Sunday, January 07, 2018

`"Shut Up, Mug,' Liubka Guffawed'

“I used to read everything. There wasn’t much else in those days—no television, no radio.”

Instead, Daniel Fuchs (1909-1993) read books and listened on his homemade crystal set to “society bands playing at the Manhattan hotel roof gardens.” Fuchs grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood immortalized in his novels of the 1930s -- Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936), and Low Company (1937). The last is set in Brighton Beach. Some books we love, unapologetically, more than we admire or can critically defend. That’s how I feel about Fuchs’ Brooklyn novels, an informal trilogy I have read five or six times. They came up again in an email exchange with Boris Dralyuk. We were considering the possibility of cross-pollination among one Russian and two American writers—Mikhail Zoshchenko, Robert Benchley and Ring Lardner. I added:

“Daniel Fuchs always reminds me of Babel. Both were drawn to gangsters and wrote movie scripts. I’m sure there are historical and technological explanations for these seeming convergences, but all were humorists at heart, with an interest in the less attractive aspects of human nature.”

Boris supplied the gloss I was hoping for and had read years ago but quickly forgotten. The passage at the top comes from Fuchs’ “Strictly Movie: A Letter from Hollywood, 1989” in The Golden West: Hollywood Stories (Black Sparrow, 2005). Later in the same paragraph he writes:

“At City College, I came across The Menorah Journal, a handsome magazine printed on strong, thick paper, and it was there that I first heard about Isaac Babel and read one or two of his stories, in a wonderful translation, never again approached, by somebody whose name I can’t remember. Babel bowled me over. Before I knew it, I had written a story very much like his Odessa tales. It was published, one of my first, in Story.”

Boris notes: “The translation, from 1928, was by Russian-born Alexander Kaun.” The first book of Babel’s work to be translated into English, in 1929, was Red Cavalry (in Russian, 1926) based on his experience as a war correspondent accompanying Commander Semyon Budyonny's 1st Cavalry Army during the Polish-Soviet War of 1920. This is the volume read and appreciated by writers as various as Hemingway, Lionel Trilling and Frank O’Connor. I first learned of Babel, around 1970, from The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (1962) by O’Connor, who described the Russian as “the man who has influenced me most.”

Scholarly as ever, Boris cleared up a couple of other things. Benchley could have read Zoshchenko. The first volume of the Russian’s stories in English, Russia Laughs, was published in 1935. “The book doesn’t appear to have made much of a splash,” Boris writes, “but I can image Benchley flipping through it — finding, in all likelihood, little to like.” Boris has translated two collections of Babel’s stories – Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Both are published by Pushkin Press. Boris’ English turns Babel's Odessan Russian into a racy lingo spiced with Yiddish inflections and gangster talk. He approvingly linked to a brief sample of Alexander Kaun’s ninety-year old translation, including this: “`Shut up, mug,’ Liubka guffawed.”

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