Babel’s Revenge

Babel’s Revenge

Matt Nesvisky

The Complete Works of Isaac Babel Edited by Nathalie Babel Translated by Peter Constantine Introduced by Cynthia Ozick w.W. Norton 1,072 pp.; $40 A victim of Stalin’s purges, Isaac Babel was shot, with his last wish – to finish his work – denied. A new collection helps remedy that sin.

Matt Nesvisky ARRIVING AT A TIME WHEN all sorts of dubious literary figures – obscure 19th-century proto-feminists, Bloomsbury hangers-on, 1940s pulp fiction practitioners – are celebrated with costly canonizing new editions, this collection by the great Russian- Jewish writer truly stands out. There can be little argument that Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel (1894-1940) was an enormously talented writer. Moreover, given the soul-wrenching difficulties he often faced in getting his work into print, publication of the present volume is more than justified.

Justice indeed has been done to this victim of Josef Stalin’s unspeakable cruelty and paranoia. This “Complete Babel” is handsomely designed, box-slipped, illustrated and annotated with helpful bibliographical information. It includes maps and a detailed chronology of the writer’s life, an admiring introduction by Cynthia Ozick and an informative foreword by master translator Peter Constantine. Editor Nathalie Babel, 73, who over the years edited several volumes of her father’s writings and today lives in Washington, D.C., provides an illuminating preface and, as a final touch, includes a closing 25-page personal memoir of her dad. Most importantly, the volume gathers under one cover everything that has survived the writer – short stories, sketches, scraps of novels, essays, articles, travelogues (notably France and Georgia), plays and screenplays, the latter including silent film treatments built around Babel characters and some rather astonishing Soviet propaganda scripts.

This is not to suggest that each item herein will be of interest to general readers. Virtually everything in this collection is well- written, but not everything is substantial. Sketches, after all, do tend to be sketchy, incomplete manuscripts do tend to tease more than reward. Still, when the KGB thugs swept up Babel, they also swept clean his home of all manuscripts, which were never to be seen again. It is unknown how many of these had never been published; virtually everything in this collection appeared somewhere before, if only in obscure Russian journals. But we must be grateful for what has survived and not quibble about giving each piece its honored and permanent home.

My only real quibble is with Ozick’s thoughtful but occasionally quirky introduction, which attempts to yoke Isaac Babel and Franz Kafka to the same plow. No light is thrown on the subject when she asserts things like: “Kafka and Babel can be said to be the 20th century’s European coordinates: they are separated by language, style, and temperament; but where their fevers intersect lies the point of infection.” Well, yes, it can be said. But saying it doesn’t make it mean anything.

Ozick might have dwelled more fruitfully on some other impressions that arise out of an immersion in Babel. One is that despite being best known for his vigorous and often brutal stories of the Red Cavalry, to which he was assigned as a propaganda officer in 1920 during Russia’s civil war, Babel remained thoroughly imbued throughout his life with an often tender Jewish sensibility. Jewish characters, from rabbis to radicals, appear in his work in every decade, and long after Babel had committed himself to the Soviet experiment his work still revealed respectful familiarity with Jewish tradition. He even wrote stage and screen versions of Sholem Aleichem stories.

Even more striking is Babel’s consistently artful use of language. One wonders, for example, how many Cossacks ever expressed themselves in such terms: “Fields of purple poppies are blossoming around us, a noon breeze is frolicking in the yellowing rye, virginal buckwheat is standing on the horizon like the wall of a faraway monastery. Silent Volhynia is turning away, Volhynia is leaving, heading into the pearly white fog of the birch groves, creeping through the flowering hillocks, and with weakened arms entangling itself in the underbrush of hops. The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head … The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill. The blackened Zbrucz roars and twists the foaming knot of its rapids….”

That’s from “Crossing the River Zbrucz,” and for my money it ranks with Hemingway’s evocation of the retreat from Caporetto. But how did this nice Jewish boy learn to move about so cosily with Cossacks and commandos? Although Babel was raised in a reasonably comfortable middle-class Odessa household, he always had a taste for the louche and the low-lifes. This is manifested most clearly in his Jewish gangster tales which, after his Cavalry stories, are the Babel fictions most familiar to readers of English.

I, for one, am deeply grateful for the tales of King Benya Krik, and his criminal ilk, those circumcised Mafiosi of pre-revolutionary Odessa. Jewish historiography tends to overlook the vast armies of secular Jews backsliding their way down through the centuries. Traditional Jewish literature likewise tends to look the other way in regard to the persistent parade of bulvans and hevremen and shtarkers and gonifs and gunsels – that is to say, tough guys, wiseguys, grifters, conmen, thieves and racketeers. We do occasionally encounter such unsavories in the novels of Henry Roth and Michael Gold, and even in the works of some Yiddish writers. But never are they depicted with the mixture of awe and admiration that we find in Babel’s Odessa stories – stories that are all the more effective in that Babel wrote not in the voice of some appalled outside observer, but in fact as “one of the gang.”

Make no mistake, Benya Krik is no lovable rascal: He’s a cunning and mean-spirited son of a bitch. He has his sentimental side, but does his best to suppress it. He’s neither soft-hearted nor soft- headed, and the same holds for Babel’s entire unholy Odessa underworld of Rubin “Yid-and-a-Half” Tartakovsky, Froim Grach, Lyovka Bik, Lyubka Shneiweis and all the rest. What I love about this unlovable lot is how human they are. And this indeed is one of Isaac Babel’s supreme achievements – he humanizes his Jews, the pious and the profane alike. We can cherish this today, but it was something the Soviet regime could not abide.

AT THE SAME TIME BABEL WAS perhaps subconsciously acknowledging more than a bit of Benya Krik in his own character. For all his humanitarian vision – pity for the poor, respect for the pious, embrace of the socialist utopia – Isaac Babel had his less admirable sides. According to his daughter, a scholar of comparative literature who has taught at several prominent American universities, Babel was as much dedicated to advancing his own career as he was devoted to propagandizing the Soviet cause. And along with these activities he evidently found plenty of time to carouse and to womanize. In the personal essay that concludes this book, Nathalie Babel recounts how her father, whom she barely knew, largely ignored her and her mother in their Paris exile in the 1930s. Although Babel himself had many opportunities to flee the Soviet state, he remained faithfully wedded to it. Moreover, he secretly maintained a second wife and daughter in Moscow. And this was in addition to the married mistress and the son he had fathered by her in Leningrad. The most touching parts of Babel’s essay deal with her discovery of her half-siblings after the war.

But whatever else he was, Isaac Babel was an extraordinary writer. There are many offerings here that reveal Babel as an independent voice beyond any easy classification. A story like “The Road,” in a few pages shows Russia’s great social upheaval in all its complexity and horror. Or “My First Fee,” which contains this revealing and yet sublimely self-mocking passage: “A fog of springtime sultriness chased me back to my attic, to that forest of blacked stumps lit by the moon. I had no choice but to look for love. Needless to say, I found it. For better or worse, the woman I chose turned out to be a prostitute. Her name was Vera. Every evening I went creeping after her along Golovinsky Boulevard, unable to work up the courage to talk to her. I had neither money for her nor words – those dull and ceaselessly burrowing words of love. Since childhood, I had invested every drop of my strength in creating tales, plays, and thousands of stories. They lay on my heart like a toad on a stone. Possessed by demonic pride, I did not want to write them down too soon. I felt that it was pointless to write worse than Tolstoy. My stories were destined to survive oblivion. Dauntless thought and grueling passion are only worth the effort spent on them when they are draped in beautiful raiment. But how does one sew such raiment?”

What a voice indeed. It seems that along with his irredeemable Jewishness, it was precisely Babel’s singularity of voice that the Stalin regime found intolerable. In the spring of 1939 he was arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage. A confession was then beaten out of him in Lubyanka Prison. Just before his conviction at a secret 20-minute trial, however, Babel renounced the confession and is reported to have demanded: “I am asking for only one thing – let me finish my work.” That one thing, of course, was one thing too many. Immediately following the trial Babel was shot, his body was dumped in an unmarked pit. His work was suppressed and his name was obliterated. But he would be “rehabilitated” in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death. To invoke Hemingway yet again (if Ozick can have her Kafka, why not my Hemingway?), the enduring quality of the work collected in this wonderful volume proves that destroying a man does not necessarily mean his defeat.

Copyright c 2002. The Jerusalem Report

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