One of the great Russian writers of the 20th century, Isaac Babel was born in Odessa to middle-class Jewish parents in 1894. In his classic “Red Cavalry,” he writes about how he rode with Cossacks in their Polish campaign; and in his comic Odessa stories, he depicts the Damon Runyon-like Jewish gangsters of Odessa’s Moldavanka neighborhood. A protégé of Maxim Gorki, who always protected him, Babel was arrested a few years after Gorki’s death in 1936 and killed by Stalin’s secret police in 1940. This is the first English translation of this short story.
Twenty years ago, when I was young and tender, I wandered coatless through St. Petersburg in a severe Russian winter, with a forged passport in my pocket. I did possess a coat, I confess, but out of principle I refused to wear it. For at that time, my entire belongings consisted of a few short, risk-laden stories.
I took these stories to the publishers, but nobody ever dreamed of reading them. If, by chance, they caught the attention of an occasional eye, they made a rotten impression. One magazine editor sent his valet over with a ruble. Another said my manuscripts were a pack of sheer nonsense; however, he also said that his father-in-law had a flour-market, where he could get me a job as a salesman. I refused the offer and realized that my only recourse was to go and see Maxim Gorki.
Gorki was the editor of the journal Letopis, then being published in St. Petersburg. Within a few months of its appearance, it became our best national journal. Going to Gorki at Grand-Monetnaya Street, my heart pounded within me, then stopped. The most unusual crowd imaginable gathered in the editor’s office: high-society dames, so-called hobos, telegraphists from the sticks, a few communal secretaries and, sitting apart from the others, some workers who were underground Bolsheviks.
We remained alone — Gorki and I — as if dropped from another planet. He called me into his office. The few words spoken by him there forged my destiny.
“There are small nails,” he said, “and big ones. Some as huge as my finger.” He held his long, strong, but delicately shaped finger under my nose. “A writer’s path, respected Leto-pistoleer, is studded with nails, mainly larger sized. You’ll have to walk that path barefoot and lose plenty of blood. As the years go by, it will flow in abundance. You’re a feeble man. They’ll buy you and sell you. They’ll lull you to sleep; they’ll hound you to death. You’ll wither and pretend you’re a tree in blossom. Crossing this path is a great honor for an honest man, an honest writer and a revolutionary. And for such a difficult task, Sir, I give you my blessings!”
No hours in my life were more important than those spent in the Letopis editorial office.
When I departed, I completely lost sense of my physical being. In subzero, blue-burning frost, I ran, in a delirium, through the huge, magnificent buildings of the capital, through corridors open to the dark, distant sky. I recovered only when the black river and the New Village were behind me.
Half the night passed, and only then did I re-cross into St. Petersburg, heading for the room that I had rented the previous day from the naive and young wife of an engineer.
When the woman’s husband had come home from work and observed the puzzling figure before him, he ordered that all the overcoats and boots be removed from the foyer. Moreover, he locked the door of my room, which opened into the couple’s dining room.
Thus, I returned to my quarters. Behind the wall was the foyer, emptied of its overcoats and boots. Nevertheless, joy seethed and boiled over in my soul, cruelly demanding exit. I stood in the hall, smiling at nothing in particular. Suddenly, to my own surprise, I opened the door to the dining room. The engineer and his wife were drinking tea. Seeing me at that late hour, they became white as sheets.
“It’s beginning,” the engineer thought, prepared to sell his life at no little cost. I took two steps toward them and proclaimed that Gorki had promised to publish my stories. Realizing that he had mistaken a lunatic for a thief, the engineer turned dead white.
“I’ll read you the stories, the ones he promised to publish,” I said, sitting down and grabbing his glass of tea.
In my creative work, brevity vied with a determined suppression of politesse. Some of my manuscripts, luckily for loyal people, never did see print. But clipped excerpts from magazines sufficed as evidence to bring me immediately to trial on two counts of attempted overthrow of the existing regime and pornography.
The hearing was supposed to be held in March 1917, but the People intervened on my behalf. They rose at the end of February and burned the indictment and, along with it, the court building itself.
Gorki then lived in Kronveskom Square. I brought him everything I wrote, and I used to write a story a day. (I had to abandon this system later, and so I began to write more slowly.) Gorki read everything, turned down everything and demanded that I continue writing. Finally, we both grew tired, and he told me, in his muffled bass: “It’s perfectly obvious, Sir, that you know nothing thoroughly but are doing lots of guesswork. Go to the people.”
I awoke the following day as the correspondent of an unborn newspaper, with 200 rubles in my pocket for traveling expenses. The paper as such never saw the light of day, but the traveling expenses came in handy. My mission lasted seven years. I trod many paths and witnessed many battles. After those seven years, when I was discharged from army service, I made another attempt to be published, and received a note from Gorki: “Perhaps it can begin.”
And again, passionately and continuously, Gorki coaxed me along. His demand — to augment ceaselessly, and at any cost, the number of necessary and beautiful things on earth — he presented to the thousands of people he had chosen and cultivated, and through them he gave this demand to mankind.
Gorki’s unseen and incredible passion for human creativity never weakened for an instant. He suffered when someone from whom he expected much turned out to be barren. But he would rub his hands with glee and wink to the sky, the earth, and the entire world when one of the sparks burst into full flame.