Benya Krik the Gangster, by Isaak Babel
Critics of Babel’s work—European critics, that is, for in this country he is imperfectly available and little known—have not found it very easy to describe. Its strength is obvious. It is physical, nervous, intense, short, in degrees almost unrivalled. But what are we to say of its mode that it will not itself at once contradict?
He is romantic and impassioned, we decide, recalling the violent emotions that rock in his pages, the inveterate lonely “I,” the fierce childhoods, pogroms, insatiable desires; very well; then there throng to us passages where passion is suspended in an emotion-of-attention as pure as any that 19th- and 20th century art has exacted from us. Under the narrator’s window in “Entry into Berestetchko” the Cossacks are employed in “shooting an old, silvery-bearded Jew for spying.” He utters piercing screams, and struggles. “Then Kudria, of the machine-gun section, took hold of his head and tucked it under his arm. The Jew stopped screaming and set his legs apart. Kudria drew out his dagger with his right hand and carefully, without splashing himself, cut the old man’s throat.” That is all there is, and it must not be imagined that the context suggests any comment; the Cossacks go off, and “I went along after them, roaming through Berestetchko. . . .” The muscles of the description barely ripple: “The Jew stopped screaming and set his legs apart.” Chekhov would have recognized a peer, perhaps, as well as colleague, in the author of this sentence.
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