Four-eyed, commie Jews from the USSR

  Vassily Grossman

Two writers, two Jews, two intellectuals with glasses thrown into the midst of unspeakable horror and violence – but such different writers!

I have heard of Isaac Babel for years, but never knew anything about him.  He was always associated in my mind with Jewish literature – but then why is he also linked with the Soviet political elite and its destruction in the Great Purges of the 1930s? 

Nadezhda Mandelshtam talks about him in her overwhelming memoir, Hope Against Hope.  Her husband, Osip, considered to be one of the great poets of Russian in the 20th century, despite his small output (he died in the Gulag) regarded people with power as dangerous individuals to be avoided as you would a live power line.  He asked Babel why was he so fascinated by violence; why did he socialize with high-level members of the security organs, the ‘distributors of death?’  Did he want to rub his fingers in their bloody mayhem?  “No,” Babel replied, “I just want to sniff it, to see how it smells.”   He got his wish.  He was arrested on ridiculous charges of counter-revolution and shot in the usual prison basement.

I have been reading Babel’s stories, Red Cavalry.  They tell of the fighting in the Russian-Polish War of 1920, when both the new Republic and the USSR were fighting to extend their borders.  He is the narrator, or is spoken for by one, who travels with a Cossack fighting unit.  They make fun of his education, deriding his eyeglasses.   Like a teenage boy desperately wanting to fit in with some tough guys, he tries to win their approval even if it means acting brutally to an old peasant woman and scaring her into making him a fine dinner.  The stories are short, filled with cruelty, and quite starkly beautiful at times – clearly the work of a serious artist.  The cossacks are portrayed with an intensity that seems to me almost homoerotic, though Lionel Trilling, in a 1955 essay from the appendix, is quick to dismiss that notion.   When Babel describes the gigantic figure of a Cossack with knee-high boots that caress his legs like clinging young girls, what is one to think?  A four-eyed Jew riding with Cossacks [often the agent of Tsarist or popular violent repression of Jews] – how ironic can you get?

The stories are fascinating and disturbing.  Babel seems to worship the Cossacks the way some weak-minded intellectuals worship “men of action,” the type of intellectual who got misty-eyed about generalissimo Stalin or Adolf Hitler.  But…he’s clever, not simple, so he pulls back from that brink:  but it makes for queasy reading.   

Vassily Grossman, on the other hand, also an enthusiastic revolutionary, at least to begin with, is an enormous contrast.  His works are filled with a profound sense of the tragedy of violence.  He shows it, but he is never intrigued, seduced, or mesmerized by it.  Puzzled by the mystery of human evil and cruelty, but not drawn to it.  He writes of small instances of love that seem to redeem the world in the midst of misery.  (I am reading the new publication by NYRB of stories and nonfiction in The Road.)  He writes of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael, and how it evokes in his mind the story of Christ, the love of mothers for their doomed sons,  and the suffering of the Russian peasant.  And he writes, an historical first, an analysis of the Nazi death camps that he visited.

Grossman was known by many as lucky Grossman.  A grenade landed at his feet, but failed to explode.  As a front-line war correspondent, he had many such lucky escapes.  Perhaps his greatest was evading Stalin’s purge of Jews after WWII:  he was on the list most likely, but Stalin died before the thugs brought him in. 

I was reminded of another four-eyed Jew, no artist, no intellectual, while reading Babel’s stories:  David Brooks.  Specifically, I thought of this column (discussed in this earlier post of mine) in which he goes to mush over the declarations of ‘muscular Christianity’ by a bigoted evangelical. 

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. . .

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock – especially if you’re a Jew like me – when you come across something on which he will not compromise. [Such as, that Jews are damned to hell, I wonder?] It’s like being in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among non believers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Brooks loves that “spine of steel,” that unwillingness, or is it inability? to compromise.  He loves the black and white nature of the view.  And he even loves the tribalism, the with us or against us attitude.  I guess Isaac Babel found it shocking how Cossacks looked at Jews like him too, and then fell in love with them when he got close enough to sniff…

8 Responses to Four-eyed, commie Jews from the USSR

  1. I read the “Red Cavalry” stories a few years ago (in the David McDuff translations) and, as you say, they makes for queasy reading. The narrator of these stories (and I assume Babel put at least something of himself into the narrator) clearly admires the military values that the Cossacks possess, but which he, as a Jewish intellectual, doesn’t; but, at the same time, he has no illusion about what these “military values” entail. I found these very disturbing works. The story I remember most is one where he is called upon to finish off a hideously wounded comrade who is writhing in agony, and finds to his shame that he can’t do it.

    Grossman was similar in some ways to Babel, in that he too was a Jewish intellectual who had initially been keen on the revolution. But his view is more openly humane than Babel’s: it is less fraught with complexities and ambiguities. That is not to say his works are lesser. But where Babel specialised in the short story, Grossman’s artistry tended towards the epic.

    I have got “The Road” and the recently published translation of “Everything Flows” on my shelf, but haven’t got round to reading them yet. “Life and Fate”, though, is magnificent. Of course, any epic Russian novel depicting war with so vast a scope is going to invite comparisons with Tolstoy, and it is a measure of Grossman’s achievement that the comparison seems a valid one.

    What I found ironic is that, while the content of “Life and Fate” is such that it could not be published in USSR even during Kruschev’s thaw, the style is, effectively, the state-approved one of “social realism”. Grossman was, effectively, turning the state’s own weapon against itself. But now that the Cold War is over, we may see the work not as a propaganda tool, but as a work of art in its own right, and as such, it really is quite overwhelming.

    Grossman’s translator, Robert Chandler, often gives lectures in London, and I have been to a few. He rates very highly another Russian author who was banned in his own time, and who, like Grossman, is only now getting to be known even in his own country: Andrey Platonov. I frankly find Platonov a strange writer, and find myself mystified by novels such as “Happy Moscow” or “Soul”; but the collection of short stories “The Return and Other Stories” (Robert Chandler’s translation, once again) is excellent.

  2. Lichanos says:

    Thanks for your note, with which I agree! As it happens, I am just now reading The Foundation Pit by Platonov, and it is strange indeed. Strange at the level of the language in each sentence!

    Babel is disturbing, very, but I feel no hesitation in saying that Grossman, for me, is by far the greater writer. I think his view was much larger.

    From an early post of mine on Grossman that you can find at the link above:

    The title of the book echoes Tolstoy’s War and Peace for obvious reasons. Recently, I gave up reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which I have read twice many years ago. That book, similarly ambitious in scope, seems like a trivial joke next to Grossman’s work. The same for Vollman’s Europe Central. Grossman uses no clever tricks, no post-modern jive, no meta-ironies…none of that. He has a style though. He knows exactly what he is doing: hitting you over the head with a gigantic brick so you will know a little bit of what he saw.

    As you say, his style is not ‘adventurous’ but very effective artistically.

    • I just read through your posts on Grossman. And I am merely left wondering why it took me so long to find this blog! For years now, I’ve been singing praises of Vasily Grossman to friends, only to be met with “Vasily Who?”

      • Lichanos says:

        Well, I only have read his works over the last few years…after hearing of them for many more. Glad to find another admirer.

        There are a lot of Russian immigrants in my office. A few years ago, I got to talking about my reading with one of them. He shouted: “You read Grossman!?” He couldn’t believe he’d met an American who knew of him. Later, he told me his wife said to him, “Come now, people who read good literature know about him, of course…”

  3. Ducky's here says:

    The ending of “My First Goose” struck me as homoerotic and that seems to flow through Babel’s stories.

  4. troutsky says:

    Those who see nuance are fascinated by such conviction, often, like Hemingway, confusing it with courage. We’ll see if tonights State of the Union mentions artists at all.

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