Isaac Babel’s Palette

by Mara Naselli

The Soviet writer Isaac Babel is well known for his relentless scrutiny in revision. He and his young wife retreated to the mountains to work on the stories that would become The Red Cavalry, published in 1926. “Achieving the form that he wanted was endless torture,” writes Nathalie Babel. “He would read my mother version after version; thirty years later she still knew the stories by heart.”


The writer Konstantin Paustovsky also recounts when he and Babel sat along the parapet of a cliff discussing the art of writing. Babel flung pebbles into the sea and then quashed his friend’s romantic notions.

“It’s all right for you other writers,” said Babel. “You can wrap things up in the dew of your imagination, as you put it! What an awful expression, by the way! But what would you do if you had no imagination? Like me? . . . I have to know everything, down to the last wrinkle, or I can’t even begin to write. ‘Authenticity,’ that’s the motto, and I’m stuck with it! That’s why I write so little and so slowly. Because it’s terribly hard.”

Babel explained his method: “I take out all the participles and adverbs I can. Participles are heavy, angular, they destroy the rhythm. They grate like tanks going over rubble. Three participles to one sentence, and you kill the language. . . . Adverbs are lighter. They can even lend you wings in a way. But too many of them make the language spineless. . . . A noun needs only one adjective, the choicest. Only a genius can afford two adjectives to one noun.”

I often cited Babel when I’d strike adjectives and participles of manuscripts I edited, but it wasn’t until I started reading Babel as a writer that I came to consider his choices. If he could write twenty-two drafts of a single story, we might ask why so many of those adjectives he deploys are color. There are red rays of moonlight, red hands and faces, red velvet, red sweat, pink lamps, pink corsets, pink foam on the mouth of a rabid dog, blue fingernails, blue silk, blue carpet, blue morning, blue granite, blue nights, the blue tongue of a flame, green fires, the green calm of graves, green turbans, green glass, yellow eyes, yellow boots, yellow fingers, a yellow halo of frost. The throbbing mix in Babel’s prose combines violence, sexuality, and art, much of it telegraphed through the fleshy suggestion of color. Just as Pan Apolek paints the faces of peasants and sinners onto the church walls, Babel paints unflinching portraits of the Cossacks he rides with and the peasants they plunder. His curiosity is boundless.

As Stalin’s purges escalated, the poet Osip Mandlestam asked Babel why he allowed himself to socialize with the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. Nadezhda Mandelstam retells the moment in Hope Against Hope: “Was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death? Did he just want to touch it with his fingers? ‘No,’ Babel replied, ‘I don’t want to touch it with my fingers—I just like to have a sniff and see what it smells like.’” Babel had an encyclopedic interest and, it seems, an immunity to political platitudes. This would eventually put him in a difficult position. The more I read Babel, the more I wondered if one way he managed to write with authenticity while remaining ungovernable by the state was through color.

The story “Guy de Maupassant” contains one of the most famous lines of Babel’s oeuvre: “A phrase is born into the world good and bad at the same time. The secret rests in a barely perceptible turn. The lever must lie in one’s hand and get warm. It must be turned once, and no more.” It sounds like the tightrope writers walk between muddiness and clarity, but when you consider the context of Babel’s time, the stakes for a certain kind of precision are even higher.

“Guy de Maupassant” appeared in the magazine Thirty Days, in 1932, with a caricature of Babel opening a trunk labeled “Baggage 1919.” The caption read, “Whenever I want to open my trunk I’m seized by fever and trembling.” The suggestion was that Babel’s material, the revolutionary advance into Poland, was spent. The Red Cavalry had brought Babel immediate fame. Since then, the cartoon suggested, the celebrated author had nothing more to offer.

The story tells of a penniless translator assisting Raisa, the wife of a wealthy businessman, in the translation of the works of Maupassant. The scenes are flush with reds, pinks, and brick: the pink columns of the Benderskys’ house, the red carpet on the stairs (offset by the bears with lamps burning in their mouths, also, presumably, a fleshy red). When Raisa makes her first appearance from behind the brocade curtain, she is “pink-eyed, bearing her large breasts before her.” When her translator tells the story of his childhood, “the reddish hairs of her eyelashes quivered mournfully.”

Raisa and her sisters are of a type—large, warm, and pink, like well-fed pigs. When Babel writes of the explosion of women’s laughter, one cannot help but see the pink redness of uncovered open mouths. Even her passion, the twenty-nine volumes of Maupassant, are touched by the setting sun’s “melting fingers,” already burnished by the red sumac dye of Moroccan leather.

Breasts and bosoms (could they be anything but pink?) also appear throughout the story—the maid’s pointed breasts, the sisters’ breasts “thrust forward” and their “burning, rouged cheeks.” It's a lusty scene.

The most intense reds appear in the pair’s translation of “L’Aveu.” The hero of Maupassant’s story, we are told, is the French sun, “falling on the [freckled and] red-haired Céleste.” Polyte, the coachman, is the color of wine, apple cider, becoming redder and darker as the sexual transgression of the story heats up, like a dark fairy tale. This, however, is a revision of Babel’s imagination. In the original French, Polyte is the color of brick from the start. Babel makes other revisions to Maupassant’s colors. In Maupassant’s story, Céleste laughs at Polyte’s joke about her thick legs, which peek out from under her skirts, in blue stockings, as she steps into the coach. Notwithstanding the expression, blue has already been cast a role in Babel’s story—the little coffee cups, the Roerich paintings, the armchair in the Slavic style. Céleste and Polyte must play a more carnal role. Babel’s fingertips grasp the key, gently warming it, and turn it once. In Babel’s story, Céleste says one thing and does another, signaling that she will eventually open herself to the devil: “‘I don’t like such jokes, Monsieur Polyte,’ Céleste answered, and swept her skirts, which hung over her powerful, red-stocking calves, away from the young man.”

As Paulo and Francesca are condemned in Dante’s Inferno for confusing their imagined world for the real one, the translator and Raisa forget themselves. When the translator returns home to his bleak apartment, he reads a biography of Maupassant until dawn. Maupassant, he learns, spent his last days in a lunatic asylum, crawling on all fours and eating his own excrement. But this too is Babel’s invention; it seems he had an imagination after all.

In his speech at the Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow, in 1934, Babel famously acknowledged his silence. “Respect for the reader. I am suffering from a hypertrophy of that feeling. I respect the reader so much that it makes me numb and I fall silent. And so I keep silent.” The audience laughed.

In fact, Babel was writing. In his many letters to his sister and mother in Belgium, he diligently reports that he is busy, that he wants nothing but to work, and that he feels, at last, that he has become a professional writer. In the next breath, he admits this may not yet be evident yet in the writing. He seems to assure his family as much himself that he is working, despite the public’s disapproval and the failed promise of his early success.

Babel’s second wife, who was with him from 1932 until his arrest, also attests to the volume of his work on film and other projects. She describes Babel’s intense periods of absorption in which he would pace the room, winding and unwinding a string around his finger, stopping only to make notes. When he was arrested, in May 1939, Babel had been writing and revising a collection of stories that was to be published in the fall. This is the work he begged to finish at the moment of his arrest.

If Babel walked an impossibly fine line between silence and art at the end of his life and career, we have some insight to how he began. In “Odessa,” a short piece from Leaves from My Notebook, published in 1916–17, he shows the unencumbered, clear-eyed ambition of his art: “Now it may be that Maupassant doesn’t know anything—or perhaps he knows everything there is to know. He has a carriage clattering down the road scorched by the heat, and in this carriage there’s the fat, sly youth Polyte and a strapping, ungainly peasant girl. What they’re doing in there, and why, is their own business. The sky is hot and the earth is hot. The sweat is pouring off Polyte and the girl, and the carriage is clattering down the road scorched by the heat. That’s all there is to it.”