Writing, the Body, and Prostitution: The Case of Babel′’s “My First Fee”

Janneke van de Stadt, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In her reminiscences on Isaak Babel′, Tatiana Tess remarks on the “muscular energy” of his prose. Indeed, the characters that people the author’s writing are often defined, or distinguish themselves, by their bodies’ activities. Hence the physicality of life in “Odessa,” whose inhabitants, whether pimply, flabby, tanned, or toned, are seen to indulge in the bodily experience; or even Pan Apolek’s astonishing frescoes, whose hallowed saints take on the physical appearance of poor, local sinners.

“It is a pity,” Babel′ once told Georgij Markov, “when writers base themselves on books and not on life.” For him, the immediacy of the individual experience is not only a crucial element of genuine art, but the very foundation of his own creative process. Whenever Babel′ pauses to consider literature or the creative moment itself (for example in such texts as “Odessa,” “Inspiration,” “Guy de Maupassant,” and “Di Grasso,” he consistently broaches the subject of bodily life and physical expression. His memorable, and insufficiently studied, tale, “My First Fee” (1922–1928), provides us with a perfect example of how the author experienced the creative process as a supremely intimate and physical event.

Structured as a frame-tale, Babel′’s “My First Fee” deals with the subject of a young man’s initiation into “authorship” in the context of a sexual encounter with a prostitute. Modeled, in part, on Babel′ himself, the story’s narrator lives in Tiflis and leads a life of creative and sexual frustration. He finds a way to remedy this double predicament one night, when he goes home with Vera, a local prostitute whom he dubs his “first reader.” In her room, and inspired by the moment, the narrator concocts a masterful tale describing his life as a male concubine, which Vera believes entirely. It is this “fiction,” the narrative’s inner-tale, that I isolate as the focus of my discussion so as to examine Babel′’s understanding and experience of the creative process itself. Throughout the main tale, the narrator either presents stories as human bodies or equates the physical intensity of lovemaking to the exhaustion of creative activity. But it is in the composition of the inner-tale itself, a process we witness in its entirety, that we see the actual conflation of the sexual and creative acts.

By way of such body theorists as Mary Douglas, Marcel Merleau-Ponty, and Bryan Turner, my analysis of the inner-tale’s formal structure shows that the narrator’s fictional anecdote is, in essence, a sexual and “prostituted” body in its own right, and that it changes or “contorts” itself according to the reader’s (or client’s) wishes. The result is what I have elsewhere called a “somatic text,” a text which, formally speaking, seeks to mimic particular functions of the human body.