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The Bookshelf: Odessa


Babel’s prose does not merely draw on past themes and forms, but is the forging of a new manner of writing, which reflected new times. Babel’s readers are not only students of Russian literature and history or of the Russian Revolution. They belong to different cultures, different religions, and different social classes. They have no single national tradition.

by Nathalie Babel


Odessa is a horrible town. Its common knowledge. Instead of say-ing “a great difference,” people there say “two great differences,” and “tuda i syuda,”* [here and there] they pronounce “tudoyu i syudoyu\ And yet I feel that there are quite a few good things one can say about this important town, the most charming city of the Russian Empire. If you think about it, it is a town in which you can live free and easy. Half the population is made up of Jews, and Jews are a people who have learned a few simple truths along the way. Jews get married so as not to be alone, love so as to live through the centuries, hoard money so they can buy houses and give their wives astrakhan jackets, love children because, lets face it, it is good and important to love ones children. The poor Odessa Jews get very confused when it comes to officials and regulations, but it isn’t all that easy to get them to budge in their opinions, their very antiquated opinions. You might not be able to budge these Jews, but theres a whole lot you can learn from them. To a large extent it is because of them that Odessa has this light and easy atmosphere.

The typical Odessan is the exact opposite of the typical Petrogradian. Nowadays it is a cliche how well Odessans do for themselves in Petrograd. They make money. Because they are dark-haired, limpid blondes fall in love with them. And then, Odessans have a tendency to settle on the Kamenno-Ostrovsky Prospect. People will claim that what I am saying smacks of tall tales. Well, I assure you that these are not tall tales! There is much more to this than meets the eye. Dark-haired Odessans simply bring with them a little lightness and sunshine.

But I have a strong hunch that Odessa is about to provide us with much more than gentlemen who bring with them a little sunshine and a lot of sardines packed in their original cans. Any day now, we will fully experience the fecund, revivifying influence of the Russian south, Russian Odessa—perhaps, qui sait> the only Russian town where there is a good chance that our very own, sorely needed, homegrown Maupassant might be born. I can even see a small, a very small sign, heralding Odessa’s great future: Odessa’s chanteuses (I am referring to Izya Kremer). These chanteuses might not have much in the way of a voice, but they have a joy, an expressive joy, mixed with passion, lightness, and a touching, charming, sad feeling for life. A life that is good, terrible, and, quand meme et malgre tout, exceedingly interesting.

I saw Utochkin, a pur sang Odessan, lighthearted and profound, reckless and thoughtful, elegant and gangly, brilliant and stuttering. He has been ruined by cocaine or morphine—ruined, word has it, since the day he fell out of an airplane somewhere in the marshes of Novgorod. Poor Utochkin, he has lost his mind. But of one thing I am certain: any day now the province of Novgorod will come crawling down to Odessa.

The bottom line is: this town has the material conditions needed to nurture, say, a Maupassantesque talent. In the summer, the bronze, muscular bodies of youths who play sports glisten on beaches, as do the powerful bodies of fishermen who do not play sports, the fat, potbellied, goodnatured bodies of the “businessmen,” and the skinny, pimply dreamers, inventors, and brokers. And a little distance from the sea, smoke billows from the factories, and Karl Marx plies his familiar trade.

In Odessa there is an impoverished, overcrowded, suffering Jewish ghetto, an extremely self-satisfied bourgeoisie, and a very Black Hundred city council.

In Odessa there are sweet and oppressive spring evenings, the spicy aroma of acacias, and a moon filled with an unwavering, irresistible light shining over a dark sea.

In Odessa the fat and funny bourgeois lie in the evenings in their white socks on couches in front of their funny, philistine dachas, digesting their meals beneath a dark and velvety sky, while their powdered wives, plump with idleness and naively corseted, are passionately squeezed behind bushes by fervent students of medicine or law.

In Odessa the destitute “luftmenshen roam through coffeehouses trying to make a ruble or two to feed their families, but there is no money to be made, and why should anyone give work to a useless person—a “luftmensh”?

In Odessa there is a port, and in the port there are ships that have come from Newcastle, Cardiff, Marseilles, and Port Said; Negroes, Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans. Odessa had its moment in the sun, but now it is fading—a poetic, slow, lighthearted, helpless fading.

“But Odessa is just a town like any other,” the reader will argue. “The problem is that you are extremely biased, thats all.”

Well, fine. So I am biased, I admit it. Maybe Im even extremely biased, but parole d’honneur; there is something to this place! And this something can be sensed by a person with mettle who agrees that life is sad, monotonous—this is all very true—but still, quand meme et malgre tout, it is exceedingly, exceedingly interesting.

And now my thoughts move on from my Odessan discourse to higher matters. If you think about it, doesn’t it strike you that in Russian literature there haven’t been so far any real, clear, cheerful descriptions of the sun?

Turgenev poeticized the dewy morning, the calm night. With Dostoyevsky you feel the uneven, gray high road along which Karamazov walks to the tavern, the mysterious and heavy fog of Petersburg. The gray roads and the shrouds of fog that stifle people and, stifling them, distorts them in the most amusing and terrible way, giving birth to the fumes and stench of passions, making people rush around frenetically in the hectic humdrum pace. Do you remember the life-giving, bright sun in Gogol, a man who, by the way, was from the Ukraine? But such descriptions are few and far between. What you always get is “The Nose,” “The Overcoat,” “The Portrait,” and “Notes of a Madman.” Petersburg defeated Poltava. Akaki Akakiyevich, modestly enough but with terrible competence, finished off Gritsko, and Father Matvei finished off what Taras began. The first person to talk about the sun in a Russian book, to talk about it with excitement and passion, was Gorky. But precisely because he talks about it with excitement and passion, it still isn’t quite the real thing.

Gorky is a forerunner, and the most powerful forerunner of our times. Yet he is not a minstrel of the sun, but a herald of the truth. If anything is worth singing the praises of, then you know what it is: the sun! There is something cerebral in Gorky’s love for the sun. It is only by way of his enormous talent that he manages to overcome this obstacle.

He loves the sun because Russia is rotten and twisted, because in Nizhny, Pskov, and Kazan, the people are pudgy, heavy, at times incomprehensible, at times touching, at times excessive, and at times boring to the point of distraction. Gorky knows why he loves the sun, why the sun must be loved. It is this very awareness that hides the reason why Gorky is a forerunner, often magnificent and powerful, but still a forerunner.

And on this point Maupassant is perhaps off the mark, or right on the mark. A stagecoach rumbles along a road scorched by the heat, and in it, in this stagecoach, sits a fat, crafty young man by the name of Polyte, and a coarse, healthy peasant girl. What they are doing there and why, is their business. The sky is hot, the earth is hot. Polyte and the girl are dripping with sweat, and the stagecoach rumbles along the road scorched by the bright heat. And that’s all there is to it.

In recent times there has been a growing trend of writing about how people live, love, kill, and how representatives are elected in the provinces of Olonetsk, or Vologodsk, not to mention Arkhangelsk. All this is written with total authenticity, verbatim, the way people speak in Olonetsk and Vologodsk. Life there, as it turns out, is cold, extremely wild. It is an old story. And the time is approaching where we will have had more than enough of this old story. In fact, we have already had enough. And I think to myself: the Russians will finally be drawn to the south, to the sea, to the sun! “Will be drawn,” by the way, is wrong. They already have been drawn, for many centuries. Russia’s most important path has been her inexhaustible striving toward the southern steppes, perhaps even her striving for “the Cross of Hagia Sophia.”

It is high time for new blood. We are being stifled. Literatures Messiah, so long awaited, will issue from there—from the sundrenched steppes washed by the sea.

Translated by Peter Constantine

1904–1919