Homage for Isaac Babel by Doris Lessing

The day I had promised to take Catherine down to visit my young
friend Philip at his school in the country, we were to leave at
eleven, but she arrived at nine. Her blue dress was new, and so
were her fashionable shoes. Her hair had just been done. She
looked more than ever like a pink-and-gold Renoir girl who
expects everything from life.
Catherine lives in a white house overlooking the sweeping brown
tides of the river. She helped me clean up my flat with a devotion
which said that she felt small flats were altogether more romantic
than large houses. We drank tea, and talked mainly about Philip,
who, being fifteen, has pure stern tastes in everything from food to
music. Catherine looked at the books lying around his room, and
asked if she might borrow the stories of Isaac Babel to read on the
train. Catherine is thirteen. I suggested she might find them
difficult, but she said: “Philip reads them, doesn’t he?”
During the journey I read newspapers and watched her pretty
frowning face as she turned the pages of Babel, for she was
determined to let nothing get between her and her ambition to be
worthy of Philip.
At the school, which is charming, civilized, and expensive, the two
children walked together across green fields, and I followed,
seeing how the sun gilded their bright friendly heads turned toward
each other as they talked. In Catherine’s left hand she carried the
stories of Isaac Babel.
After lunch we went to the pictures. Philip allowed it to be seen
that he thought going to the pictures just for the fun of it was not
worthy of intelligent people, but he made the concession, for our
sakes. For his sake we chose the more serious of the two films that
were showing in the little town. It was about a good priest who
helped criminals in New York. His goodness, however, was not
enough to prevent one of them from being sent to the gas chamber;
and Philip and I waited with Catherine in the dark until she had
stopped crying and could face the light of a golden evening.
At the entrance of the cinema the doorman was lying in wait for
anyone who had red eyes. Grasping Catherine by her suffering
arm, he said bitterly: “Yes, why are you crying? He had to be
punished for his crime, didn’t he?” Catherine stared at him,
incredulous. Philip rescued her by saying with disdain: “Some
people don’t know right from wrong even when it’s demonstrated
to them.” The doorman turned his attention to the next red-eyed
emerger from the dark; and we went on together to the station, the
children silent because of the cruelty of the world.
Finally Catherine said, her eyes wet again: “I think it’s all
absolutely beastly, and I can’t bear to think about it.” And Philip
said: “But we’ve got to think about it, don’t you see, because if we
don’t it’ll just go on and on, don’t you see?”
In the train going back to London I sat beside Catherine. She had
the stories open in front of her, but she said: “Philip’s awfully
lucky. I wish I went to that school. Did you notice that girl who
said hullo to him in the garden? They must be great friends. I wish
my mother would let me have a dress like that, it’s not fair.”
“I thought it was too old for her.”
“Oh, did you?”
Soon she bent her head again over the book, but almost at once
lifted it to say: “Is he a very famous writer?”
“He’s a marvellous writer, brilliant, one of the very best.”
“Well, for one thing he’s so simple. Look how few words he uses,
and how strong his stories are.”
“I see. Do you know him? Does he live in London?”
“Oh no, he’s dead.”
“Oh. Then why did you–I thought he was alive, the way you
“I’m sorry, I suppose I wasn’t thinking of him as dead.” .
“When did he die?”
“He was murdered. About twenty years ago, I suppose.”
“Twenty years.” Her hands began the movement of pushing the
book over to me, but then relaxed. “I’ll be fourteen in November,”
she stated, sounding threatened, while her eyes challenged me.
I found it hard to express my need to apologize, but before I could
speak, she said, patiently attentive again: “You said he was
“I expect the person who murdered him felt sorry when he
discovered he had murdered a famous writer.”
“Yes, I expect so.”
“Was he old when he was murdered?”
“No, quite young really.”
“Well, that was bad luck, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose it was bad luck.”
“Which do you think is the very best story here? I mean, in your
honest opinion, the very very best one.”
I chose the story about killing the goose. She read it slowly, while I
sat waiting, wishing to take it from her, wishing to protect this
charming little person from Isaac Babel.
When she had finished, she said: “Well, some of it I don’t
understand. He’s got a funny way of looking at things. Why should
a man’s legs in boots look like girls?” She finally pushed the book
over at me, and said: “I think it’s all morbid.”
“But you have to understand the kind of life he had. First, he was a
Jew in Russia. That was bad enough. Then his experience was all
revolution and civil war and …. ”
But I could see these words bounding off the clear glass of her
fiercely denying gaze; and I said: “Look, Catherine, why don’t you
try again when you’re older? Perhaps you’ll like him better then?”
She said gratefully: “Yes, perhaps that would be best. After all,
Philip is two years older than me, isn’t he?”
A week later I got a letter from Catherine.
Thank you very much for being kind enough to take me to visit
Philip at his school. It was the most lovely day in my whole life. I
am extremely grateful to you for taking me. I have been thinking
about the Hoodlum Priest. That was a film which demonstrated to
me beyond any shadow of doubt that Capital Punishment is a
Wicked Thing, and I shall never forget what I learned that
afternoon, and the lessons of it will be with me all my life. I have
been meditating about what you said about Isaac Babel, the famed
Russian short story writer, and I now see that the conscious
simplicity of his style is what makes him, beyond the shadow of a
doubt, the great writer that he is, and now in my school
compositions I am endeavoring to emulate him so as to learn a
conscious simplicity which is the only basis for a really brilliant
writing style. Love, Catherine. P.S. Has Philip said anything about
my party? I wrote but he hasn’t answered. Please find out if he is
coming or if he just forgot to answer my letter. I hope he comes,
because sometimes I feel I shall die if he doesn’t. P.P.S. Please
don’t tell him I said anything, because I should die if he knew.
Love, Catherine. ‘

Rpt. in Discovering Literature: Stories. Poems. Plays. 3rd ed., edited by
Hans P. Guth and Gabriele Rico (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall,
2003), 137-139.

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