For this week’s Translation of the Week, we would like to feature an excerpt from Isaac Babel’s short story Line and Color, published in a collection titled Babel, the Essential Fictions by Northwestern University Press (2017) and translated by Val Vinokur.
Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel (13 July 1894 – 27 January 1940) was a Russian writer, journalist, playwright, and literary translator. He is best known as the author of Red Cavalry , Story of My Dovecote and The Odessa Tales—stories from the life of Jewish gangsters from Odessa led by Benya Krik. He has been acclaimed as “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry”. Babel was arrested by the NKVD on 15 May 1939 on fabricated charges of terrorism and espionage and executed on 27 January 1940. In 1954 he was rehabilitated.
Val Vinokur has been published in such venues as Common Knowledge, The Boston Review, McSweeney’s, LitHub, The Russian Review, Zeek, The Massachusetts Review, Journal of Religion and Society, The Literary Review, and New American Writing. His book, The Trace of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas, was published by Northwestern University Press and was a finalist for the 2009 AATSEEL Award for Best Book in Literary/Cultural Studies. He has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of his and Rose-Myriam Réjouis’ translation of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s trilogy Amour, Colere et Folie — a lost classic of Haitian literature — for Random House Modern Library (2009). Rejouis and Vinokur have also translated two novels by Patrick Chamoiseau, Solibo Magnificent and Texaco (Pantheon Books, 1997). His translation of Isaac Babel’s stories was published in 2017 by Northwestern University Press. He is the founding editor of Poets & Traitors Press and is the author of Relative Genitive: Poems, with Translations from Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Line and Color
The first time I saw Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky was on December 20, 1916, in the dining hall of the Ollila Sanatorium. We were introduced to each other by the barrister Zatzareny from Turkestan. What I knew of Zatzareny was that he had circumcised himself at the age of forty. Grand Duke Pyotr Nikolaevich, the disgraced madman exiled to Tashkent, cher- ished his friendship with Zatzareny. This grand duke used to walk the streets of Tashkent stark naked, had married a Cossack woman, lit candles before the portrait of Voltaire as though it were an image of Jesus Christ, and had drained the boundless floodplain of the Amu Darya. Zatzareny was his friend. So then—the Ollila. Ten kilometers away we could see the deep-blue granite of Helsingfors. O Helsingfors, love of my heart. O sky, flowing over the esplanade and flying away like a bird.
So then—the Ollila. Northern flowers smoldered in their vases. Deer antlers sprawled along the somber ceiling panels. The dining hall smelled of pine, of Countess Tyszkiewicz’s cool breast, and the silken underwear of English officers.
At the table next to Kerensky sat a polished convert from the Police Department. To his right was Nikkelsen the Norwegian, owner of a whaler. On the left—Countess Tyszkiewicz, lovely as Marie Antoinette.
Kerensky had three desserts and went off with me into the woods. Fröken Kirsti swept past us on skis.
“Who’s that?” asked Alexander Fyodorovich.
“That’s Nikkelsen’s daughter Fröken Kirsti,” I told him. “She’s really something . . .”
Then we saw old Johann on his sleigh. “Who’s that?”
“That’s old Johann,” I said. “He brings fruit and cognac to Helsingfors.
Don’t you know Johann the sleigh driver?”
“I know everybody here,” replied Kerensky, “but I can’t see anybody.” “You’re nearsighted, Alexander Fyodorovich?”
“Yes, I’m nearsighted.”
“You need glasses, Alexander Fyodorovich.”
Then, in my youthful fervor I said to him:
“Just think, you’re not merely blind, you’re almost dead. Line—that divine trait, ruler of the world—she slips past you forever. We walk through this enchanted garden, this indescribable Finnish forest. For the rest of our lives, we shall never come to know anything better. And yet you can’t see the fro- zen pink edges of the waterfall over there by the stream. The weeping willow leaning over the waterfall like a Japanese carving—you cannot see it. The red pine trunks speckled in snow. The granular radiance swarming over the snow. It begins as a lifeless line draped along the tree, rippling on the surface like a line by Leonardo, wreathed in reflections of the flaming clouds above. And what about Fröken Kirsti’s silk stocking, and the line of her already ripe leg? Buy a pair of glasses, Alexander Fyodorovich, I implore you . . .”
“Child,” he replied, “don’t waste your powder. A half ruble for glasses— that’s the one coin that stays in my pocket. I don’t need your line—base like reality is base. You live no better than some trigonometry teacher, while I am surrounded by wonders, even on the Klyazma. Why do I need to see Fröken Kirsti’s freckles if, even though I can barely distinguish her, I can discern in her all I wish to discern? Why do I need clouds in this Finnish sky, when I can see a heaving ocean above my head? Why do I need line—when I have color? To me the whole world is a gigantic theater, and I am the only one in the audience without opera glasses. The orchestra plays the overture to the third act, the stage is far away, like in a dream, my heart swells with ecstasy, I see Juliet’s carmine velvet, Romeo’s lilac silk, and not a single false beard . . . And you want to blind me with half-ruble eyeglasses!”
That evening I left for the city. O Helsingfors, refuge of my dreams . . . As for Alexander Fyodorovich, I saw him again six months later, in June 1917, when he was supreme commander of the Russian armed forces and master of our destinies.
That day the Troitsky Bridge was drawn. The Putilov workers were march- ing on the Arsenal. Trolley cars lay flat like dead horses in the street.
A meeting had been called at the House of the People. Alexander Fyodorovich gave a speech about Russia—Mother and Wife. The crowd was smothering him in the sheepskins of its passions. What could he see in these bristling sheepskins as the only one in the audience without opera glasses? I don’t know . . .
But after him Trotsky came to the podium, twisted his lips, and declared, in a voice that eliminated all hope:
“Comrades and brothers . . .”
Line and Color Translator’s notes
33 Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky (1881–1970) was a moderate socialist statesman who led the Provi- sional Government after the February 1917 Revolution, first as minister of justice, then minister of war, and finally as minister-chairman before he was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the October 1917 Revolution. He spent the remainder of his life in exile, dying in New York City at the age of eighty-nine. In 1916, Kerensky would have been a deputy in the Russian imperial Duma, where he was a parliamentary leader of the socialist opposition to the tsar’s government.
33 Turkestan The western part of this central Asian historical region was conquered by Russia in the late nineteenth century. Kerensky spent his youth in Russian Turkestan, an area comprising present-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Russian Tatarstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
33 Grand Duke Pyotr Nikolaevich Grand Duke Pyotr Nikolaevich (1864–1931) was the grandson of Tsar Nicholas I. Babel offers an entirely fictitious biography for him, albeit one loosely inspired by the life of Pyotr’s father, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich (1831–1891), who, having gone mad when an oral cancer spread to his brain, was sent away to Crimea.
33 Helsingfors Helsingfors is the Swedish name for Helsinki; Finland was part of the Russian Empire from 1809 to 1917.
- Fröken Kirsti Babel uses Fröken, Swedish for “Miss,” although Nik- kelson is Norwegian with a Danish name. Parts of Denmark and Norway had been under Swedish control in the early modern
- the Klyazma A river in central Russia that became a popular summer destination in the nineteenth
- master of our destinies In June 1917, Kerensky attempted a renewed offensive against the Germans to honor Russia’s commitments to the Allies—which enraged many workers and soldiers in Petrograd, resulting in the violent demonstrations of the “July Days.” Accord- ing to Kerensky’s biographer Richard Abraham, Babel went for a walk with Kerensky at Bad Grankulla, a resort outside Helsinki (then called Helsingfors), in December 1916. Kerensky did in fact wear glasses but had left them “at home for reasons of ” Abraham argues that Kerensky was no less potent an analyst of political reality than Lenin or Trotsky (with his famous spectacles), but that the Bol- sheviks prevailed because of “the correlation of social forces” (Richard Abraham, Alexander Kerensky: The First Love of the Revolution [New York: Columbia University Press, 1990], 117). In June 1917, Trotsky’s faction (the Mezhraiontsy, or “Interdistrictites,” social democrats who straddled the Menshevik and Bolshevik positions) had not yet formally joined the Bolsheviks, as it would over the two months that followed.