This passage from Isaac Babel’s story “My First Fee” (Мой первый гонорар) nicely captures the dilemma of a young man who wants to write but knows good writing too well to be satisfied with his own efforts:

Nothing was left for me but to search for love. Naturally, I found it. Whether luckily or not, the woman I chose turned out to be a prostitute. Her name was Vera. Every evening I stole along behind her on Golovinsky Avenue [in Tiflis, now Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi], unable to bring myself to start speaking. I didn’t have money for her, and as for words—those tireless vulgar and burrowing words of love—I didn’t have them either. Since my youth all the powers of my being had been given over to the composition of tales, plays, and thousands of stories. They lay on my heart like a toad on a stone. Possessed by a devilish pride, I didn’t want to write them down prematurely. To write worse than Lev Tolstoy seemed to me a pointless pursuit. My stories were destined to outlive oblivion. Fearless thought, exhausting passion, are worth the labor spent on them only when they are arrayed in fine clothes. How to sew such clothes?

A man lassoed by an idea, silenced by its serpentine gaze, finds it hard to foam with the insignificant, burrowing words of love. Such a man is ashamed to weep from sorrow. He lacks the wit to laugh from happiness. A dreamer, I had not mastered the senseless art of happiness. For that reason I had to give Vera ten rubles out of my scanty earnings.

(The story was written in the 1920s but not published until 1963; the translation is mine. The original Russian follows.)

Мне ничего не оставалось кроме как искать любви. Конечно, я нашел ее. На беду или на счастье, женщина, выбранная мною, оказалась проституткой. Ее звали Вера. Каждый вечер я крался за нею по Головинскому проспекту, не решаясь заговорить. Денег для нее у меня не было, да и слов – неутомимых этих пошлых и роющих слов любви – тоже не было. Смолоду все силы моего существа были отданы на сочинение повестей, пьес, тысячи историй. Они лежали у меня на сердце, как жаба на камне. Одержимый бесовской гордостью, – я не хотел писать их до времени. Мне казалось пустым занятием – сочинять хуже, чем это делал Лев Толстой. Мои истории предназначались для того, чтобы пережить забвение. Бесстрашная мысль, изнурительная страсть стоят труда, потраченного на них, только тогда, когда они облачены в прекрасные одежды. Как сшить эти одежды?..

Человеку, взятому на аркан мыслью, присмиревшему под змеиным ее взглядом, трудно изойти пеной незначащих и роющих слов любви. Человек этот стыдится плакать от горя. У него недостает ума, чтобы смеяться от счастья. Мечтатель – я не овладел бессмысленным искусством счастья. Мне пришлось поэтому отдать Вере десять рублей из скудных моих заработков.


  1. Beautiful passage. And a very apt image.

  2. Not sure which point you want us to comment on.
    * The fact the he knows good writing too well to be satisfied with his own efforts.
    * His lavish use of simile and metaphor (typified by the “toad on a stone”.
    * The fact that he fell in love with a prostitute (and gave her most of his money).
    I can sympathise with all three!

  3. As always, I let my readers comment on whatever strikes their fancy, or on entirely different topics for that matter. This is Liberty Hall!

  4. Throbert McGee says

    It fills me with naughty glee that, here, the Russian word for “fee” is gonorar.

  5. I’ve been meaning to pick up a collection of Isaac Babel short stories. Anyone have an opinion as to what the best translations are?

  6. The toad is a mystery. I thought it would surely come from a proverb or a folk tale, but I couldn’t find any fairy-tale toad on a rock anywhere.

    True, there is a toad-on-a-heart or a chest toad (грудная жаба), angina pectoris, chest pain due to insufficient heart function (the medical Latin name also refers to something smothering a patient’s chest). But no rocks.

    And then the is also Жабный камень (toad-stone) explained in the dictionaries as халмит “khalmit” but khalmit is explained back as toad-stone and the circle just closes. Wikipedia had a number of synonyms for a mythical stone obtained from a toad, but none matches.

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