Lipsyte’s reference to Vassily, I assumed, was buried in the Red Cavalry Stories, themselves filled with pitiless carnage paired with jokes:
“So there we were making mincemeat of the Poles at Belaya Tserkov…we got cut off from the brigade commander…no less than a hundred and fifty paces away, we see a dust cloud which is either the staff or the cavalry transport…off we rode. They were eight sabers. Two of them we felled with our rifles…The horse that the Big Ace was riding was nice and plump like a merchant’s daughter but it was tired. So the general drops his reins, aims his Mauser at me, and puts a hole in my leg…Forgive me for butchering the story in my attempt to show you the shocking nature of Babel’s razor-sharp humor. It is not a long story, three pages or so, and this book is filled with more very short stories, also edgy, always pointed. This translation of the complete works gives short introductions to each series of stories or other work, and in one such introduction we learn about the Red Army campaign:
I got my wheels rolling and put two bullets in his horse. I felt bad about the horse. What a Bolshevik of a stallion, a true Bolshevik! Copper-brown like a coin, tail like a bullet, leg like a bowstring. I wanted to present him alive to Lenin, but nothing came of it. I liquidated that sweet little horse. It tumbled like a bride, and my King of Aces fell out of his saddle. He dashed to one side, then turned back again and put another little loophole in my body. So, in other words, I had already gotten myself three decorations for fighting the enemy…
‘You’ll get me a Red Medal!’ I yell. ‘Give yourself up while I’m still alive, Your Excellency!’”
…'Forgive me,' [the general replies], 'but I cannot give myself up to a Communist…finish me off like a soldier.'
'Well, I guess I did.'” [--from KONKIN]
“In late May 1920, the First Calvary of the Soviet Red Army, under the command of General Budyonny, rode into Volhynia, today the border region of western Ukraine and eastern Poland. The Russian-Polish campaign was underway, the new Soviet government’s first foreign offensive, which was viewed back in Moscow as the first step toward spreading the doctrines of World Revolution to Poland, then to Europe, then to the world…Babel chronicled this campaign in his Red Calvary stories…” [--Nathalie Babel]The campaign began in May 1920 and by September of that year, the soldiers still alive were straggling back in failure. The stories were first published in magazines throughout the 1920s before being collected for a volume published in 1926. They grew out of a “1920 Diary” in which the war correspondent Babel recorded his
“firm Socialist convictions, his sensitivity, his horror at the marauding ways of his Cossack companions, his ambiguous fascination with ‘the West and chivalrous Poland,’ his equivocal stance toward Judaism, with feelings that fluctuate between distaste and tenderness toward the Volhynian Jews, ‘the former (Ukrainian) Yids.’” [--Nathalie Babel]By publishing in magazines, Babel kept the disastrous military campaign in the public eye. Dangerously for him, Babel often used the real names of commanders, including Budyonny, who was destined to become a Marshal of the Soviet Union, despite his uninspiring leadership in the field so hilariously portrayed by Babel. In 1926 Babel responded to criticism that he used real names to document the absurdist atrocities committed. I give you a short version of one of his last for the Calvarymen series:
A Letter to the EditorStrange as it may seem, when I was reading the stories I began to feel a connection with the way we produce humorous TV serials today. Babel’s voice is so unique, hilarious, and humane that he would have been a huge success in Hollywood. The campaign against Poland and Ukraine was a painful reminder of the limits of coercion, and Babel created characters that live in our imaginations and gave them speaking roles that highlight his taste for the absurd. Imagine my delight, then, to discover that Babel also wrote screenplays, which are included at the end of this collection.
In 1920 I served in the First Cavalry’s Sixth Division, of which Comrade Timoshenko was commander at the time. I witnessed his heroic, military, and revolutionary work with much admiration. This wonderful and pristine image of my beloved division commander long ruled my imagination, and when I set about to write my memoirs of the Polish Campaign, my thoughts often returned to him, But in the process of writing, my aim of keeping within the parameters of historical truth began to shift, and I decided instead to express my thoughts in a literary form. All that remained of my original outline were a few authentic surnames…under extreme [time] pressure, and in this last minute rush, I overlooked the vital task of changing the original surnames in the final proofs. I need not stress that Comrade Timoshenko has nothing whatsoever in common with the character in that piece, a fact clear to anyone who has ever crossed paths with the former commander of Division Six, one of the most courageous and selfless of our Red Commanders.
Films in the 1920s were silent films. Babel apparently wrote a screenplay version of his Red Calvary story “Salt,” which was made into a movie in 1925, directed by Pyotr Chardynin and produced by the Ukrainian State Film Company. Babel also wrote subtitles for and screenplays based on the work of others. In 1926 the silent movie “Roaming Stars,” loosely based on Shalom Aleichem’s novel of the same name, Babel wrote the screenplay and subtitles, transforming King Lear’s daughters:
Part TwoIn Babel’s screenplays, actors do not even have to speak to be funny. Babel pokes fun at everything, everyone. This play does not have a happy ending, however, the fact of which has parallels with Babel’s other work.
61. THE THREE DAUGHTERS OF KING LEAR
62. Two of the daughters are stout, middle-aged Jewish women, the third is a girl of about six. Like Otsmakh, the actresses are also wearing lacquered officer’s boots with spurs. Their stomachs are squeezed into satin vests. One of the women is wearing a kind of helmet from which two braids hang down; the second woman, a cap full of feathers. The third of King Lear’s daughters—the six-year-old—has her hair loose, and is wearing a garland of paper flowers. The girl has on a simple peasant tunic. The Jewish women are having a quick snack before the curtain rises. Otsmakh runs past them with the bell.
63. Otsmakh runs onto the stage, the curtain is down.
64. AT THE COURT OF KING LEAR
65. King Lear’s throne stands to the side of the stage. Above the throne hang Japanese fans and family photographs of God knows who, mostly military figures, Right in front of the audience is a case with Hebrew inscriptions, like the cases in synagogues where the Torah scrolls are kept. Otsmakh rings the bell, and looks through a hole at the audience.
66. The eighth row of the orchestra. The audience is from a little ramshackle Galician town. Hasidic men, old women in brown wigs, and headdresses, young men with swank sideburns, opulent Jewish women in tightly corseted dresses. A multitude of children. Babies make up a third of the audience. They are squealing, crying, or sleeping…
After his success with the Red Cavlary stories, Babel traveled, wrote stories, and published dispatches from the field: Georgia (1922-24), and France (1935). In one dispatch from Georgia, Babel muses about ‘Muslim Seminaries and Soviet Schools:’
"Influencing a person’s soul requires vision and circumspection. Under the difficult conditions of the East, these qualities must be multiplied by ten and pushed to the limit…[The Mensheviks] imported the guileless ardor of shortsighted national chauvinism into the tottering kingdom of the Ajarian Mullah. The results were not surprising…Mistrust has been fanned in the Muslim peasants, and passions burst into flame…the Menshevik school…undermined the authorities of its founders but also gnawed away at the basic foundations of the culture…"
Russians have always known the power of the written word. Babel was exceptional in his understanding, his honesty, and his skill. He does more with a handful of Cyrillic characters and two pages than most people can manage in a book-length novel. He was dangerous. He is still dangerous to those who think they can’t be seen to make mistakes.
Sorry for all the extensive quotes, but Babel writes better than I do. Congratulations to everyone involved with this publication, including W.W. Norton for a gorgeous print job. There are a few photographs included. Here is an interview with the amazing Peter Constantine. And thanks to Sam Lipsyte for bringing me to this place. I never did find that reference to “my girls.”
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