Lately, I’ve been corresponding with Gregory Freidin, Professor and Chair of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Stanford, nice guy, and editor of 2 books on Isaac Babel.
I’ve been interested in Babel for quite some time now, but after asking Freidin why he has dedicated so much time and effort to bringing Babel to the masses, I didn’t have the simple reply I expected; instead, Mr. Freidin gave me several lengthy, passionate answers. You should take them into consideration if you still haven’t experienced the wonders of one of the 20th century’s great literary figures.
Today, I present part 1 (of 6) of Gregory Freidin’s reasons for being “obsessed” with Babel:
“I grew up in a tenement in the center of Moscow, a few blocks from the Kremlin, close enough to hear the Kremlin chimes in the summer. It was a mixed neighborhood, ethically, socially, not stratified the way Moscow’s center is today. The war has just ended, post-war fog descended on Russia, Imperial and chauvinistic Stalinism was in its full sepulchral bloom, and the anti-Jewish campaign, along with spy mania, raged unabated. At the street level, violence was pretty much ubiquitous (fistfights, beatings, amputees). I found myself on the receiving end a lot of the time, largely because I was Jewish and did not know how to fight back. Some of this violence came pretty close to a “pogrom experience.” At thirteen, the earliest possible age for a violent sport (1958), I joined a boxing club. The next day, I hit back at my tormentor and was never bothered after that. Babel, too, knew violence from early childhood (Story of My Dovecote). As far as I know, he never took up martial arts or actually resorted to violence but in his youth, he did regularly subject himself to extreme physical duress, trying to steel himself – for what? We’ll probably never know. But one thing is clear: averse to violence, he did not wish to be perceived as a Jewish weakling.”