‘At Grandmother’s’ by Isaac Babel

Babel, Isaac 1915

At Grandmother’s by Isaac Babel, 1915

The magic trick:

Using the boy’s quest for knowledge in two very different ways

I heard George Saunders read this on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast many years ago. They called it “You Must Know Everything.” I like that title much better, but I’m using the one from Babel’s Complete Works collection. I don’t know why exactly, but this story has stayed with me for a long time – more than most. I probably think of that phrase, You Must Know Everything, at least once a week.

The cool thing is that Babel uses the phrase to represent two very different things. The first is a positive You Must Know Everything. The narrator expresses his joy in learning every detail about the people and places around him. He examines every detail during his walk home. He has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

The second, though, is a negative You Must Know Everything. As the narrator’s grandmother tries to impart this philosophy to him, it no longer resembles some joy of learning. It feels desperate. It feels angry. Elsewhere in the story we learn or infer that trust and faith did nothing but bring this woman agony, both financial and emotional. The only way, she figures now, that her grandson can avoid the same pitfalls is to take total control over his life. You Must Know Everything, in that sense, is a sad – and, of course, impossible – goal.

It’s a fascinating phrase, though, and the story does a great job of exploring its different meanings. And that’s quite a trick on Babel’s part.

The selection:

On Sabbaths after six classes I came home late. Walking through the streets didn’t seem to me pointless. I could daydream remarkably well as I walked, and I felt that everything, everything around me was part of my being. I knew the signs, the stones of the houses, the windows of the stores. I knew them in a very special way, a very personal way, and I was firmly convinced that I saw the fundamental secret within them – what we grown-ups call the “essence” of things. Everything about them was deeply imprinted on my soul.


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