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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Anti-Smitism: Babel wrote about it; why did the other great Russian writers ignore it?

Isaac Babel is not the easiest or smoothest or most polished of writers - have just been looking into his collected stories once again and, reading, The Story of My Dovecot (one of the so-called autobiographical pieces - he even uses his own surname - wondering how or even whether this piece differs from what today we would call a memoir-essay?) and found the prose very choppy and the structure of the story rough and uneven (maybe some of this is the translation?) - and yet - what a powerful and affecting story, a piece that takes on the scourge of anti-Semitism - something that the other great Russian writers either ignore altogether or blithely accept as the norm. The beauty of this piece, its subtlety, is the way in which Babel takes on these theme surreptitiously - all as seen through the eyes of a young boy (him) in elementary school, only vaguely understanding the social movement, the hatred, and the violence that was erupting all around him - now from some distant point he's looking back, so he understands that this was a powerful episode in his young life, but the narrator doesn't analyze or pontificate, just presents the events and conditions of the story: Young Babel pushed by father to earn highest marks in school to gain entry into a prestigious high school, one of the 2 seats reserved for Jews; boy does perform well but seat is taken up by a wealthy Jewish family that pays a bribe; he's championed nevertheless by a sympathetic teacher - but when brought before a higher educational authority to demonstrate his knowledge, he chokes up, and we get a clear sense that they look on him as a freak of nature - how amusing that a Jew performs so well in school, etc. Father agrees to provide Isaac w/ a small dovecot (how sweet that owning one and a flock of pigeons was his ambition - and maybe symbolic as well?), and I., against parental orders, sneaks out to go to a fairground to buy the doves. While at the fairground rumors start going around about some sort of violence - we pick up only from subtle hints that these are riots against the Jews (a mere foretaste of the Nazi pogroms years down the road); Isaac makes his way home, is attacked by a man and woman who beat him with one of his purchased pigeons, a v powerful scene (the woman talks about destroying all their "seed" and we know now whom she's talking about, not the pigeons), and I gets home to find his great uncle dead and a servant gently tending to the body. This is the dark and unspoken side of the great Soviet revolution; hard not to think of Babel disappeared and dead somewhere in the Gulag as we read this and other stories. He saw it coming, no doubt.

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