this story, have nothing to do with UFOs and aliens, so why take this brief flash of a detour into their lives? Or why bring them, blinking befuddled in the New Mexico sunlight, into a story that has nothing to do with them? Then again, whether New Mexico sunsets are extreme and scary “to the animal in us” is neither here nor there.

Newt tells Lamar that last night he spoke to the aliens. Now that’s INTERESTING. “’Shit,’ I said, ‘what’re you talking about?’ ‘I’m serious,’ he said.” At this point the reader is whooping, Yeah, tell me more! But we don’t go on right to the next question (‘What do they look like?’). Instead we get the retardation of this entirely superfluous paragraph: [“He [Newt] had the full-speed-ahead forward posture he’d get when we played cards and a full house would suddenly appear in his hands—earnest as a Baptist, humor a thing for lesser souls who believed in luck.”] Do we need cards here, full houses, earnest Baptists, some blather about what humor is and who believes in luck? No, give us the aliens!

Like Butch and Sundance, superfluous characters frequently intrude into the narrative. Take these Puritans in the story “X”: “I do not know now, twenty-five years later, what had ravaged my father’s self-control, what had seized him [as surely as devils are said to have clutched those ancient fugitive Puritans we descend from]. Leave the Puritans up in New England or somewhere, fighting the witch crazes. We don’t need them here.

Some stories, such as “Ninety Nine Nights on Mercury,” told by a narrator named Heath “Pokey” Howell, Jr., a banker, feature the phenomenon of metaphor overload. Some of the metaphors are good, some not so good, and others take us off into Butch and Sundance territory. In three pages of text we get (1) “Just smitten. By her dress, which was blue as heaven’s bottom and at least four times more sparkly than a poet’s idea of nighttime; and by her legs, which were long as hope itself. . .” (2) “I would say that Heath Howell was but a bystander, no smarter about this than is a dog about democracy” (3) “Behind us the door clicked and we, like butchers or other workaday folks with common business to conduct, stripped ourselves, eye to eye like sophomores about to fistfight” (4) “the light behind her as harsh as the word no, and she spoke, hers a sly smile to wonder about, hers a voice with as much rue in it as there is in mine when I tell a debtor the goddamn end is nigh.”

Okay. Heath (Pokey) works in a bank and plays golf at a country club. What does he know about “a poet’s idea of nighttime”? Then again, in the passage that brings butchers and sophomores into the narrative, which is it? Do we want butchers here for our metaphor, or sophomores? You can’t have both, and the story is better off with neither. Think of that image: butchers and sophomores in the same paragraph, stripping themselves naked and about to fistfight. Then again, another Butch and Sundance moment, do we want to leave the present action and veer off, if only briefly, into a scene featuring Pokey in the bank, calling in a debt? This sudden veering off into other worlds for a transient image is a feature of Abbott’s style. We could do with a lot less of this veering.

In the worst of Abbott’s stuff, the metaphors run amuck and the verbiage does massive damage to the narrative. The best example of this in the present collection is “The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance.” As in so many other stories, this one features some excellent writing. The tale begins with the narrator’s father’s story of how, as a young man, he slammed into a car pulled off the road and killed a man. Here’s the wonderful description of the father’s predicament immediately after the crash, when he gets out of his own overturned car: “His thoughts, an instant before airy and affirming, were full of soreness and ache; and, for a moment before he climbed back to the road, he watched one of his wheels spinning, on his face the twitches and lines real sorrow makes, that wheel, though useless, still going around and around, its hubcab scratched and dented.

“He was aware, he’d say every time he came to this part, of everything—splintered glass and ordinary night sounds and a stiffness deep in his back and a trouser leg torn at the knee and a fruitlike tenderness to his own cheek pulp.”

Really good stuff there, nice, as so often there is in Abbott’s prose. But this story is so overloaded with redundancies, so hyper-loquacious, so badly overwritten that I find myself marking out huge glomps of prose as I read it. “The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance” needs a good editor. Roughly a quarter of the words in the narrative could/should be cut. Here’s a typical example of the writing on p. 207.

“Then, about four o’clock, while the two of us stood against his cinder-block fence, watching a fivesome of country club ladies drag their carts up the fairway, [the sun hot enough to satisfy even William Wordsworth] Daddy announced he had a new story, one which [he’d fussed over in his brain a million times but one which, on account of this or that or another thing] he’d never told anyone. Not my momma Ellen. Not my uncle Matthew. Not his sisters, Faith and Caroline. [His hand held on my forearm, squeezing hard, and I could see by his eyes, which were watery and inflamed by something I now know as determination, and by his wrinkled, dark forehead and by his knotted neck muscles—by all these things, I knew this story would feature neither the fanciful nor the foreign, neither bird nor military mess-up, nor escapade, nor enterprise in melancholy; it would be, I suspected as he stared at me as though I were no more related to him than that brick or that rabbit-shaped cloud, about mystery, about the strange union of innocence and loss which sometimes passes for wisdom, and about the downward trend of human desires. There was to be a moral, too; and it was to be, like most morals, obvious and tragic.]

“This was to be, I should know, another death story, [this related to Valentine’s the way one flower—a jonquil, for instance—is related to another, like a morning glory, the differences between them apparent, certain, and important;] and the story was to feature a man named X, Daddy said; a man, I realized instantly, who was my father himself, [slipped loose of the story now by time and memory and fortunate circumstance].”

So please, Mr. Narrator, we feel like saying. Let the man tell his story. Forget the jonquils and the morning glories, leave out the abstract blather about “the strange union of innocence and loss which sometimes passes for wisdom,” leave it out. We want to hear your father’s story!

Just imagine: “The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance” was accepted, apparently without demur, by the editors of The Georgia Review, where it was published. “How Love Is Lived in Paradise,” the one about the football coach, was published in Kenyon Review. Just imagine.

To end this review on a positive note, here is a potpourri of beautifully written passages, taken at random from stories all over the book:

“Yes, I was paying attention—to the gravel and grain of us, the string and the spit, the mud and melt we are. About why it is we have the hearts we do, and how it is they work. The world has already turned red and swirly at the edges, an arctic cold settling at their feet. The world is about to tilt, to wobble out of its groove, about to shrink. The world is cracking, a splintering you can hear in heaven. I took note of what is heard hereabouts at two in the morning: the wind, a wall clock, my mostly paid-for house taking its own pulse, the Fletcher’s three-legged shepherd in their onion field. A holier-than-thou sort with a walleye and hair in his ears, she felt like someone juggling one apple, he was smoking now, flicking his ashes in his cuff, his movements deliberate and precise, as if he had to explain to his shoulder and his elbow and his fingers what to do. About the magazine rack. About the swirl the universe made going down the drain at his feet, something inside tore free, and, like a boulder, went tumbling and crashing downward toward the bottom of me, Onan Motley, Oogie Pringle, that inventive Bowie fellow, a spade Marine named Philly Dog, Zookie Limmer, Dub Spedding, Pammy Jo, Becky Sue, Ellen Kay, Poot Tipton, Hobey Don Baker, Jr.”