Saunders on Babel, Prose Poet of the Grotesque

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About George Saunders

George Saunders

George Saunders' barbed tales of prosthetically enhanced infants, city-devouring ad campaigns and other mishaps of the new American century are collected in his most recent book, In Persuasion Nation. His children's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip gives the little ones much to be suspicious of, too.

George Saunders is a satirist who pursues the hyper-marketed character of American life to its most deranged extremes. So it's perhaps not surprising that Saunders is a fan of the short fiction of Isaac Babel, which charted the very different but no less absurdist perils of life in the Jewish shtetl and among revolutionary Cossack armies in the Russia of the early 20th century.

Q: How did you first encounter Babel's work?

A: I first read Babel in a class Tobias Wolff was teaching on the short-story collection. I think what impressed me was the way Babel could be both minimalist and maximalist at once. I'd just come back from working in the oilfields in Asia and was looking for a way to write about that experience. I was a big Hemingway fiend but somehow that approach wasn't working for the Asian material. ("Nick went into the McDonald's on Orchard Road, where all the transvestites would gather. He ordered a Big Mac. It was pleasant.") Of course, ultimately, the Babel approach didn't work either. ("Nikolai approached the McDonald's on Orchard Road, the sun looming like a lopped-off head, the transvestites with their sponge-like fingers sitting at the little tables like…like…like sponge-fingered transvestites.") But it was interesting to see how prose could be simultaneously lush and sparse.

At that time, the New Realism was very much in the air, and often that meant — in the hands of the legions of young Carver-imitators, including me – a kind of purposeful flatness in the prose, an attempt to make the prose vanish. And Babel seemed to represent the opposite of that, while preserving the virtues of minimalism: speed, certainty, narrative shapeliness.

Q: Did that translate into any changes in your writing or how you thought about fiction?

A: In my reading of him, there's this sense of two types of beauty crossing in Babel's prose: the beauty of the world, and the beauty of the sentence. The reader feels dazzled by the intelligence compressed into so few words, and then makes that extra effort of visualizing the described thing. I don't think he's trying to be accurate, as such. He's trying to create an impression in the mind. That was refreshing to me as a writer. I'm not much good at physical description. I kind of draw a blank when I try to think of, say, a novel way of describing a tree. But I feel a little more confident if the charge is: Write an unusual sentence with a tree in it.

Q: What do you think informs Babel's comfort with — some would say idealization of — the casual brutality of the Cossacks and the pogroms of his youth?

A: I expect it has to do with his childhood: growing up a thoughtful, intellectual kid in a world (Odessa, circa early 1900s) that was rough and full of violence. So one way a person might bridge this gap is to write about violence in a casual way. (Or it might be more the case that he was on the outside of that violence, looking at it, afraid and fascinated). And apparently he had, all his life, this fascination with violence — starting with his trip into Poland with the Cossacks and, some say, ending with his arrest, which may or may not have been related to his friendship with high-ranking members of the secret police and/or an affair with one of their wives.

In my case, I grew up in Chicago and there was a lot of fist-fighting and petty brutality around the neighborhood, and, I would say, a disregard for braininess. So a person inclined towards thinking might find himself trying to accommodate these two competing world views. When a person has seen this way of living up close, it becomes central to who you are. You can deny it, you can embrace it, but there it is, you know? And I get that feeling with Babel.

Also, of course, there is great drama in violence, and in a certain sense, all literature is about the grotesque. Or, let's say, about the unusual – nobody wants to know about what happened the day Little Red Riding Hood missed seeing The Wolf.

Excerpt: 'The Story of My Dovecote'

For Maxim Gorky

As a child I wanted a dovecote very badly. In all my life I have never desired anything more intensely. I was nine years old when my father promised to give me the money to buy some planks and three pairs of doves. The year was 1904. I was getting ready for the examinations for the preparatory class of the Nikolayev Lycée. My family lived in Nikolayev, in the province of Kherson. This province no longer exists; our town was absorbed into the district of Odessa.

I was only nine years old, and was frightened of the examinations. In both Russian and mathematics I could not afford to get less than five, the highest grade. The Jewish entry quota for our lycée was harsh, only five percent. Out of forty boys, only two Jews could be admitted into the preparatory class. The teachers would come up with the most cunning questions for these two boys; nobody was given the kind of complicated questions we were. So my father promised to buy me doves on condition that I manage to get two five-pluses. He tormented me more than I can say, I tumbled into a never-ending daydream—the long, desperate dream of a child—and though I went to the examination immersed in that dream, I still fared better than the rest.

I was good at learning. The teachers, though they tried every trick, did not manage to waylay my mind and my sharp memory. I was good at learning, and so got two fives. But then the situation changed. Khariton Efrussi, the grain merchant who exported wheat to Marseilles, proffered a five-hundred-ruble bribe for his son, I was given a five-minus instead of a five, and the lycée admitted Efrussi Junior in my place. My father was deeply pained by this. From the time I was six, he had taught me all the subjects you could imagine. That minus drove him to desperation. He wanted to beat Efrussi up, or to hire two dockworkers to beat him up, but mother talked him out of it, and I began preparing myself for the examination next year for the following grade. Behind my back, my family talked my tutor into going over the lessons for both the preparatory class and the first class within one year, and, as we were completely desperate, I ended up learning three books by heart. These books were Smirnovsky’s grammar, Yevtushevsky’s book of mathematical problems, and Putsikovich’s introduction to Russian history. Children no longer study these books, but I learned them by heart, line by line, and the following year Karavayev, the schoolmaster, gave me those unattainable five-pluses in my Russian language examination.

Karavayev was a ruddy-faced, indignant man who had been a student in Moscow. He was barely thirty. His manly cheeks blossomed with the flush seen on the cheeks of peasant children. He had a wart on his face from which a tuft of ashen, feline hair sprouted. Also present at the examination besides Karavayev was the deputy warden, who was considered an important figure not only in the lycée but in the whole province. The deputy warden asked me about Peter I, and a blankness came over me, a feeling that the end, the abyss, was near, a dry abyss surrounded by delight and despair.

I knew by heart the passage about Peter the Great in Putsikovich’s book and Pushkin’s poems. I recited the poems in sobs. Faces swarmed into my eyes, mixing and shuffling deep inside like a fresh deck of cards, while I, shivering, straight-backed, shouted out Pushkin’s verses with all my might, as fast as I could. I went on shouting the verses for a long time, nobody interrupting my crazed rambling. Across my crimson blindness, across the freedom that had taken hold of me, I only saw Pyatnitsky’s old face leaning forward with its silvery beard. He did not interrupt me, but turned to Karavayev, who was rejoicing in Pushkin and me, and whispered, “What a nation! The devil is in these Yids!”

When I finished he said, “Very good, off you go now, my little friend.”

I left the classroom and went out into the corridor, and there, leaning against the unpainted wall, I woke from the convulsions of my dreams. Russian boys were playing all around me, the school bell hung nearby over the official-looking flight of stairs, a watchman was dozing on a broken chair. I gazed at him and began to come back to my senses. Children came creeping toward me from all sides. They wanted to poke me and get me to play with them, but suddenly Pyatnitsky appeared in the corridor. Passing by me, he stopped for an instant, his frock coat undulating in a heavy slow wave over his back. I saw emotion in his large, fleshy, gentlemanly back, and I went up to him.

“Children,” he told the schoolboys. “Leave this boy alone!” And he laid his fat, tender hand on my shoulder. “My little friend,” Pyatnitsky said, turning to me. “You can go and tell your father that you have been accepted into the first class.”

A magnificent star shone on his chest, medals tinkled by his lapel, and hemmed in by the murky walls, moving between them like a barge moves through a deep canal, his large, black, uniformed body marched off on rigid legs and disappeared through the doors of the headmaster’s office. A little attendant brought him tea with solemn ceremony, and I ran home to our store.

In our store a muzhik customer sat scratching his head in the grip of indecision. When my father saw me, he abandoned the muzhik and drank in my story without a moment’s doubt. He shouted to his sales clerk to close the store, and rushed over to Sobornaya Street to buy me a cap with the school emblem on it. My poor mother barely managed to wrest me away from my delirious father. She stood there, pale, trying to foresee my fate. She kept caressing me and then pushing me away in disgust. She said that a list of all the children admitted into the lycée was always published in the newspapers, and that God would punish us and that people would laugh at us, if we bought a school uniform ahead of time. My mother was pale, she was trying to foresee my fate in my eyes, and looked at me with bitter pity, as if I were a little cripple, for she was the only one who fully realized how luckless our family was.

All the men of our clan had been too trusting of others and too quick to take unconsidered action. We had never had any luck in anything. My grandfather had once been a rabbi in Belaya Tserkov, had been chased out of town for blasphemy, and then lived in scandal and poverty for another forty years, learned foreign languages, and started going insane in his eightieth year. My Uncle Lev, my father’s brother, studied at the Yeshiva in Volozhin, evaded conscription in 1892, and abducted the daughter of a quartermaster serving in the Kiev military district. Uncle Lev took this woman to California, to Los Angeles, where he abandoned her, and he died in a madhouse among Negroes and Malays. After his death, the American police sent us his belongings—a large trunk reinforced with brown iron hoops—from Los Angeles. In this trunk were dumbbells, locks of a woman’s hair, Uncle’s tallith, whips with gilded tips, and herbal tea in little boxes trimmed with cheap pearls. The only men left in the family were mad Uncle Simon, who lived in Odessa, my father, and me. But my father was too trusting of others, he offended people with his exhilarating welcome of first love. They did not forgive him for this, and so cheated him. This was why my father believed that his life was governed by a malevolent fate, an inscrutable being that pursued him and that was unlike him in every way. So in our family I was my mother’s only hope. Like all Jews, I was short in stature, weak, and plagued by headaches from too much study. My mother could see this clearly. She had never been blinded by her husband’s destitute pride and his incomprehensible belief that our family would one day be stronger and richer than other people in this world. She did not foresee any success for us, was frightened of buying a school uniform ahead of time, and only acceded to my having my picture taken by a portrait photographer.

On September 20, 1905, a list of all those who had managed to enter the first class was posted outside the lycée. My name was on that list. My whole family went to look at this piece of paper—even Grandpa Shoyl, my great-uncle, went to the lycée. I loved this braggart of an old man because he sold fish in the market. His fat hands were moist, covered with fish scales, and reeked of wonderful, cold worlds. Shoyl was also different from other people because of his fabricated stories about the Polish uprising of 1861. In the distant past, he had been an innkeeper in Skvira. He had witnessed the soldiers of Nicholas I shoot Count Godlewski and other Polish insurgents. But then again, maybe he hadn’t witnessed this. Now I know that Shoyl was no more than an old fool and a naive teller of tall tales, but I have not forgotten those little tales of his, they were good tales. So even foolish Shoyl went over to the lycée to read the list that had my name on it, and in the evening he danced and stamped his feet at our beggarly feast.

My father organized a feast of celebration and invited his comrades—grain merchants, estate brokers, and itinerant salesmen who sold agricultural machines in our region. These itinerant salesmen sold machines to everyone. Both muzhiks and landowners were afraid of them, as they could not get rid of them without buying something. Of all the Jews, the itinerant salesmen are the most worldly and cheerful. At our feast they sang drawn-out Hasidic songs made up of only three words, but with many funny intonations. Only those who have celebrated Passover with the Hasidim, or who have visited their boisterous synagogues in Volhynia, know the charm of these intonations. Old Liberman, who taught me Hebrew and the Torah, also came to our house that evening. My family always addressed him as Monsieur Liberman. He drank more Bessarabian wine than he should have, the traditional silk strings slipped out from under his red vest, and he called out a toast in my honor in Hebrew. In this toast the old man congratulated my parents, and said that by passing this examination I had won a victory over all my foes, I had won a victory over the fat-cheeked Russian boys and the sons of our roughneck rich. Thus in ancient times had David, the King of the Jews, won a victory over Goliath, and just as I had triumphed over Goliath, so too would our people, through its sheer power of mind, triumph over the foes that surround us, eager for our blood. Monsieur Liberman wept, pronounced these words weeping, drank some more wine, and yelled, “Vivat!” The dancing guests took him into the circle and danced with him the ancient quadrille, as at a shtetl wedding. Everyone was joyful at our feast, even my mother took a little sip of wine, though she did not like vodka and did not understand how anyone could. Which is why she thought all Russians were mad, and why she could not understand how women could live with Russian husbands.

But our happy days were to begin later. For my mother they began when she started making me sandwiches in the morning before I left for school, when we went from store to store buying festive supplies—a pencil box, a piggybank, a schoolbag, new books with hard covers, and notebooks with glossy covers. No one in the world has a stronger response to new things than children. They shudder at the smell that new things give off, like dogs at the scent of a rabbit, and experience a madness, which later, when one is an adult, is called inspiration. And this clean, childish feeling of ownership of new things infected my mother too. It took us a whole month to get used to the pencil box and the morning twilight, when I would drink tea at the edge of the large, brightly lit table and gather my books into my schoolbag. It took us a whole month to get used to our happy life, and it was only after the first school term that I remembered the doves.

I had gotten everything ready for them—the one and a half rubles and the dovecote made out of a box by Grandpa Shoyl. The dovecote was given a coat of brown paint. It had nests for twelve pairs of doves, a series of little slats on its roof, and special grating I had invented so that it would be easier for other doves to come in too. Everything was ready. On Sunday, October 22, I set off to the wild game market, but I ran into unexpected obstacles along the way.

Excerpted from The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel edited by Nathalie Babel, translated by Peter Constantine. Compilation copyright © 2002, Nathalie Babel. Translation copyright © 2002, Peter Constantine. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Books Featured In This Story

The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel
The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel

by Isaac Babel, Nathalie Babel, Peter Constantine and Cynthia Ozick

Paperback, 511 pages | purchase

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  • The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel
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