The work is finished not when you can add
for once there’s nothing more that you can say,
to cut, not paste, should make you feel most glad,
for best fast food for thought is take-away.
John Updike reviews the new collection of Isaac Babel’s stories edited by his daughter Nathalie and translated by Peter Constantine (“Hide-and-Seek, ” The New Yorker, November 5,2001) . Cynthia Ozick compares him to Kafka but Updike feels that Kafka could invent whereas Babel could only describe without making an imaginative conversion. He marvels at Babel’s cheerful descriptions of the sun. “The sun hung from the sky like the pink tongue of a thirsty dog” (Lyubka the Cossack”): “The sun…poured into the clouds like the blood of a gouged boar” and “The sun soared up into the sky and spun like a red bowl at the tip of a spear” (“Sunset”): “The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severe head” (Crossing the River Zbrucz”) . Babel’s far-fetched tropes include” “The stars scattered in front of the windows like urinating soldiers” and “The velvet tablecloths knocked his eyes right off their feet” (“Sunset”): “I sat to the side, dozed, dreams pouncing around me like kittens” (“Italian Sun”): “A sour odor rose from the ground, as from a soldier’s wife at dawn” (“Sasha Christ”): “Caught between these two men, I watched the hoops of other people’s happiness roll past me” (“Di Grasso”) .
I particularly like the following obiter dictum quoted by Paustovsky: “Your language becomes clear and strong not when you can no longer add a sentence but when you can no longer take away from it.” Apparently he used to get up in the middle of the night and reread three or four pages of what he had written that day and throw out a few unnecessary words with malicious glee.
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