February 08

Roth, Babel, and a Question of Blood

Val Vinokur

A half century before lamenting in Exit Ghost the man he once was and no longer is, Philip Roth’s protagonist and alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman – in a classic example of oedipal one-upmanship -- revises Isaac Babel’s words. Recalling Babel’s description of “the Jewish writer” in “How It Was Done in Odessa” as “a man with autumn in his heart and spectacles on his nose,” the virile Zuckerman of Roth’s Ghost Writer adds, “and blood in his penis.”

It is easy to imagine why Roth (or rather, Zuckerman) superimposes a caricature of the horny Jewish intellectual onto the Russian writer: Babel was short, asthmatic and bespectacled, but also bawdy and polygamous – think Woody Allen in Love and Death. One may recall Babel’s “My First Fee,” in which the hero boasts of his most precious literary honorarium: the coins returned by a prostitute who had been seduced by a ludicrous sob story about his childhood as a kept boy “with the Armenians.”

Yet the “writer” that Roth would have found in Babel’s How It Was Done in Odessa, is actually not nearly so edgy or virile. Nor is Babel interested in “the Jewish writer” per se – that Babel was a Jew and a writer were more matters of fact and fate in Stalin’s Russia than material for the sort of American identity politics that Roth brilliantly re-imagines and upends. What Babel does care about is the contrast between writing and action. Babel’s writer, who happens to be Jewish, “raises hell at his desk and stammers among the people,” as opposed to the gangster Benya Krik, also Jewish, who “raises hell in the town square and stammers on paper.” [”How It Was Done in Odessa”] If there’s a hard-on in Babel’s fiction it’s not so much for all the ladies in the world, as is the case for Roth’s Zuckerman or Portnoy. Instead, what stands out is Babel’s homoerotic fascination with the man who can raise hell in the street, for the flamboyantly dressed and savory-tongued gangster or Cossack.

Maybe Roth’s version of Babel’s writer figure is simply what happens when a nice, myopic, autumnal Jewish boy is set loose in the American suburbs, where the nebbish gets the girl at the end of every John Hughes movie. Or perhaps the blood collecting down there is a substitute for blood elsewhere – unavailable to Roth, ubiquitous in Babel’s world. Babel’s 1920 Diary, chronicling his participation in the failed Soviet campaign to seize Poland, oozes with the bloody raw matter of the Red Cavalry stories: “Must penetrate into the soul of the fighting man, I’m penetrating, it’s all horrible, beasts with principles.” In Red Cavalry, Babel’s narrator and alter-ego Liutov, so anxious to be accepted by his comrades, tells us: “I prayed that fate would grant me the simplest of abilities, the ability to kill a person.”

Is Babel playing into a standard writer’s snare, in which one seeks authenticity in manly men: soldiers, cops, firefighters, Alaskan crab fishermen, miners, sanitation workers, and all manner of gangster? This macho swagger almost makes one want to embrace the somewhat pathetic tumescence of Roth’s version of the “Jewish writer.” While Roth’s work lays bare the fundamental uncertainty and self-detestation of the writer, at least horniness is better than homicide.

But it’s not that simple. Unlike Roth, Babel actually experienced violence and war, and he knew better than to glorify it. General Budenny, commander of the Red Cavalry, attacked Babel in the press for an effeminately artsy treatment of an ostensibly heroic war – for babizm, the general’s ungainly pun on the author’s name and baba or wench. No great literary critic, Budenny nevertheless perceived that behind the façade of a masculine or heroic authenticity (which Zuckerman converts into literary virility), Babel offers a “Jewish writer” grounded in a subtler, more ambiguous sense of sex.

In “Pan Apolek,” another story from Red Cavalry, Liutov finds an alternative model for artistic authenticity:

The wise and wonderful life of Pan Apolek hit my head like an old wine….” Among the twisted ruins, …fate threw at my feet a Gospel hidden from the world… I then made my vow to follow Pan Apolek’s example. And the sweet spite of daydreams, my bitter scorn for the curs and swine of humankind, the fire of silent and intoxicating revenge – all this I sacrificed to my new vow.

Who is this Apolek, and what is his hidden gospel that compels Liutov to set aside his “sweet spite” for the “beasts with principles”? Apolek is an itinerant Polish painter who draws from the local population (rich and poor, Christian and Jew) to create religious (or sacrilegious) paintings. Apolek tells the hero a story about Jesus attending the wedding of a young maid, Deborah, who was so nervous when her husband approached to consummate the marriage that she vomited all the food she had eaten at the feast.

Shame fell on Deborah…and her kin. Her bridegroom left her, mocking, and summoned all the guests. Then Jesus, seeing the anguish of the woman who thirsted for her husband and feared him, placed upon himself the bridegroom’s apparel and, full of compassion, was joined with Deborah, who lay in vomit. Then she went forth to her guests, noisily triumphant… And only Jesus stood aloof. A deathly perspiration had broken out on his body; the bee of sorrow had stung his heart. Unnoticed, he departed from the banquet hall and made his way to the wilderness east of Judea, where John [the Baptist] awaited him. And Deborah bore her first child, [who would be] hidden by the priests.

Perhaps this obscene gospel is little more than satire, a token of Babel’s atavistically Jewish attitude towards Christian bubbe meyses. Or maybe he’s pushing a Dionysian alternative to the sexlessness of Christian immortality. But neither a debunked Jesus nor a pagan one, unburdened by conventional morality, would be particularly interesting. After all, according to Apolek, Jesus defiles himself, the very body of God, in vomit and in adultery, not for fun or transgression or curiosity but out of compassion for a humiliated bride. Apolek’s Jesus is ashamed and nervous – “the bee of sorrow had stung his heart” – his godliness entailing a willingness to compromise, physically and morally, out of what Dostoevsky calls “insatiable compassion.” Apolek’s gospel presents a completely human godliness: Jesus’s “deathly perspiration” means he is as mortal as anyone.

Babel styled himself the new bard of the sun, herald of a rejuvenating literature from the Black Sea that would burn away Gogol’s Petersburg fog. But the Apollonian clarity of Babel’s sun is not merely bright and revealing and funny, it is above all, relentlessly hot, opening our pores, melting our boundaries, throwing us back on our animal selves. In Babel’s world, not just Christ but everyone and everything sweat. His second wife Antonina Pirozhkova recalls Babel saying that in the day when people used to drink tea properly, they would take it strong and boiling, cup after cup, until it “beaded on the stomach.” In this image, the world is not there for the writer to penetrate – with bullet, pen, or prick – as much as it is there to be absorbed and exuded.

In The Ghost Writer, Roth’s budding writer successfully claims kinship with Babel as insurance against a common literary onanism, in which the writer uses up others but doesn’t put himself on the line. This is also a seduction of sorts: a young Zuckerman hopes the sexed-up Babel reference will impress his prospective mentor Lonoff (inspired in part by the figure of Bernard Malamud), while casting a kind of artistic halo around his own fused eros of literary ambition and philandering. And though Roth never chafed his thighs riding with Cossacks, his fertile prose doesn’t spare anyone, its narrator least of all.

The ruttish Babel of Roth’s Ghost Writer conceals a subtler one, a Babel with a softer notion of who a writer – Jewish or gentile – might be. For one thing, this Babel seems to understand that it is the Mothers of Israel who – full of heroic tricks and disguises – grease, steer, or simply defy the stiff, patriarchal wheel of history (Biblical or otherwise). As Babel’s famous little shop-owner Gedali says:

“All is mortal. Only the mother is destined to immortality. And when the mother is no longer among the living, she leaves a remembrance which none yet has dared to sully. The memory of the mother nourishes in us a compassion that is like the ocean, and the measureless ocean feeds the rivers that dissect the universe… The passionate edifice of Hassidism has had its doors and windows burst open, but it is as immortal as the soul of the mother. With oozing orbits Hasidism still stands at the crossroads of the turbulent winds of history.”

In one of the last stories in Red Cavalry, Liutov records the dying words of Ilya Bratslavsky, a revolutionary and rebbe’s son, as he explains how he could leave his mother behind during the war: “A mother in a revolution…is an episode.” In the larger scheme, the Revolution is what turned out to be an episode.


Images: Isaac Babel and Phillip Roth


Val Vinokur has been published in such venues as Common Knowledge, The Boston Review, McSweeney's, The Russian Review, The Massachusetts Review, Journal of Religion and Society, The Literary Review, New American Writing, and 110 Stories. His book, Traces of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas, will be published by Northwestern University Press in the fall of 2008.