Monday, May 21, 2018

Pithy Maxims on the Subject of Merde, Plus Apocryphal Citations (Flaubert, Tolstoy, Nabokov)


In a recent letter to the London Review of Books (May 10, 2018), Galen Strawson, of the University of Texas, cites what he calls “a deeply characteristic comment from Flaubert’s letters”:
“De quelque côté qu’on pose les pieds on marche sur la merde” (from a letter to Louise Colet, Saturday, midnight, Croisset, 29-30 January 1853).

The editors of LRB translate this as follows: “However carefully you tread, you end up with shit on your shoes.” A variant translation: “Whichever way you direct your feet, you can’t help stepping in shit.”

This recalls a statement attributed to Lev Tolstoy: “Life is a tartine de merde [shit sandwich], which we all are obliged to eat, slowly.”

Checking this out online, I have found loads of citations on the subject of “shit sandwiches.” Take this one, for example: “Life is a shit sandwich, but the more bread you have the less shit you eat” (Anon.). I suspect that the image of the shit sandwich we eat is not of recent provenance.

On a French website I also have found, in a slightly different variant, the maxim attributed to Tolstoy: “La vie, c’est une tartine de merde et il faut que tu manges une bouchée tous les jours.” Translation: “Life is a shit sandwich, and you have to eat a mouthful every day.”

Then I started searching online for the original quote by Tolstoy and could not find it anywhere. Even when doing a search in Russian I was inevitably directed back to where I had heard the citation in the first place: Vladimir Nabokov’s collection of interviews, Strong Opinions.

Question: Tolstoy said, so they say [my emphasis; note that casual “so they say,” URB] that life was a tartine de merde, which one was obliged to eat slowly. Do you agree?
Nabokov’s answer: I’ve never heard that story. The old boy was sometimes rather disgusting, wasn’t he? My own life is fresh bread with country butter and Alpine honey. (Strong Opinions, p. 152).

This comes from an interview with James Mossman, who submitted 58 questions to Nabokov on Sept. 8, 1969, for Review, BBC-2 (Oct. 4). Nabokov answered about 40 of the questions and put together a typescript of questions and answers. On Oct. 23, 1969, The Listener published this, but only in part (see Strong Opinions, p. 141).

Nabokov, who did not like doing live interviews—because of his tendency to hem and haw when speaking “off the Nabocuff”—had a policy of asking interviewers to submit written questions. Some he would choose not to answer, others he would revise before answering. At times he even made up his own questions and then answered them.

Note the clear attribution of Flaubert’s quote above. Galen Strawson tells us precisely when and where Gustave Flaubert wrote his maxim on merde. There can be no doubt that the great writer said this. On the other hand, it is much in doubt that Tolstoy actually made his statement on the shit sandwich that is life. Even if you search through the complete works of Tolstoy, published in Soviet times, you are highly unlikely to find that quote. Soviet publishers could be prudish, so even if he said it, you probably won’t find it there.

Did Tolstoy actually make the statement? I may be wrong, but probably not. Despite his assertion, “I’ve never heard that story,” it could well be that Nabokov himself made it up. Since I’ve retired from teaching Russian literature I have not kept up with Nabokov scholarship. Maybe serious Nabokovian scholars have already lucubrated over this business and have found the answer. Tolstoyan scholars could also be of help.

On another issue that I’ve wondered about. Among others, Nabokov has insisted that the main male protagonist of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is Lyovin (Лёвин), not Levin (Левин). You cannot tell by the way the name is spelled in Russian, as it is common practice to use the Cyrillic letter ‘e’ without the diacritical mark even when it is pronounced ‘yo.’

 I have run across a citation from Tolstoy himself, something with slightly anti-Semitic overtones: “Да не Левин, а Лёвин. Левин, это зубной врач в Бердичеве (It’s not Levin, it’s Lyovin; Levin is a dentist in Berdichev).” The implication here is that Levin (or Levine) is clearly a Jewish name, and Tolstoy’s man of the landed gentry is of the Russian noble class. But then, I have my doubts that Tolstoy ever really made that statement. 

At any rate, most Russians you meet will tell you that the character is Levin, not Lyovin. Of all the translations of Anna Karenina into English, I’ve never seen a translator who opted for Lyovin.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Afanasy Fet, "БАБОЧКА" ("BUTTERFLY") Translation of the Poem into English

Afanasy Fet

Ты прав. Одним воздушным очертаньем
            Я так мила.
Весь бархат мой с его живым миганьем -
            Лишь два крыла.

Не спрашивай: откуда появилась?
            Куда спешу?
Здесь на цветок я легкий опустилась
            И вот - дышу.

Надолго ли, без цели, без усилья,
            Дышать хочу?
Вот-вот сейчас, сверкнув, раскину крылья
            И улечу.
(written no later than Oct. 25, 1884)


You’re right [butterfly narrator speaks to the poet]. It’s just that one outline I trace in the air
That makes me so dear (precious).
All of my velvet with its live (vivacious) twinkling (blinking)
Is just two wings.

Don’t ask from where I have appeared,
Where I’m rushing off to.
Here on this soft (light) bloom I have alighted
And now I breathe.

Is it for long that I aimlessly, effortlessly
Wish to breathe?
Any second now, with a flash, I’ll spread wide my wings
And fly away.


Yes, right you are! Alone for outlines airy
I am so fine.
All velvet mine with all its twinkle merry—
Two wings of mine.

O, never ask me, wherefrom I appear
Or whither flit!
Upon a flow’r I have alighted here
To breathe and sit.

How long, without an effort, aim or worry
Am I to stay?
Just see, now I will flash my spread wings glory
And fly away.

                                                TRANSLATION BY U.R. BOWIE


Look now: one bright flit in the air
And I flaunt my precious bling.
All of this velvet with its flicker-flair
Is only a wing, plus a wing.

Don’t ask from whence I’ve come,
Or whither I’m bound when I leave.
Here on this flower in blithe slumberdom
I perch, and breathe.

Is it for long, in aimless bliss, astride
My bloom I wish to suspirate?
Just watch: in no time now I’ll flash-flip wide
My wings, fly off,
And dissipate.

In translating only four lines of this poem, Vladimir Nabokov, the lepidopterist, does a nice job of capturing the nineteenth-century feel of the style, what he calls "Fet's 'Butterfly' soliloquizing":

Whence have I come and whither am I hasting
Do not inquire;
Now on a graceful flower I have settled
And now respire.

(in Speak, Memory, p. 129)

Russian schoolgirl, Elizaveta Chudinova, age 10, from Evpatorija, Crimea, declaims Fet's "Babochka"

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Marina Tsvetaeva, "МНЕ НРАВИТСЯ, ЧТО ВЫ БОЛЬНЫ НЕ МНОЙ" English translation by U.R. Bowie: "I'm Glad That You're Not Indisposed"

Marina Tsvetaeva, 1913

Marina Tsvetaeva
Russian poet (1892-1941)

Мне нравится, что Вы больны не мной,
Мне нравится, что я больна не Вами,
Что никогда тяжелый шар земной
Не уплывет под нашими ногами.
Мне нравится, что можно быть смешной -
Распущенной - и не играть словами,
И не краснеть удушливой волной,
Слегка соприкоснувшись рукавами.

Мне нравится еще, что Вы при мне
Спокойно обнимаете другую,
Не прочите мне в адовом огне
Гореть за то, что я не Вас целую.
Что имя нежное мое, мой нежный, не
Упоминаете ни днем ни ночью - всуе...
Что никогда в церковной тишине
Не пропоют над нами: аллилуйя!

Спасибо Вам и сердцем и рукой
За то, что Вы меня - не зная сами! -
Так любите: за мой ночной покой,
За редкость встреч закатными часами,
За наши не-гулянья под луной,
За солнце не у нас на головами,
За то, что Вы больны - увы! - не мной,
За то, что я больна - увы! - не Вами.

3 мая 1915 

The Unjoys of Nonlove

I’m glad that you’re not indisposed with feelings steeped in me.
I’m glad that I’m not indisposed with feelings steeped in you.
That never will earth’s gravid sphere float free
Beneath our giddy footsteps specked with dew.
I’m glad that we can laugh capriciously,
Light-minded be, un-vexed by words we’d rue,
That when our sleeves might touch haphazardly,
We need not wince, emotions wrenched askew.

Glad too am I that you before my eyes
Can flirt, caress, arrange a rendezvous,
And wish me not in hell to agonize
If I throw kisses to the winds, but not a one to you.
My name, my tender name, O light of my tender eye,
Take not in vain, to our non-love be true,
I’m glad that never will a church hush solemnize
Our marriage vows, that lofty-soft and sanctified “I do.”

I thank you in my heart, effusively,
For—unbeknownst to you!—so loving me,
For my nocturnal calm, tranquility,
For oh-so-rare that seldomness of meetings secretly,
For non-walks under moonlight near the sea,
For sunshine never sparkling on our lea.
I’m glad (alas) that you’re not sick, with feelings steeped in me.
I’m glad that I’m not sick (alack), with feelings steeped in thee.

May 3, 1915

Translated from the Russian by U. R. Bowie.

                                                             Translator’s Note

This poem is dedicated to Mavriky Aleksandrovich Mints (1886-1917), an engineer from Poland, educated in European universities, who, very shortly after the poem was written, became the husband of Marina Tsvetaeva’s sister Anastasia. The poem, both metered (iambic pentameter) and rhymed, is untitled in the original; the title above is the translator’s. While true to the meaning of the original, the translation is free.

Judging by Anastasia’s reminiscences, her unofficial marriage to Mints, though short-lived, was full of joy and happiness. They never married legally, as he was Jewish and his mother insisted on his marrying a Jewish woman, but they began living together in the autumn of 1915. In the terrible year of 1917, when all was in turmoil over the war and the coming revolutions, Mints suddenly died of peritonitis, followed shortly by their only child, one-year-old Alyosha.

In the seventies Mikael Tariverdiev (1931-1996), a prominent Soviet composer of Armenian descent, set the words of the poem to music.

Performed in the Russian romantic comedy, “The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath” (“Ирония судьбы, или с легким паром”), the song became extremely popular in Russia. The film, perhaps the most beloved Soviet movie ever made, was released at the very end of the year 1975. It has now become a cult classic, shown on Russian television on December 31 every year and watched by the whole country.

Barbara Brylska, a Polish actress, lip-syncs the song in the film, and for years many assumed that she was singing it. But the voice behind the lip-sync is Alla Pugacheva, still young in 1975, but later to become one of the most renowned of Soviet pop singers. The song omits Tsvetaeva’s second stanza.

                                                                   Anastasia Tsvetaeva, 1911

ALLA PUGACHEVA SINGS "I'm Glad that You're Not Indisposed"

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Book Review Article: Jeffrey Eugenides, "THE VIRGIN SUICIDES"

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides (Warner Books, 1993)


Given that the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this book is about to appear in print, now is a good time for another look at a novel that has become a modern classic in American literature. Set in Wayne County, Michigan, in and around Grosse Point, a suburb of Detroit, The Virgin Suicides is steeped in gloom. Since it is narrated, however, with verve and humor, you don’t quite comprehend how sad it is until you’ve read the final pages. You put the book down and that’s when the melancholy grabs you by the soul.

The action takes place in the early seventies of the twentieth century, and the book features one year in the life of a town. The story tells us upfront how it ends—with the suicide of all five Lisbon girls—then goes back to June and retells everything in chronological order. Given that the point of view is not that of the major characters, the five girls, they are frequently seen as rather hazy figures, not totally rounded. The youngest and the first to die, Cecelia, aged thirteen, is clearly delineated, but she appears only in the first few pages. Of the others in this obviously Catholic family—Lux, aged fourteen, Bonnie (fifteen), Mary (sixteen) and Therese (seventeen), only Lux is much developed as a character.

Ostensibly the tale of the tragedy of one middle-class family in suburbia, The Virgin Suicides amounts to much more. It is an elegy on the fall from grace of the American Dream. When did the fall begin? In the fifties, the sixties? Or were the seeds of the fall already there in the eighteenth century, at the dawning of the country’s existence? The book was published in 1993, and now we’re into another millennium, and it appears, with The New Era of Trumpery, that we’ve fallen even further from grace. As Merle Haggard lamented in one of his songs, Where Has America Gone? But then, has the stark reality of life on earth ever been any different? Is it not our aging selves that yearn back for a nostalgic time that, in its essence, was not really that different than now?

The main narrative thread describes the tribulations of American adolescence. The viewpoint is consistently that of young males, teenage boys who, fascinated by female teenage flesh, worship the five Lisbon girls—and spend both waking and sleeping hours trying to figure them out. Meanwhile, over the course of one tragic year, the family loses its youngest to suicide, after which a malaise envelops them all. The overprotective Mrs. Lisbon exacerbates the situation, not allowing the girls to go out with boys, and eventually imprisoning them in the house. Exactly how the four remaining girls get wrapped up in an apparent cult of suicide we are not given to know, as the narration of the novel does not delve into their heads.

Twenty years later the boys who tell the story, now men, are still obsessed with the—now long dead—Lisbon girls. By this time they are “approaching middle age, a few of us balding” (106). They try talking to everyone who came into contact with the girls. They even interview the bereaved parents, now divorced. Once again, we are not given to see inside the mother and father, and we can only marvel that anyone could live through the loss of all their children to suicide.

The boy/men investigators compile facts about the Lisbon girls. They have begun doing this when the girls were still alive, and the obsession continues years into the future. They also compile files of “exhibits;” they collect photographs, letters, and items that become something like religious relics. And they get nowhere. Why did the girls kill themselves? Lots of fashionable psychobabble is bandied about, but, in the end, nobody knows for sure.

Who is telling the story? The point of view of the narration is one of the strangest things about the book. The whole thing is told in a “we” narrative, first person plural, by the investigators, a group of neighborhood boy voyeurs, who spend hours spying on the Lisbon residence. Among these voyeurs is, apparently, an “I” narrator who is consistently present. Somebody is putting the tale into words, but we never learn the name of the narrator. He is simply one more of the adolescents fixated on the girls and their fate. How many of the boys grow up and go on with this fixation? The implication is that all of them do, but that is hardly believable. More likely it is this one anonymous and obsessed main teller who is still investigating the mystery twenty years later.

Note passages where the reminiscences point clearly to one person, not to a collective “us.” The development of the plot begins with the suicide of the youngest girl, Cecilia, aged thirteen. This event impacts the whole rest of the novel. “Poor Cecilia appeared in our consciousness at odd moments, most often as we were just waking up, or staring out a car-pool window streaked with rain—she rose up in her wedding dress, muddy with the afterlife, but then a horn would honk, or our radio alarms would unleash a popular song, and we snapped back to reality (111-112). This is obviously the recollection of the one narrator, not the collective “we.”

Plenty of other passages leave the same impression. There is one “I” guy apart from all the “we” guys. As a grown man he goes on collecting evidence on the Lisbon girls, compiling, e.g., “Exhibit # 10, a photograph of the girls in their Homecoming dresses. Skittish about his treasures, the narrator describes the photo, then warns the reader/colocutor: “Please don’t touch. We’re going to put the picture back in its envelope now” (119). For some reason one of the most grievous things about The Virgin Suicides is this ever-anonymous man, now grown, with a family of his own, but still living his life in the distant past, unable to come to terms with the suicidal girls of his adolescence.

The book has a plethora of boy adolescent characters, and most of them appear fixated on the Lisbon girls. Prominent among the neighborhood voyeurs (the “we” narrators), are (1) Peter Sissen, the first of these “investigators” to be invited to the Lisbon home for dinner. It is he who finds, among other treasures, a used tampon in the bathroom; (2) Paul Baldino, from a mafia family; it is he who sneaks into the Lisbon home and—in what is a strange advancement of the plot—discovers Cecilia, wrists cut, in the tub; (3) Joe Larson, who lives right across the street, and whose house often provides a place where the boys can spy on the Lisbons; (4) Chase Buell, another near neighbor; the members of his family also are featured: his father the Christian Scientist, shot down over Burma in WW II, his mother Joan, an alcoholic, his brother “Little Johnny Buell”; (5) Tim Winer, “the brain,” who examines Cecilia’s diary and finds “emotional instability” (44), who has studied fish flies and lobsters, the way they resemble one another (56); (6) Joe Hill Conley; notably, he is one of the few neighborhood boys who makes real contact with the Lisbon girls. He is among the group of four who take the girls to the homecoming dance. Of these four, only Trip Fontaine (see below) plays much of a role in the overall plot.

The names of boys involved in the fascination with the Lisbons multiplies all out of proportion. It is, in fact, a task to keep up with all the minor male characters in the story: Mike Orriyo, Chip Willard, Vince Fusilli, Valentine Stamorowski, Jerry Burden, Will Timber, Kenny Jenkins, Woody Claubault, Anthony Turkis, and on and on and on. It is impossible to believe that the neighborhood boys who produce the collective “we” narrative could be so numerous.

The witnesses to the extended agony of the Lisbon family, which develops over the course of one year, are legion. In addition to the boys, they include neighbors and townspeople, all of whom have their opinion. Separate incidents are often reported by a single person, who sticks his or her nose into the story this one time only. Becky Talbridge, e.g., reports on her observation of the Lisbon girls, who were camped out in the girls’ bathroom at school, on the Day of Grieving (105). Like one of the fish flies, featured prominently in the life of the town, Eugie Kent flashes his way into the book only once a year (111, 200). The same two paramedics, Fat and Thin, make repetitive visits in their ambulance to the doomed domicile of the Lisbons.

Remarkably, those boys who get closest to the Lisbon girls are not part of the club—the boy virgin voyeurs who are most obsessed with the girls. Among those who are mentioned as having “gone steady” (but not really) with Lux Lisbon are Paul Wannamaker, Kurt Siles, Peter McGuire, Tom Sellers, and Jim Czeslawski (68). These names never appear again in the book. Boys who actually put their hands on the Lisbons are “always the stupidest boys, the most selfish and abused at home, and they made terrible sources of information: ‘You want to know what happened? Smell my fingers, man’” (68).

Sexual frustration may be at the heart of the fixation by the boy virgin voyeurs. The book treats, most often with humor, adolescent male randiness and adolescent male anxiety. When the sexiest of the girls—Lux, aged fourteen, and the only non-virgin among the virgin suicides—goes wild and begins fornicating with assorted males on the roof of her house, the boy voyeurs are not directly involved, but they observe the activities through a telescope. Years later, in the midst of their own copulations, “they”—isn’t this again mainly the hapless “I” narrator?—admit that “it is always that pale wraith we make love to” (146-47).

When certain boys arrive to pick up the Lisbon girls for the Homecoming dance, the boy voyeurs look on from Joe Larson’s house: “Left out, we watched the boys drive up” (119). The anonymous narrator, we learn later, had a date to the homecoming dance, but he had eyes there only for the Lisbon girls. Years later, the narrators—read again, largely, the one anonymous “I” narrator—are “scarred forever,” and “happier with dreams than wives” (169). We learn that the narrator is married, but still copulating with Lux Lisbon in his mind. Trying to locate the nexus of the girls’ pain is compared to searching for nodules in one’s own scrotal sack (170).

The characters of The Virgin Suicides live in American suburbia, where, so they hope, they are insulated from the street riots of the blacks just up the road (Detroit), and where they can indulge in typically American fantasies: such as, we are the exceptional nation, and we, if we are real Americans, deserve happiness. Right smack in the middle of this a thirteen-year-old girl, Cecilia, one of their own, kills herself. Eventually all of her sisters do so as well. “Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls” (231). That’s the major theme of the novel. “They had killed themselves over our dying forests, over manatees maimed by propellers” (245), over probably many other things, but, in the end, nobody really knows why.

All, in the end, is “a chasing after the wind” (248), and, it appears, there is no escaping decadence, not in America or anywhere else. Decadence seeps continually into the pages of the book. The action begins in June, and June is fish-fly season in Michigan. Also known as burrowing mayflies, because at one stage they burrow under the silt at the bottom of the lake, the fish-flies wreak havoc over suburbia for a day or two, “when each year our town is covered by the flotsam of those ephemeral insects. Rising in clouds from the algae in the polluted lake [Lake St. Clair], they blacken windows, coat cars and streetlamps, plaster the municipal docks and festoon the rigging of sailboats, always in the same brown ubiquity of flying scum” (4). On this same early page Cecilia—her mind, apparently, already on suicide—is observed commenting on the transience of the flies: “They only live twenty-four hours. They hatch, they reproduce, and then they croak.” Cecilia leaves her initials in the foamy layer of bugs that coat a Thunderbird on the street.

The fish-flies have a bad smell, and true to the decadent spirit of the narrative, bad smells are all over the place. “We became acquainted with starry skies the girls had gazed at while camping years before, and the boredom of summers traipsing from back yard to front to back again, and even a certain indefinable smell that arose from toilets on rainy nights, which the girls called ‘sewery’” (43).
After Cecilia’s death, Mrs. Lisbon holds the other girls under a tight rein. They eventually are pulled out of school and forced to remain at home, never leaving the stagnation of the house. After Cecilia everything rapidly deteriorates, the Lisbon house rots almost as if a living organism and begins reeking of decay. “For even as the house began to fall apart, casting out whiffs of rotten wood and soggy carpet, this other smell began wafting from the Lisbons’, invading our dreams and making us wash our hands over and over again. The smell was so thick it seemed liquid, and stepping into its current felt like being sprayed” (165). Mafioso son Paul Baldino defines it as “the smell of trapped beaver.”

At the climax of the book, when the boy voyeurs enter the Lisbon house—determined to help the girls escape—they immediately encounter a noisome reek: “The smell, now that we were inside, was stronger than ever. It was the smell of wet plaster, drains clogged with the endless tangle of the girls’ hair, mildewed cabinets, leaking pipes. Paint cans were still stationed under leaks, each full of a weak solution of other times. The living room had a plundered look” (209). In the final pages, “The swamp smell that arose [from Lake St. Clair] was outrageous amid the genteel mansions of the automotive families and the green elevated paddle tennis courts and the graduation parties held under illuminated tents. Debutantes cried over the misfortune of coming out in a season everyone would remember for its bad smell” (234).

Adding to the air of decadence is the cemetery workers’ strike, which continues for the whole year of the book’s action. Bodies cannot be buried and begin piling up. Some are shipped out to other states, where they are refrigerated, awaiting the end of the strike, which is finally settled of the day of the last Lisbon girl’s (Mary’s) suicide. When the Lisbons arrive at the cemetery to bury their daughter they are greeted by mass confusion, dug-up ground in all directions and scads of burials (238-39).

Finally, there is the leitmotif of the dying elm trees, one last emblem of the decadence. Elm trees die throughout the action, and there are even scenes of people saying goodbye to their elms (179). At one point the four surviving Lisbon girls fight to save the family elm, apparently much beloved of Cecilia. By the final pages of the book practically no elms are left. “The Parks Department continued to cut down trees, removing a sick elm to save the remaining twenty, then removing another to save the remaining nineteen, and so on and so on until only the half-tree remained in front of the Lisbons’ old house. Nobody could bear to watch when they came for it . . . . . Everyone stayed inside during the execution of the Lisbons’ tree, but even in our dens we could feel how blinding the outside was becoming, our entire neighborhood like an overexposed photograph” (242-43).

A year goes by in American suburbia. Elms die, the fish-flies come back, and people go on exulting, suffering, living and dying. In addition to the story of the doomed Lisbon girls, the book is full of sub-narratives from the world of Americana, ancillary tales featuring, e.g., (1) Joe the Retard, who shows up at the only party the Lisbon girls throw, becoming the life of the party when the other boys demonstrate how his ears wiggle if you scratch his chin, and who sings a song, “Oh, the monkeys have no tails in Sambo Wango” (28-29); this is Joe’s only appearance in the book; 

(2) Trip Fontaine, a pudgy kid who suddenly comes out of the pudge at puberty to become the heartthrob of the whole school, only to decide he wants the one girl who doesn’t want him: heartless and lubricious fourteen-year-old Lux Lisbon; 

(3) Muffie Perry, known in her schooldays as a great player of field hockey, but discovered twenty years later fighting to save the orchids her grandmother “had bequeathed to the Belle Island Botanical Garden” (108-09); there is an extended sub-narrative here, featuring “The decadence of Belle Isle . . . . the delicate fig-shaped island, stranded between the American Empire and peaceful Canada”; 

(4) The immigrant from Greece, Old Mrs. Karafilis, living in the basement of her family home, waiting to die, recalls her life of hiding out to escape being murdered by the Turks, then wonders how American tribulations she hears about—“Tommy Riggs totaled his parents’ Lincoln”—can compare with hers. She also can never understand why Americans pretend to be happy all the time (171-75). Dark humor, characteristic of the novel as a whole, weaves its way into many of the ancillary bits.

“Meanwhile, a local television show focused on the subject of teenage suicide, inviting two girls and one boy to explain their reasons for attempting it. We listened to them, but it was clear they’d received too much therapy to know the truth. Their answers sounded rehearsed, relying on concepts of self-esteem and other words clumsy on their tongues. One of the girls, Rannie Jilson, had tried to end her life by baking a pie full of rat poison so that she could eat it without attracting suspicion, but had served only to kill her eighty-six-year-old grandmother, a lover of sweets” (97).

Lots of other set pieces make The Virgin Suicides a treasure of fine writing. Here, e.g., is a description of a now-archaic ritual: the raking and burning of leaves in autumnal suburbia.

“In the past, fall began with a collective rattle in the treetops; then, in an endless profusion, the leaves snapped off and came floating down, circling and flapping in updrafts, like the world shedding itself . . . . The first weekend after leaf fall, we began raking in military ranks, heaping piles in the street. Different families used different methods. The Buells employed a three-man formation, with two rakers raking lengthwise and another sweeping in at a right angle . . . . The Pitzenbergers toiled with ten people—two parents, seven teenagers, and the two-year-old Catholic mistake following with a toy rake. Mrs. Anderson, fat, used a leaf blower. We all did our part. Afterward, the scrubbed grass, like thoroughly brushed hair, gave us a pleasure we felt all the way to our bowels”(91).

Note the interloper leaf blower, already there in the early seventies, poised to blow all rakes out of existence and destroy a long and lovely, quiet tradition. By the time of the writing of the narrative, twenty years later, the joy of burning piles of leaves will be gone as well, legislated into illegality. The snowstorms of that Michigan childhood are also a thing of the past. Snow never comes, it seems, in onslaughts anymore. O lost youth! “The world, a tired performer, offers us another half-assed season” (167).

Here, in a book about adolescent awkwardness and unease, is the thing of the dreaded phone call to a girl you like. It is described through the viewpoint of heartthrob Trip, who has been so successful with women before Lux that he has never had to call a girl on the phone. “It was all new to him: the memorization of strategic speeches, the trial runs of possible conversations, the yogic deep breathing, all leading up to the blind, headlong dive into the staticky sea of telephone lines. He hadn’t suffered the eternity of the ring about to be picked up, didn’t know the heart rush of hearing that incomparable voice suddenly linked with his own, the sense it gave of being too close to even see her, of being actually inside her ear. He had never felt the pain of lackluster responses, the dread of ‘Oh . . . hi,’ or the quick annihilation of ‘Who?’” (80).

The book begins with Cecilia, who always goes around in an old wedding dress, who dies in that dress, a virgin bride of Death. The action ends with the mass suicide of the other four girls, in a scene that could be titled The Elopement with Death. For the first time in their lives, the boy voyeurs actually get directly involved—if only briefly. The girls, who apparently know they are being watched, begin secret communications with the boy voyeurs. Eventually they set up a time for a meeting; the boys sneak into the Lisbon residence in the middle of the night. There they encounter luscious Lux, the most fully fleshed out of all the four girls (literally and figuratively). 

The idea is that they will all run off to Florida together. In the film made of the novel (directed by Sophia Coppola) there is even a wonderful flash into a future that never arrives, the scene of the girls and boys in a car, tooling down the road in bliss, on their way to the Sunshine State and freedom. As it turns out, Lux does drive away in the family car, in a manner of speaking. She sits with the motor running until asphyxiated.

The Lisbon girls have unique ideas for their elopement, each of them having selected a separate type of suicide. The pages describing how they do it are among the hardest to read in the book. Upon finding Bonnie hanging in the basement, the terrified boys, who could have saved Lux, and maybe the others,  flee the house and the story. As so frequently in the book, the imagination of the narrator then takes over, and the point of view is stretched.

The narrator later learns that Therese had taken sleeping pills with gin. He imagines the arrival of Fat and Thin, the same two paramedics, on that fatal night. “We knew them now. Knew the way the skinny one drove, with his bursts of acceleration mid-block, his cautious turning, his habit of misjudging the Lisbons’ driveway so that he ran over the lawn. We knew the bending sound a siren made as it passed, a phenomenon Therese identified correctly as the Doppler effect the third time the EMS truck came, but not the fourth because she was bent herself by then, winding down and away in slow spirals, a feeling akin to being sucked through your own intestines” (217). 

We can hear the stretching of the POV twice in this passage. First, how can the narrator know that Therese identified the Doppler effect the third time the paramedics came? Second, how can the narrator presume to get inside Therese and feel what she feels as she dies, even describing that feeling precisely?

No sooner does the narrator go inside Therese than he moves to inhabit the sensations of the paramedics. “We still didn’t know their real names, but we were beginning to intuit the condition of their paramedic lives [here it comes, the POV of the ambulance guys], the smell of bandages and oxygen masks, the taste of pre-calamity dinners on resuscitated mouths, the flavor of life ebbing away on the other side of their own puffing faces, the blood, brain spatter, blue cheeks, bulging eyes, and—on our block—the succession of limp bodies wearing charm bracelets and gold lockets in the shape of a heart” (217-18). Great, evocative writing here, as in much of the rest of the book. The ghostly narrator of The Virgin Suicides, or at least his creator, Jeffrey Eugenides, has quite an imagination

But then again, the whole book seems like a huge POV stretch, in that the main protagonists are constantly observed from aside, never from within. Characters like a local drunk, Uncle Tucker, are relied on to spy from afar on the Lisbons and report their findings.


Given its overriding theme of decadence and romantic dreaming, The Virgin Suicides has something in common with The Great Gatsby, that classic great American novel. The romantic obsession with the Lisbon girls has begun fading even before their death, “no matter how religiously we [read “I”] meditated on them in our [my] most private moments, lying in bed beside two pillows belted together to simulate a human shape. We could no longer evoke with our inner ears the precise pitches and lilts of the Lisbon girls’ voices” (186).

The unnamed narrator is himself a kind of attenuated Gatsby. He never shows up in the flesh of the novel, but operates as a specter, hiding his presence in the fiction of the “we” narration. Like Gatsby, he is in love not with a person, but with his own fiction, with a dream of bygone times and idealized women. The debutante party at the end of the book recalls the wild and frenetic gatherings at the Gatsby mansion, the conjuring up of glee in the midst of decay.

The air was polluted with a putrid swamp smell, so the O’Connors “came up with the ingenious solution of making the theme of their daughter Alice’s debutante party ‘Asphyxiation.’ Guests arrived in tuxedos and gas masks, evening gowns and astronaut helmets, and Mr. O’Connor himself wore a deep-sea diver’s suit, opening the glass face mask to guzzle his bourbon and water. At the party’s zenith, when Alice was rolled out in an artificial lung rented for the night from Henry Ford Hospital . . . . the rotting smell pervading the air seemed like a crowning touch of festive atmosphere” (234-35).

The fish flies, of course, are in attendance at this Feast in the Midst of the Plague, as are the boy voyeur narrators, along with girls “who had never considered taking their own lives . . . . Drunk, and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived—bound, in other words, for life” (235). For the American Dream.

At daybreak, leaving he party, the boy voyeurs see the EMS truck parked in front of the Lisbon house, “flashing its lights. They hadn’t bothered to use the siren” (237). They have come for the final suicide, Mary, who having failed once by sticking her head in the oven, succeeds this time with the help of sleeping pills, “dropped into the palm with the long, lying lifeline” (248).

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.