Alexander  ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)

I suspect that I owe the honor of being here to the now somewhat obsolete fact of co-authoring (with Mikhail Iampolskii) a book on Babel (1994). Usually, once you have finished a job like that, you stop keeping up with the field, reading the once favorite writer, and remembering even his juiciest lines—just as you start getting invited to conferences on the subject. It has been almost like that with me and Babel in the ten years since the 1994 centennial gala,–with one exception, which conforms to the opposite post-partum syndrome: that of endless self-correction.

Leafing one day through Sholom Aleichem for pure plaisir de texte, I was rudely awakened from my oblivion as I discovered a yawning gap in my list of immediate pre-texts of “Moi pervyi gonorar” [My First Fee]/ “Spravka” [Answer to Inquiry] story, a centerpiece of the Babel’/Babel book. Sholom-Aleichem was, of course, one of Babel’s favorite authors, and there it was, his 1903 story, entitled, punningly, “Moi pervyi roman” [My Frst Romance]—in a clear foreshadowing of Babel’s title and, to a great extent, plot, thus calling for an after-the-fact addition to the set of Babel’s subtexts.

Sholom Aleichem’s story goes, briefly, as follows:

The narrator, an educated but famished Jewish young man gets the position of a home tutor for the son of a rich Jewish landlord. At first the mother of the pupil doesn’t feed the narrator well, but then the tutor and pupil make a pact: they will pretend that they are engaged in lessons, but in fact will do nothing but gorge on food and have fun. The only unavoidable duty of the tutor is to conduct—on behalf and in the name of the pupil—a correspondence with his fiancee.

The narrator gets involved in the correspondence and gradually falls in love with the well-read and intelligent correspondent. He dreams of meeting her and nurtures plans of declaring his love on the day of the wedding, telling her the truth about his authorship and proposing she marry him rather than his lazy and ignorant pupil. But at the wedding he meets her tutor, a bespectacled Jewish young man, like himself, who has been writing the sophisticated metaliterary letters he fell in love with.

Even this short paraphrase gives an idea of the role played by the theme of ‘lying/inventing/writing’ that is so relevant to Babel’s wedding of literary creativity with sex and love, albeit in a happier mode. These and many other similarities between the stories of Babel and Sholom Aleichem, as well as the more general affinities between the two writers were duly noted and discussed in an article I entitled “Roman s gonorarom” [A Romance with Royalties”], which I published in 1997 as a sort of guilty sequel to the Babel’/Babel book.

Having done that, I relapsed into smug indifference to all things Babelian, and languished in it until reality struck again–from an unexpected direction. Writing about the treatment of monkeys/apes in literature at large, with special reference to Vladislav Khodasevich’s poem “Obez’iana” [A Monkey] (1918) and a chapter in Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Vozvrashchennaia molodost’ [Youth Regained] (1933), I ended up wandering into Nabokov territory. It was hard to believe, given the proliferation of Nabokov studies, but I seemed to have discovered something no one had noticed about Chapter 11 of his autobiographical Conclusive Evidence (1951)/ Speak, Memory (1967), which had first appeared separately as a short story titled “The First Poem” (1949).

As has been noted by Nabokov scholars, this piece is not a strictly factual account of the author’s creative debut; in fact, the very poem in question has not been identified among the Nabokov corpus. To this common knowledge I added (in recent articles in Zvezda and The Nabokovian 47), the issue of the text’s arch interplay with several poetic pre-texts, including Bunin’s and most notably Khodasevich’s “monkey” poems, as well as some Fedor Tiutchev and Afanasii Fet lyrics, especially the latter’s “Na stoge sena noch’iu iuzhnoi…” [In a haystack on a southern night…]. The relationship with Khodasevich’s poem is especially telling, as Nabokov borrows from it not only the countryhouse setting and the motif of a monkey and its owner, a Slav barrel-organ player (sharmanshchik), but also the momentous historical date of the encounter: the day of the beginning of World War I.

No wonder, Nabokov wrote the piece only a decade after Khodasevich’s death, in English, and never did include it in the Russian language version of his autobiographical narrative Drugie Berega [Other shores] (1954), which accounts for the discrepancy in chapter numbering. To make this real-life plot even thicker, the very first poem actually penned by Nabokov in English on his arrival on these shores was… his translation of Khodasevich’s “Monkey” (1941)! But then, ironically, Nabokov’s posthumous cult in post-Soviet Russia resulted among other things in a translation of that self-excised chapter into Russian—for all to see and deconstruct.

What does that have to do with Babel? Not much, until you start casting about for a paper topic for a Babel conference and suddenly realize that it is staring you in the face. Both the “Answer to Inquiry/My First Fee” and Nabokov’s “The First Poem,” as well as Sholom Aleichem’s “My First Romance,” are fictional or fictionalized stories of a sort of literary debut, exhibiting many generic similarities. Usually “My First Fee” is placed in the intra-Babelian context of “My First Goose”—by dint of the similarity of the titles and the common ‘initiation’ theme. Indeed, there is an excellent study of the “Goose” by Shcheglov, focussing on the carnivalesque initiation archetypes deployed by Babel. What I will be trying to claim is different, –namely, that there may be a special sub-genre of initiation stories, devoted specifically to the metaliterary theme of a writer’s initiation into literature, of which the three stories would be first exemplars.

Obviously, once seen in this light, the texts suggest searching for more analogs, primarily those carrying in their titles words like my first story/ tale /novel/ fee/ debut/ role/ premiere/ beginning… or something along those lines. To be sure, one can expect stories instantiating the format but titled differently, which makes locating them harder, but that comes with the territory. My quest so far has produced rather limited results: two Russian stories that can been seen as more or less immediate precursors of Babel’s story, especially given the title of one of them: “Pervyi gonorar” [A First Fee] by Leonid Andreev (1900).

The story is not strictly metaliterary, but nevertheless bears a strong resemblance to the others. It is told in the 3rd person from the point of view of a young initiate, with many realistic (bytovye) details.

An experienced defense lawyer has to leave for Petersburg and delegates a case to his idealistic young assistant, who is afraid of but also honored by the responsibility. On studying the case he concludes that the defendant, a General’s wife, is, indeed, guilty of illegitimate sales of cigarettes. But then, proud of his first-time role of a defense attorney– zashchitnik, literally a “defender,” he reviews the file, finds some openings and, once in court, manages to sway the judges both by his handling of the case and his naive youthful enthusiasm. Especially successful is his line about the honorable gray-haired head of the distinguished lady, who is not present in the court, due to illness.

But soon after the verdict has been handed down, he realizes he defended the guilty party. Indeed, the General slips into his hand two gold coins (30 rubles); one of the witnesses offers him further services as a professional false witness; while another, a clerk at the General’s shop, tells him that the defendant used to be a lowly cook who got the General to marry her, that she had already done time, and, finally, that she is red- rather than gray-haired! “That was really smart of you, to slip in the one about her gray head!”,–says the salesman admiringly. The protagonist is in despair: his profession, his life, and the entire world seem sordid and pathetic to him.

When his boss the great lawyer returns, he goes to see him and tells him the entire story. The boss is amused and glad they won the case. He reprimands the young man for inventing the gray head, but even more for accepting the unfairly small bribe. He promises to get what is really owed by the General and pass it on to the young man. The protagonist can’t help pointing out to his mentor that “in reality, she was guilty.” The older lawyer says: “Reality? Who knows what happens in reality?… Reality! Oh, you funny man! [Ah, chudak, chudak],” as he looks at the young man and seems to recognize something nice, kind, long forgotten.

Despite the heavily realistic, somewhat muck-raking tenor of the story, the punch-line about the dubiousness of “reality,” crowning the leitmotif role of the invented “gray-haired head,” makes Andreev’s “First Fee” a precursor of Babel’s story in terms not only of the title, but of a whole range of motifs. Note the trepidation of a young timid, yet ambitious novice, his encounter with the grisly circumstances of real life; the presence of an older experienced mentor; the supplanting of “reality” with a felicitous verbal find; and even the money—two gold coins!—changing hands in recognition of the successful invention.

The other story I found is by Anton Chekhov, titled “Moi pervyi debiut” [My First Debut] (1886). Although related to the topos by its title, it is less representative of it.

It revolves, in an ironic 3rd-person manner sticking to the point-of-view of the protagonist, around the miserable self-perception by a young defense lawyer of his loss of his first case. He imagines that he was no good, that the public and the jury laughed at him, and that the claimant and his lawyer despised and humiliated him. He insults the two in the courthouse building and then, on his way home unexpectedly having to share a roadside room with them, behaves in a hysterically aggressive way, while they treat him with friendly care and try to console him, explaining that his is a typical first-case psychological syndrome.

Centered as it is on the sad first experience of a lawyer defending a wrong case, the “First Debut” may have served as an actual subtext of Andreev’s story, and thus a proto-subtext of Babel’s “First Fee.” But otherwise it seems to offer little of interest to my today’s topic, which concerns, after all, the possibility of establishing a generic framework of invariant parameters that inform fictionalized treatments of “a creative debut.” I will focus primarily on Nabokov’s “First Poem” and Babel’s “My First Fee”, or rather, “Answer to Inquiry,” which I consider the final version of the story, with occasional comments on Chekhov’s, Andreev’s and Sholom Aleichem’s stories.

Despite obvious differences (e. g., the absence in Nabokov’s text of the ‘sexual initiation’ motif, so central to Babel’s), the two stories share several constitutive topoi: semi-ironic first-person reminiscing mode; acknowledgement of juvenile imitativeness; role of parent figures; subversive Bloomian play with a literary ‘fathers’; and some others. Even the time frames seem to coincide: the year 1914. Both the affinities and differences help to sketch out a tentative definition of the ‘debut’ genre of quasi-autobiographical prose. Further study should of course involve a wider set of similar texts.

1. Both Babel and Nabokov wrote their pieces as parts of a larger more or less fictionalized autobiographical project. In the case of Nabokov that’s obvious; as for Babel, he wrote several stories about the maturation of a young boy-writer but never had a chance to complete it. Both Nabokov and Babel write from the hallowed ironically distanced perspective of a 1st- person older narrator, looking back on his naive younger self that is up for literary initiation. The distancing, of course, is already a first step towards fictionalizing the experience.

A similar 1st person perspective is used by Sholom Aleichem. Both Andreev and Chekhov use a more realistic, objective, comic 3rd person narrative,–perhaps because their protagonists are not writers, after all.

2. In a further fictionalizing move, in both Nabokov and Babel, the ‘realness’ of the alleged ‘first work’ is precarious. In Nabokov, as I said, the poem as such does not seem to exist or to ever have existed (and an aura of mystery is enhanced also by the obliqueness of references to the historical and literary bearings of the narrative). In Babel, the ‘text’ is brazenly declared to have existed only as an oral performance. This results in a remarkable tension in the narrative: between the virtuality of this ‘first work’ and the generous helpings of textual quotations from it.

In Sholom Aleichem, the “romance” means mostly “love affair,” but to some extent the correspondence (crowned by the never delivered final letter with a marriage proposal) does constitute a sort of ‘epistolary romance/novel,’ in part quoted, in part paraphrased in the narrative. In Аndreev, fictionalization is represented by the quoted invention of the “gray head of hair” and the final point about the precariousness of “reality.”

3. The metaliterary aspect of the genre involves the Bloomian problematic of discipleship, imitativeness, and rebellion vis-a-vis literary parents. The imitation of 19-th century poetic stereotypes is explicitly discussed by Nabokov (in fact, in a somewhat stentorious academic manner, which led to the rejection of the story by the New Yorker in 1948). At the same time, Nabokov is much less open about his archly hidden borrowings, in his prose narrative, from thre poets Afanasii Fet and Fedor Tiutchev and above all from Vladislav Khodasevich’s “Monkey.” Babel, too makes fun of the cliches he is using, and is quite cynically playful about their efficacy. Less open, but quite transparent, he is about the subversion of the tradition of narratives about the rehabilitation of prostitutes (Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chernyshevsky, Gorky). But he is rather tongue-in-cheek about his ironic spoof of the entire “victimized childhood” sensibility that underlies his literary mentor and protector Maksim Gorky’s Detstvo [Childhood] and V liudiakh [In the World].

Less fictional and less radical in its intertextual subversion is Babel’s “Nachalo” [The Beginning] (1937), directly involving the recently deceased Gorky. As for Sholom Aleichem’s story, it is heavily metatextual in the way the correspondence between the two intellectuals keeps returning to literary issues and also, on a subtler level, the way it is a parody of Dostoevsky’s and very metaliterary epistolary Bednye liudi [Poor folk].

4. Plotwise, the Bloomian element usually takes the form of its Freudian basis: the Oedipal. In Babel’s story, this is quite obvious: the orphaned narrator claims to have been victimized as a boy prostitute by a succession of negative father figures, whereas the loving prostitute herself is cast as a surrogate mother to the protagonist and other characters. In Nabokov, it is precisely to the mother that the adolescent poet brings his first poem, while the father is absent on business but still holds the full attention of the mother, so that a certain hidden Oedipal rivalry shows through, despite the idyllic atmosphere of the dacha.

In Sholom Aleichem, the protagonist is practically an orphan, and the most prominent parent figure is the father of the pupil: a colorful liar who fosters the entire atmosphere of ‘lying/creativity.’ In Andreev and Chekhov, the protagonists are similarly thrown at the mercy of the surrogate, somewhat ambiguous but eventually protective father figures—the older lawyers.

5. Cognate to the treatment of parent figures is the choice of the type of childhood that underlies the autobiographical, and hence debut, narrative. Of the two types analyzed by Andrew Wachtel in his Battle for Childhood, the happy aristocratic and the unhappy plebeian, Nabokov clearly portrays the former (with all the accoutrements: a loving mother, a paradisiacal countryhouse, the closeness of the capital), while Babel pointedly and with a parodic irony exploits the latter. Characteristically, in “Answer to Inquiry” Babel uses not so much his own real childhood/youth as the archetypal “Gorky-style” wandering proletarian’s.

Interestingly, the adopted paradise of a country estate is also in evidence in Sholom Aleichem—only to see the poor protagonist being banished from it in the end. Just like in Babel, in Andreev and Chekhov, the protagonists are poor, practically orphaned and behave in a child-like way (especially in Chekhov), although they are no longer children, but rather young adults on their first assignments.

6. Yet another aarchetypal relationship that furnishes a parameter of the debut paradigm is ‘love/sex.’ In “Answer,” Babel, as we remember, combines literary initiation with sexual. In Nabokov’s piece, ‘love and sex’ are practically absent—displaced as they are into a separate chapter of the autobiography (Ch. 12/11, “Tamara”), although surreptitious references to them do appear a couple of times in this chapter. Instances of such separate treatment can also be found in Babel: “My First Goose” deals with male bonding almost to a complete exclusion of literature (which, to be sure, does surface at the end, as the narrator reads Lenin’s “crookedly straightforward” text to his new mates), while “Nachalo” sticks to the issue of ‘literary debut’ without indulging in sex.

The ‘sex-cum-writing’ combination also underlies Sholom Aleichem’s “Romance,” albeit the amorous claims of the protagonist are comically frustrated. In Chekhov, the sexual dimension is completely absent, in Andreev, however, at the moment of an early elation over the first case, the protagonist writes to his girl-friend.

7. I have already touched upon the setting of the story: Nabokov’s paradise of a countryhouse near the capital contrasts predictably with Babel’s provincial inn/whorehouse. The two narratives do have certain aspects of the setting in common, namely, those that represent the banality of the prosaic surroundings that serve as a contrasting backdrop to the creative act. In Nabokov, the ‘prose’ is represented by the sharmanshchik with a monkey and the gypsy-style songs on the dacha’s veranda; in Babel, by the entire ambience of the inn, but especially the routine behavior of the prostitute that depresses the protagonist and thus finally spurs him into an inspired improvization. One unexpected and probably extraneous similarity concerns the time when the action takes place: in Nabokov it is the eve of the war, in Babel, it is approximately the same year 1914 (when the real author, Babel, is 20 years old—the age of his protagonist).

8. Then there is the setting, or context, of the actual writing. Babel’s story was written almost two decades before Nabokov’s, in the early ‘30s, after the peak of Babel’s success, under Stalin; Nabokov’s, in the author’s third emigration, in the U.S., after the earlier successes of his Russian years, but prior to the success of Lolita. Babel doesn’t appear in Boyd’s index of names, and Nabokov’s reception of his work remains unknown, although Nabokov must have read his work in general, attentive as he was to Soviet literature. In fact, he could even have read “Answer”, as its only lifetime publication was in English, in International Literature, in 1937. As for Babel, apparently he read Nabokov’s Russian-language books.

9. Related to the circumstances of writing are the central thematic concerns of the stories, mostly different. Babel’s theme, along with literary and sexual initiation as such, is the conceit ‘literature = prostitution,’ involving a carnivalesque glorification of both and at the same time, a subversion of Russian and Soviet literature’s spiritual/official pieties. Nabokov’s tenor is a nostalgic recreation of the golden time of his youth, not so much opposed to as ignoring Soviet reality of the decades intervening between the eve of the WWI and the moment of writing after WWII.

10. To sum up, the stories as such are very different. Babel’s is a deflating, almost avantgardist brand of modernism, Nabokov’s, a variety of highbrow modernism. As a result, Nabokov conceals or displaces much of what Babel seeks to subvert by laying bare. Yet, despite the manifold differences, the common parameters of the ‘debut’ narrative and often common solutions show through.