Sunday, September 17, 2006

Reading. Babel.

I first (and last) read Babel in college. I remember nothing of what I read, only that he had been one of those writers lost to us too young, a ghost of that reign of terror that swallowed up so many bright lights and cast a long shadow across the lives of those who somehow managed to survive. Arrested in 1939, he was imprisoned in the Lubyanka, where he was executed in 1940. The Lubyanka still dominates the square of the same name, its Neo-Baroque fa├žade concealing the prison where inmates were held, interrogated, tortured, shot, or sentenced to an eternity in the vast expanse of darkness that was the gulag. Across the street is Detsky Mir, or Children's World, which has been for some fifty years the largest children's store in the country. There is a little something of the ridiculous in the juxtaposition of the two.

While unpacking my library I came across his Collected Stories, and it seemed time again to return to Babel. During my recent book-buying binge (which led to an avalanche of cardboard boxes; for a week my bemused concierge would hand another one to me every day as I came home from work) I acquired Babel's 1920 Diary and his Red Calvary. Actually, the diary is included in Red Calvary, but the translations and notes are different. The diary formed the basis for the stories that make up the Red Calvary cycle, and it was there I began again.

In 1920 Babel was a correspondent with the Red Army during the Soviet-Polish war. He was just twenty-six years old, but already an accomplished writer and journalist. The diary that he kept during this time was hidden for several decades after his death; as with many of the writers lost in Stalin's purges there is only, as Babel's daughter Nathalie put it, a mere half shelf of writing left to us. (What was that scene in Arcadia, when Thomasina asks Septimus how he can bear the burning of the library of Alexandria? By counting our stock...You should no more grieve for the rest than...for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. When I read all that is left of these lost writers, even just a handful of stories and journals, I think of Stoppard's words).

The first fifty-four pages are lost, but what remains are Babel's quick words slipping past, like the landscape falling behind outside the window of the train, brief impressions of the towns passing by and the people he meets here and there, asides and observations on everything and everyone. I am the same age he is when this was written and I wish I had his ease with words, his ability to see everything about him and write about it so clearly. There is confidence, and doubt, and reflections on himself and his identity, as a writer, as a Russian, as a Jew, as a Soviet...

I'm tired. And suddenly I'm lonely, life flows past me, and what does it mean.

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