Reading list: Isaac Babel

How to start: Isaac Babel was a multi-talented writer who was executed at 45 during one of Stalin’s great purges. John Updike wrote an excellent synopsis of his life in the New Yorker. In the Wikipedia entry on Babel, George Saunders is quoted as saying: “There’s a Russian writer named Isaac Babel that I love. I can drop in anywhere in his works, read a few pages and go, Oh yeah, language. It’s almost like if you were tuning a guitar and you heard a beautifully tuned one and you say, Yeah, that’s what we want. We want something that perfect. When I read him, it recalibrates my ear. It reminds me of the difference between an OK sentence and a really masterful sentence. Babel does it for me.”

Favourite passage:
“You’re shortsighted, eh?”
“Quite so.”
“Alexander Fyodorovich, you ought to wear glasses.”
Then, bubbling over like a mere boy, I said to him:
“Just think: you’re not merely blind, you’re practically dead! Line, that divine trait, mistress of the world, eternally escapes you. Here we are, you and I, walking about in this magic garden, this Finnish forest that almost baffles description. All our lives we shall never see anything more beautiful. And you can’t see the pink edges of the frozen waterfall, over there by the stream! You are blind to the Japanese chiseling of the weeping willow leaning over the waterfall. The red trunks of the pines are covered by snow in which a thousand sparks are gleaming. The snow, shapeless when it fell, has draped itself along the branches, lying on their surfaces that undulate like a line drawn by Leonardo. In the snow flaming clouds are reflected. And think what you’d have to say about Fröken Kirsti’s silk stockings; about the line of her leg, that lovely line! I beseech you Alexander Fyodorovich, buy a pair of glasses!”
“My child,” he replied, “don’t waste your time. Forty copecks for spectacles are the only forty copecks I’ve no wish to squander. I don’t need your line, vulgar as truth is vulgar. You live your life as though you were a teacher of trigonometry, while I for my part live in a world of miracles, even when I’m only at Klyazma. What do I need to see Fröken Kirsti’s freckles for, if even when I can scarcely make her out I can see in her all I wish to see? What do I need Finnish clouds for, when above my head I see a moving ocean? What do I need line for, when I have color? To me the whole universe is a gigantic theater, and I am the only member of the audience who hasn’t glued opera glasses to his eyes. The orchestra is playing the overture to the third act; the stage is far away, just as in a dream; my heart swells with ecstasy. I see Juliet’s purple velvet, Romeo’s lilac silk, and not a single false beard. And you want me to blind myself with forty-copeck spectacles!”
- from "Line and Color"