Reconcilable Differences: A Closer Look at Babel''s "Odessa"

Janneke van de Stadt, Williams College

It seems a misnomer to call Isaac Babel''s "Odessa" (1916) a "sketch" (ocherk), for it is such a deeply informative and "meaty" text in terms of the author's creative objectives. But, oddly enough, though it is considered his "Literary Manifesto," relatively little time has been devoted to examining what lies beneath the surface of Babel''s call for a "Russian Maupassant" and a "Literary Messiah." These are very weighty terms that demand careful consideration, and I propose to examine their significance, both in the context of "Odessa" itself, and with regard to the manner in which Babel' envisioned and lived his own creative experience.

Among Babel''s earliest works, "Odessa" is one of several sketches published under the rubric "Moi listki ("Leaves from My Notebook") all of which are concerned with reading, writing, and literature. Already in its very name, the essay points to literary greatness and creative journeys through its evocation of Odisseja or "Odyssey." And, indeed, in this text Babel' does far more than introduce himself as a new writer on the Russian scene, he actually presents his literary objectives as a singularly meaningful and redemptive mission.

Central to the author's presentation and experience of Odessa, his native city, is its sizeable Jewish community: "To a great extent it is because of them that Odessa has this light and easy atmosphere." At the same time, Babel' insists on Odessa's inherent "Russianness": "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." Babel' rejects the generally accepted notion at the time that Jewishness and Russianness are mutually exclusive concepts. This is a bold move. After all, Russians had traditionally drawn a very clear line between themselves and Jewry; the possibility of any Jewish contribution to national culture had never been seriously considered. But, particularly on the eve of revolution and its promise of universal inclusion, the thought of making valuable contributions as both a Russian and Jew is precisely what motivates Babel' in "Odessa."

By way of a close reading of "Odessa" and brief forays into other pertinent writings by Babel', I hope to show that a passionate and determined spirit of reconciliation fuels the text as a whole. I will argue that Babel' seeks to reconcile not only Jews and Russians, but also Russia and the West, fiction and reality, and even the body and the spirit, in his attempt to save and redeem Russian literature from stagnation and imminent perdition. As Russia's self-appointed "Literary Messiah" and "Russian Maupassant," Babel' promises to commit his entire being to the completion of his salvational mission.

I. Babel', "Odessa." In The Complete Works of Isaac Babel'. Tr. Peter Constantine (Norton & Company, NY, 2002) 75. All citations are from this edition.