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

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Did Babel read Hemingway?

Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories, which I tried to read a few years back and couldn't really make sense of, now make more sense to me as I've read some more of his work plus some materials about Babel (esp the Trilling afterword in the Penguin Collected Stories) - and was particularly impressed w/ the two quite short stories that I read last night, Crossing into Poland (as it's sometimes called; in this edition it was the name of a river I've never heard of) and My First Goose. The Crossing story is a very short piece about Babel with the troops crossing a very powerful river - terrific paragraph describes it; other writers would take pages - the horses up to their shoulders in the water, one toppling into the rushing current, the soldier riding the horse screaming curses - and into a small village - where the soldiers must get "billeted" (made illegal in the U.S. for good reason). Babel goes to the house of three Jews - interestingly, he does not acknowledge his own Jewishness here, as the whole struggle of these stories is his attempt to fit in and be accepted by the tough, course soldiers. While the woman of the house gets things ready for him in this filthy place - excrement on the floor, as he notes - one old Jew sleeps curled up in the corner. At the end, she pulls the blanket from him, we see that he has been killed - in the room, in front of his family. What terror and what trauma, and all told so starkly and without emotion. It's hard to believe Babel had not, somehow, read In Our Time: the very short stories like flashes, illuminating a moment of war, and of course the dead man with his neck slit - much like the "sleeping" Indian in Indian Camp. My First Goose is a almost a companion piece - another story in which Babel gets billeted, but in this case it's a group of Cossack soldiers, tough guys, who threaten him and treat him like dirt - the commanding officer made some ominous remarks as to whether Babel could "fit in," with his glasses, etc. - in other words, as a Jew. Babel, frustrated and belittled, turns on someone weaker and crushes the neck of a goose - then demands that the woman who owns the house cook the goose for him. It appears that she never does, but his cruel action wins over the tough Cossacks who offer him some food and, more important, fellowship. It's a hazing story, as (I think) Trilling noted - and the title is significant as well - calling it his "first goose" tells us that others followed, by which I think he means other acts of ritual cruelty to prove his worth and manhood.

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