Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel


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Isaac Babel, the son of a Jewish shopkeeper, was born in Odessa, Ukraine, on 13th July,1894. When he was a child he witnessed a pogrom and was deeply influenced by the experience.

After leaving school Babel moved to Kiev. He began writing but had no success with his work until he met Maxim Gorky in 1916. Soon afterwards Gorky printed two of his short stories in his Letopis. The Russian censors considered the stories to be obscene and Babel was charged under Article 1001 of the criminal code.

Babel joined the Bolsheviks in 1917 and during the Civil War he served as a political commissar in the Red Army. A collection of his stories based on his war experiences, Red Cavalry was published in 1926. The following year he published Odessa Tales, a collection of stories about Jewish life in Russia. He also wrote two plays, Zakat (1928) and Mariya (1935).

Babel became increasingly critical of the rule of Joseph Stalin and found it increasingly difficult to get his work published. At the first meeting of the Soviet Writers' Union in 1934, Babel told the gathering that: "I have invented a new genre - the genre of silence".

In May, 1939, Babel was arrested and his work was confiscated. According to the Soviet government Isaac Babel died in a prison camp in Siberia on 17th March, 1941. However, his family believe he was executed soon after he was arrested in 1939.

In 1915 I began to take my writing around to editorial offices, but I was always thrown out. Then at the end of 1916 I happened to meet Gorky. I owe everything to this meeting, and to this day I speak his name with love and reverence. He published my first stories in the November, 1916, issue of Letopis. For these stories I was charged under Article 1001 of the criminal code.

It was in 1923 during his stay in the mountains that my father began to work on the stories which eventually appeared in Red cavalry. Achieving the form that he wanted was an endless torture. He would read my mother version after version; thirty years later she still knew the stories by heart. My parents moved to Moscow in 1924. My father's first stories were being published at the time, and he became famous almost overnight.

The next person we consulted was Babel. We told him our troubles, and during the whole of our long conversation he listened with remarkable intentness. Everything about Babel gave an impression of all-consuming curiosity - the way he held his head, his mouth and chin, and particularly his eyes. It is not often that one sees such undisguised curiously in the eyes of a grown-up. I had the feeling that Babel's main driving force was the unbridled curiously with which he scrutinized life and people.

With his usual ability to size things up, he was quick to decide on the best course for us. "Go out to Kalinin," he said, "Nikolai Erdman is there - his old woman just love him." This was Babel's cryptic way of saying that all Erdman's female admirers would never have allowed him to settle in a bad place. He also thought we might be able to get some help from them - in finding a room there, for instance. Babel volunteered to get the money for our fare the next day.


The Enigma of Isaac Babel : Biography, History, Context

A literary cult figure on a par with Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel has remained an enigma ever since he disappeared, along with his archive, inside Stalin's secret police headquarters in May of 1939. Made famous by Red Cavalry, a book about the Russian civil war (he was the world's first "embedded" war reporter), another book about the Jewish gangsters of his native Odessa, and yet another about his own Russian Jewish childhood, Babel has been celebrated by generations of readers, all craving fuller knowledge of his works and days. Bringing together scholars of different countries and areas of specialization, the present volume is the first examination of Babel's life and art since the fall of communism and the opening of Soviet archives. Part biography, part history, part critical examination of the writer's legacy in Russian, European, and Jewish cultural contexts, The Enigma of Isaac Babel will be of interest to the general reader and specialist alike.


Isaac Babel and Vladimir Nabokov

Russian author Isaac Babel is reported to have said of his literary contemporary Vladimir Nabokov that “he can write, but he’s got nothing to say.” Early in his career, Babel wrote a short story just three pages long called “Line and Color.” This story goes to the heart of the tension between invention and reality in art, and oddly enough, also explains how it is that readers like Babel have missed part of what Nabokov was up to.

Born five years apart in pre-Revolutionary Russia, Babel and Nabokov both became extraordinary stylists. Their fiction was condemned as obscene. Nabokov was known for his escapes, both literary and literal. Babel, also celebrated for his vivid, poetic images, found his luck less dependable in the real world.

Babel’s experiences in the First World War and then the Russian Civil War spurred the the creation of his first timeless characters in legendary stories that made his name, even as they made him enemies. He found recognition and built a place for himself in the early Soviet literary establishment, but it was for many reasons a precarious situation.

Trotsky and Kerensky

Babel’s “Line and Color” pulls in two real-world charactersAlexander Kerensky and Leon Trotsky—who also appear in The Secret History. The story recounts a meeting between the narrator and Kerensky in December 1916, just two months before revolution would force the Tsar to abdicate. In the real world, in the months following the time and place in which the story is set, Kerensky rose to become a Minister and then, eventually, Prime Minister in the series of Provisional Governments that briefly ruled Russia before the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917.*

In Babel’s story, the narrator has a meal with Kerensky just outside Helsinki, Finland. The description of the meal is concise but charged with images of decadence and collapse. Just after a sighting a beautiful countess who recalls Marie Antoinette, the narrator watches Kerensky eat three pieces of cake.

After the meal, the narrator and Kerensky stroll through a forest bejeweled with ice. On their walk the narrator comes to realize that Kerensky is nearsighted and unable to recognize people and things around him. Confronted by his companion, Kerensky not only admits to having impaired vision, he insists that he will never wear spectacles.

Kerensky explains that his nearsightedness allows him free rein to reconstruct his surroundings in enchanting forms without being bound to the hard edges of the real world. “You can keep that line of yours, with its repulsive reality,” he says. “You are living the sordid life of a trigonometry teacher, while I am enveloped by wonders…”

The story jumps to some months after the Tsar’s abdication, in the midst of strikes and unrest. Now Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, Kerensky approaches a podium to speak to the crowd and remains “the only spectator without opera glasses.” After he finishes, Leon Trotsky, whose spectacles are so well-known Babel does not even need to mention them, steps up to address the crowd. The beginning of his speech provides the last line of the story: “Comrades and Brothers!”

In that moment Trotsky is not a Bolshevik he has not yet fully joined Lenin. But after the story ends, re-entering the stream of real history, perhaps no one will do more to ensure Kerensky’s fall and flight from Russia. Trotsky, leading the second Bolshevik attempt to take over the government, will succeed. He will go on to take Kerensky’s place, commanding an army to victory, this time in a civil war.

Any reader aware of the events that follow the story knows Babel is making clear that Kerensky’s nearsightedness handicapped his vision in more ways than one. Trotsky, also nearsighted but willing to wear spectacles, acknowledges a linear world of hard realities. As a result, he will read the crowd accurately and shape events strategically.

Babel and Nabokov

As with all interesting art, the story transcends the moment. Babel fashions a story based on the history of his day, extrapolating from real events into fantasy to say something about art, life, and humanity. He sets his story before the deluge, so that a small moment in 1916 leads to insight on a future cataclysm, which weighs on the narrative even as it exists entirely outside the narrative framework.

Nabokov does the reverse in his most important books. The novels he sets in a recognizable place and time often occur after social catastrophethe Gulag, the Holocaust, and the brutal internment camps of World War I. His stories fly much further into fragmented fantasy, tracing the failed artistry of his delusional narrators (Kinbote, Humbert, Hermann), leaving only the threads of their pasts hanging for readers to unravel. Nabokov’s characters do not foreshadow the upheaval to come, as in “Line and Color” rather, they exist as detritus of the bitterest events of the century. Their individual flaws do not play out on the grand stage of history instead, history damages them, and leaves them, damaged, to do great harm on an individual level.

Babel, it turns out, was reflecting his own struggle as much as any divide between Kerensky and Trotsky. The meeting between the narrator of “Line and Color” and Kerensky was based on a real walk Babel took with Kerensky outside Helsinki, one that paralleled events in the story. However, as Kerensky biographer Richard Abraham reports, Kerensky owned and used glasses but had that day “left his spectacles at home for reasons of vanity.”

The dichotomy between Kerensky’s world view and Trotsky’s in the story belongs as much to Babel as either man. Critic Harold Bloom suggests Babel was caught between invention and reality on an ongoing basis as an artist:

To extend the metaphor of “Line and Color,” at the “color” pole there is the world of the poetic imagination, which in Babel tends toward the vibrantly erotic and sensual… As always, however, the subjective exuberance of “color” runs up against the stringent demands of “line,” which on the technical level impose upon the artist rigorous standards of craftsmanship and precision and in a broader sense imply a confrontation with an extra-aesthetic, ruthlessly objective reality.

Art, Bloom writes, “emerges from the charged and never fully resolved tension that arises between imagination and fact…”

Babel may well have believed that Nabokov had “nothing to say.” But I would argue that even before Babel was shot in the Soviet Union in January 1940 after confessing (via torture) that he was a Trotskyist and a spy, Nabokov had begun to find a voice that knew not only how to write but also how to say something. As he honed that approach and refused to choose between line and color, he spun ever more fantastic stories in which explorations of taboos and descents into madness provided elegant, artistic cover for the hard lines of history he also buried in his texts.

Nabokov has always received tremendous attention to the “color” segment of the literary equation: his sexually-charged, artistic inventions have made his reputation. The argument in The Secret History does not discount those aspects of his writing rather it asserts that the “line” elements have gone unnoticed in key ways.

Without some knowledge of who Kerensky and Trotsky were, readers of Babel’s story can still appreciate the tension between line and color, but they will have missed whole facets of its meaning. Likewise, to remain ignorant of the dates, places, and historical allusions Nabokov folded into his stories is to miss a vital part of what he was doing with his art.

*Alexander Kerensky was a socialist but favored a coalition government with liberals like Nabokov’s father. His one-time party, the Trudoviks, found themselves condemned by name alongside the elder Nabokov in a 1907 broadside written by Lenin. Vladimir Nabokov became friends with Kerensky decades later in Paris, and also saw him in New York after both men fled wartime France.


On the Cruelty and Tenderness of Isaac Babel

It’s the one book I have two copies of. They sit side by side. The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (circa 1960), with Milton Glaser’s cover of three Cossacks on horseback wiggling against a white background like quarks or some other magic material suddenly visible to the eye. Glaser has caught both the ferocity and the fragile charm of Babel, whose language seems to slice at us while his characters float across our field of vision. Babel is dangerous he disturbs our dreams. He’s cruel and tender, like some kind of crazy witch. Each of his best stories—“The King” or “Di Grasso” or “Guy de Maupassant”—is like a land mine and a lesson in writing it explodes page after page with a wonder that’s so hard to pin down. The structure of the stories is a very strange glass: we learn from Babel but cannot copy him.

I’ve lived with him nearly all my adult life. I discovered Babel after I’d written a novel and read Nabokov, Faulkner, Hemingway, James Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, and Grace Paley. I was sitting with my editor in an Italian restaurant filled with mafiosi. He himself was a novelist, and every other editor in New York feared him, because he was a pirate who ransacked publishers’ lists and stole authors at will. He didn’t have to steal me. I was his single discovery, his one dark horse. And for a short period, just before my first novel was published, while he bickered with book clubs and lined up blurbs that he himself would write and then ask one of his stolen authors to sign, I remember having lunch with him every day of the week.

He happened to compose one of the blurbs while we were finishing our hazelnut cake (reserved for him and me) and coffee with lemon peel. “Incomparable,” he scribbled on the tablecloth. “Stupendous.” I was embarrassed at his flamboyance, and the liberties he took with the restaurant and its tablecloths. “Babel is the one and only writer who comes to mind.”

“Couldn’t you be a little less exotic? Who’s this Babel?”

He revealed his disappointment by crushing the lemon peel and canceling all our other lunches. He wouldn’t talk to me (or write another blurb) until I’d read Isaac Babel. I was whisked into another dimension, where everything to do with my book stood still. I had a book jacket with my name on it but with the title missing. I had a photograph of me with half a face. I had the proofs of every fifth chapter. I found Babel’s stories in a bookshop, but I resisted reading him until I fell upon “The King” and its perverse outlaw in orange pants who reigned over Odessa and disposed of his enemies by firing bullets into the air. He was called Benya Krik, and he was so recognizable that I suffered through palpitations of pleasure and pain.

Benya’s native territory was a Jewish slum, the Moldavanka, home of gangsters and grocers and mythical draymen, a ghetto of dark streets that seemed outside ordinary time, suspended in the reader’s own imagination. I’d met this Benya before, many times, in my Moldavanka, the East Bronx, where he was always defiant in his orange pants. He wasn’t a drayman. His shoulders weren’t broad, but he walked with his own marvelous ballet, giving out candy to all the kids. His nails might be dirty, his shoes unshined, but he was still a gallant. He didn’t seek wealth, but a kind of feudalism, a fief that belonged to him and him alone. The grocers gave him food, and no one would dare steal a solitary fig from them. We never took our problems to the police—they were from another planet, aliens who didn’t bother to understand our sins. The important thing was that our Benya with the dirty fingernails had no fear of them. He ruled even if he never got rich. He was the lord of empty space, prince of those without a language other than the glaring musicality of his orange pants. . . .

I read on and on. I found myself going back to the same stories—as if the narratives were musical compositions that one could never tire of. Repetition increased their value. Babel was involving me in merciless fairy tales that evoked the first books I’d ever read. With each dip into Babel I discovered and rediscovered reading itself.

“ Babel is dangerous he disturbs our dreams. He’s cruel and tender, like some kind of crazy witch. Each of his best stories—“The King” or “Di Grasso” or “Guy de Maupassant”—is like a land mine and a lesson in writing it explodes page after page with a wonder that’s so hard to pin down.”

I bought another copy, savored it, put it on my shelf. I wouldn’t travel anywhere with my two Babels. I didn’t want the binding to break. I knew nothing about him until I read the introduction beneath Milton Glaser’s cover of the three wiggling Cossacks. Babel died in a concentration camp in 1939 or 1940, according to Lionel Trilling (he was murdered in the cellars of the Lubyanka his executioner didn’t fire into the air, like Benya Krik). “It has been said that he was arrested when Yagoda was purged, because he was having a love-affair with Yagoda’s sister.” I put a check near that sentence the name Yagoda seemed poetic and sinister at the same time. And I couldn’t stop thinking about Yagoda’s sister. Yagoda himself was chief of the Cheka (Stalin’s secret police). And I couldn’t have known it then (few people did), but Trilling had the wrong police chief and the wrong relative. Babel had had an affair with Evgenia Yezhova, wife of Nikolai Yezhov, the Cheka chief who came after Yagoda. Yezhov was one of the great killers of the twentieth century, next to Stalin. And Evgenia and Babel died because of Yezhov, a little man with a limp. But I only learned that years after my original romance with Babel. . . .

My pirate of a publisher never took me back into the fold. He disclaimed me as his one dark horse. My novel appeared, but only with a minor hiccup from a book club, and no blurbs. I had my compensation: Babel. In 1937, at the height of Stalin’s terror machine, with Yezhov in power, Babel was obliged to give an interview before the Union of Soviet Writers. The questions asked of him were absurd. I offer one in particular: Why was Babel interested in the

Babel had to give an answer. It was as absurd as the question, but with a little tongue of truth. Tolstoy, he said, “was able to describe what happened to him minute by minute, he remembered it all, whereas I, evidently, only have it in me to describe the most interesting five minutes I’ve experienced in 24 hours. Hence the short-story form” ( You Must Know Everything ).

And I carry Babel’s “five minutes” in my head wherever I go. It has nothing to do with Tolstoy, with

In July 2003, I went on a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to interview Nathalie Babel. I didn’t know what to expect when I knocked on Nathalie’s door. Should I call her “Natasha,” the name under which Babel had known his little Russian daughter, who happened to have been born in France? I admired her fierce devotion. She’d become Babel’s “editor” in the United States, had gathered his stories and letters . . . like a cunning cadet.

“Being Russian, French, American, and Jewish has meant that wherever I am, part of me could be somewhere else.” She could also have been writing about her father, who was always “somewhere else,” whether in his own mind or on some crazy gallop from place to place, or about wanderers like myself who’d traveled from their own “Odessa” on some rocking horse of words.

I felt close to Nathalie. Was she really the child of that Headless Man? When she opened the door, I didn’t have any doubt. She looked like Babel, had the wondrous truculence of her father’s face, like a little commissar of mind and imagination. I’d been told she was a tough customer. Nathalie herself had said on the phone that she’d scared off another interviewer. He’d come all the way from Montreal and wanted to camp outside her apartment, question her for ten hours at a clip. But his first question was fatal. “Who are the Shapochnikoffs?” he asked. (Shapochnikoff was the married name of Isaac’s sister, Maria.) But I had studied the whole Babel tree, including the Shvevels (his mother’s family), the Gronfeins (his first wife’s family), and the Shapochnikoffs.

I asked Nathalie about her mother, Zhenya Gronfein.

“She’s the one who intrigues me,” I said, the dark lady from Kiev (with reddish brown hair), who’d been dismissed by Ilya Ehrenburg and others as a bourgeois beauty. The entire Soviet Union, it seems, had condemned her because her father happened to be rich before the Revolution. She’d been written out of Babel’s life, expunged. We have Antonina Pirozhkova’s testimony, her years with Babel—the pieces of string, Babel’s fear of forests (was he still haunted by the Red Cavalry campaigns near the end of his life?)—but we have nothing from the first Mrs. Babel, who was so unlike the second. . . .

Nathalie would grow up without the usual children’s stories. She had Isaac Babel. “Mother read the stories to me as a child. She admired them very much.” It wasn’t only Antonina who recalled Babel’s piece of string. Zhenya had told Nathalie about that habit of his. “They were in the Caucasus [it was 1922]. He would work at night, with a piece of string, and every day he would read to her what he was working on.”

Zhenya had fond memories of Batum, where she lived with Babel on the side of a mountain and had to hike for miles on unsafe roads in order to reach the nearest market. There were “hard times” on Babel’s mountain, yet “they were happy together.” An “heiress” from Kiev, “she didn’t have the slightest idea of how to cook. But she decided she had to cook.” And when she made Babel soup for the first time, “he put his knife into it. The knife stood up in the soup.”

Babel worked like a madman on his mountain. And then there was the move to Moscow, when his writing began to unravel. Enter Tamara Kashirina, the Russian Delilah who entangled herself with the weak-eyed Samson of Soviet literature. And Babel scrawled his Avtobiographiya that same year: 1924. It begins to make sense why he didn’t include his marriage to Zhenya, a daughter of the Jewish bourgeoisie. He’d had his second birth, as a Soviet writer called Kiril Lyutov, the fictitious narrator of

Zhenya couldn’t forget the string of pearls her father hid from the Bolsheviks. Gronfein “twisted that string of pearls into the electric cord hanging from the ceiling. [And he did it just before the era] of Bolsheviks entering your house and grabbing everything—muzhiks coming in and threatening everybody,” after 1917. Her father “died first and quickly.” Zhenya had already gone to France, where she had neither friends nor family, and she asked Babel to bring her “certain mementos” of her dead father Babel found “two small ivory cigarette holders—that’s all.”

From In The Shadow of King Saul. Used with permission of Bellevue Literary Press. Copyright © 2018 by Jerome Charyn.


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'Everyone makes mistakes, even God.'

In the original Odessa Stories collection published in 1931, Babel describes the life of the fictional Jewish mob boss Benya Krik - one of the great anti-heroes of Russian literature - and his gang in the ghetto of Moldavanka, around the time of the October Revolution. Praised by Maxim Gorky and considered one of the great masterpieces of twentieth-century Russian literature, this is the first ever stand-alone collection of all Babel's narratives set in the city, and includes the original stories as well as later tales.

"Amazing not only as literature but as biography." —Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

One of the great masterpieces of Russian literature, the Red Cavalry cycle retains today the shocking freshness that made Babel's reputation when the stories were first published in the 1920s. Using his own experiences as a journalist and propagandist with the Red Army during the war against Poland, Babel brings to life an astonishing cast of characters from the exuberant, violent era of early Soviet history: commissars and colonels, Cossacks and peasants, and among them the bespectacled, Jewish writer/intellectual, observing it all and trying to establish his role in the new Russia.

Drawn from the acclaimed, award-winning Complete Works of Isaac Babel, this volume includes all of the Red Cavalry cycle Babel's 1920 diary, from which the material for the fiction was drawn and his preliminary sketches for the stories—the whole constituting a fascinating picture of a great writer turning life into art.

A literary cult figure on a par with Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel has remained an enigma ever since he disappeared, along with his archive, inside Stalin's secret police headquarters in May of 1939. Made famous by Red Cavalry, a book about the Russian civil war (he was the world's first "embedded" war reporter), another book about the Jewish gangsters of his native Odessa, and yet another about his own Russian Jewish childhood, Babel has been celebrated by generations of readers, all craving fuller knowledge of his works and days. Bringing together scholars of different countries and areas of specialization, the present volume is the first examination of Babel's life and art since the fall of communism and the opening of Soviet archives. Part biography, part history, part critical examination of the writer's legacy in Russian, European, and Jewish cultural contexts, The Enigma of Isaac Babel will be of interest to the general reader and specialist alike.

Entré en 1920 dans l'Armée rouge, Isaac Babel participa avec la Première Armée de Cavalerie soviétique de Semion Boudienny à la guerre contre les Blancs aux frontières de la Pologne. Il retraça cette épopée tragique et violente à travers une série de courts récits, publiés en revue et réunis en 1926.

« On ne saurait trouver nulle part une évocation plus cruelle, plus sauvagement belle, d'une époque extraordinaire où les pires horreurs prennent un aspect presque quotidien. Grâce à l'art de Babel, les atrocités et les scènes les plus répugnantes revêtent une grandeur épique. » (André Pierre)

Introduction et traduction, avec la collaboration de l'auteur, des trente-quatre récits du cycle original par Maurice Parijanine, 1928.

Le chefdiv mande que Novograd-Volynsk a été prise à l’aube. L’état-major a quitté Krapivno et notre convoi, bruyante arrière-garde, s’allonge par la chaussée, par l’inaltérable chaussée qui mène de Brest à Varsovie et fut construite sur les os des moujiks, d’ordre de Nicolas Ier.
Des champs empourprés de coquelicots fleurissent autour de nous, le vent du sud se joue dans le seigle jaunissant, le sarrasin virginal monte à l’horizon, comme une muraille de lointain monastère. La paisible Volhyne, sinueuse, la Volhyne s’en va de nous dans la brume nacrée des boulaies, elle se coule entre des coteaux diaprés et, les bras las, s’entortille en d’inextricables houblons. Un soleil orangé roule vers le bas du ciel, comme une tête tranchée, une clarté tendre s’allume dans les fissures des nues et les étendards du couchant flottent sur nos têtes. L’odeur du sang d’hier et des chevaux tués s’égoutte dans la fraîcheur vespérale. Noirci, le Zbroutch bruit et retord les nœuds écumants de ses chutes. Les ponts sont détruits en voiture ou à cheval, nous prenons le gué.

Isaac Babel est un écrivain soviétique, né à Odessa, dans l'Empire russe, le 30 juin 1894, fusillé le 27 janvier 1940 à Moscou.


The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context

A literary cult figure on a par with Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel has remained an enigma ever since he disappeared, along with his archive, inside Stalin's secret police headquarters in May of 1939. Made famous by Red Cavalry, a book about the Russian civil war (he was the world's first “embedded” war reporter), another book about the Jewish gangsters of his native Odessa, and yet another about his own Russian Jewish childhood, Babel has been celebrated by generations of readers, all craving fuller knowledge of his works and days. Bringing together scholars of different countries and areas of spec . More

A literary cult figure on a par with Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel has remained an enigma ever since he disappeared, along with his archive, inside Stalin's secret police headquarters in May of 1939. Made famous by Red Cavalry, a book about the Russian civil war (he was the world's first “embedded” war reporter), another book about the Jewish gangsters of his native Odessa, and yet another about his own Russian Jewish childhood, Babel has been celebrated by generations of readers, all craving fuller knowledge of his works and days. Bringing together scholars of different countries and areas of specialization, this book examines Babel's life and art since the fall of communism and the opening of Soviet archives. This book is a part biography, part history, and part critical examination of the writer's legacy in Russian, European, and Jewish cultural contexts.


The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context.

The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context, edited by Gregory Freidin. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. 288 pp. $60.00.

The Enigma of Isaac Babel is infused with a sense of loss: Babel's manuscripts and correspondence were arrested with him, presumed lost in the wake of his execution at the age of forty-five. Laments of a life cut short, stories never written, and papers presumed gone forever contribute to a sense that there is much more to know about Babel, whose early fame with the publication of Red Cavalry in 1926 seemed to foretell a long and fruitful career. In the absence of an archive, Gregory Freidin in his introduction compares Babel to the hackneyed Russian riddle inside an enigma, hence the title of this interdisciplinary volume. Comprising mainly essays presented at the Isaac Babel Workshop at Stanford University in 2004, the book is divided into three unequal parts: a short first section on Babel's biography, a rich middle part on his works in their historical context, and a crowded third section on his stories in the context of world literature. Highlighting the complexities of what it meant for Babel to be a Jew from Odessa who wrote in Russian in the Soviet Union, the volume successfully demonstrates his centrality to European, Soviet, and Jewish literary and historical traditions.

In Part One are essays by Patricia Blake and Freidin, both of whom are completing book-length biographies of Babel. Seeking evidence about Babel's life in his own writing, their essays are by turns autobiographical as well. Blake tells a captivating story about her start as a Babel scholar in Moscow in 1962, when she was a journalist casting around for biographical sources while being tailed by a KGB motorcade. Freidin's contribution is an account of the writer's early influences and reference points, concluding with a reading of the play Maria, the last major new work published in Babel's lifetime. Freidin, who organized the 2004 Babel Workshop, also invited theater director Carl Weber to stage a production of Babel's Maria for the conference participants, and Weber's statement about adapting the play for a contemporary American audience concludes the volume as a whole. Freidin and Weber's essays stand on either side of the collection like bookends, reminders both of the value of reinterpretation and also of the event that occasioned the publication of the book itself.

Parts Two and Three exceed expectations by providing a sustained and layered analysis of Babel as both a Jew and as a Soviet man participating in the creation of a new revolutionary culture. Reading Red Cavalry and Babel's civil war diary for evidence of the Red Army's attitudes toward the Jews, Oleg Budnitskii also examines press clippings and archival material to confirm that the antisemitism Babel documented as an "embedded" war reporter reached the highest levels of party, state, and army leadership. Similarly, Carol Avins offers a reading of "The Journey" as a record of the complex Jewish experience of the Russian Revolution. Babel occasionally concealed his own Jewishness behind an assumed name, while at the same time noting in his diary empathetic accounts of Jewish revolutionaries, and Avins reads a similar ambivalence in his story that has as its centerpiece the murder and mutilation of a Jew witnessed by a fellow Jew who narrowly escapes the same fate. Turning from the Jewish experience to the language of the Soviet state, Michael Gorham's brilliant contribution juxtaposes Red Cavalry with Dmitrii Furmanov's Chapaev, a foundational text in the Soviet literary canon instrumental in developing a new revolutionary discourse. Concluding the section, Marietta Chudakova illuminates Babel's impact on Soviet prose, arguing that diluted elements of his style became staples of Russian-language literature from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Part Three asserts Babel's place in the canon of world literary fiction, amassing an army of scholars to argue the importance of a relatively small body of work. Here Robert Alter situates Babel alongside luminaries like Tolstoy and Kafka in following Flaubert's first-person narration. Similarly, Alexander Zholkovsky compares Babel's "debut" narratives to those of Nabokov, Chekhov, Andreev, and Shalom Aleichem. Turning to Babel as Jewish writer, Zsuzsa Hetenyi credits him with the genesis of the Jewish childhood archetype in twentieth-century European and American literature, and Efraim Sicher examines Babel in the context of contemporary Yiddish and Hebrew literature. In her contribution to The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Elif Batuman explores Babel's refusal to work as a clerk in his life as the root of the doubling of the clerk and the writer and the double-accounting styles evidenced in his writings.

In comparing Babel to Kafka, the dust jacket copy optimistically suggests that this first examination of Babel's life and art since the fall of communism and the opening of Soviet archives will be of interest to the general reader and the specialist alike, but fans of Babel's stories will more likely find their way to Batuman's 2010 book, The Possessed, which includes a more lighthearted account of the Babel Workshop. She concludes the chapter on "Babel in California" with an inventory of the belongings confiscated from Babel's Moscow apartment that scholars pore over as though it could tell us something more about the beloved writer. In its reverence for the relics of a writer who left to little to posterity, The Enigma of Isaac Babel includes excellent examples of such scholarship.


How Isaac Babel Became The Bard Of Jewish Loss And Fate

Born in 1894, he fell into the hellish century that lay just ahead. He wrote in Russian. He was a Communist. He was a university educated Jew. He was executed by firing squad January 27, 1940, in the Butyrka Prison in Moscow. He was having an affair with the wife of a powerful Soviet NKVD chief, which was probably only one of the causes of his death. He had been tortured, as were other Jewish writers suspected of disloyalty at the time. He was swept away, along with the millions of other Jews who died in the bloodbaths of a world gone mad, revealing man as savage, savage as man.

Isaac Babel was a writer who had been educated in the modern world. But he also was a Jew with memories of Sabbath candles and Talmud lessons and the sweetness of spice boxes. He was a modern writer with hopes for a revolution, for the world of equality that would absorb the Jews and keep them safe. Babel had served in the Red Army and had witnessed the brutal betrayals of humanity that occur as armies move forward and backward, trampling the ground as they wander this way or that for reasons soon forgotten in the rush of history.

The story “Gedali” opens on the eve of the Sabbath. The narrator, a soldier in the Red Army, finds himself in the small town of Zhitomer near the ancient synagogue. He happens upon a shop owned by a frail old Jewish man named Gedali. It holds an ancient compass, a stuffed eagle, a Winchester rifle from 1811 and a broken pan. It is a shop of old curios, a Dickens shop, Babel remarks. Our soldier sits with Gedali and they talk.

Gedali says, “The revolution — we shall say yes to her but are we to say no to Sabbath? Yes, I shout to her, but she hides from Gedali and sends forth only fusillades.”

“The sun does not enter eyes that are shut,” I answer the old man.

“We shall rip open the eyes that are shut,” the narrator responds.

“The Pole has shut my eyes,” the old man whispers. “The Pole, the malicious dog. He takes the Jew and tears his beard out. And behold, they [the revolution] beat him, the malicious dog. But then the one who beats the Pole takes my gramophone… Then the revolution says, ‘I am going to shoot at you. I cannot help shooting, because I am the revolution.’”

The narrator soldier tells Gedali that the revolution “is eaten with powder — and is spiced with the best blood.” And here, in a few pages, is a report from a terrible chapter in Jewish history. The pale was always a dangerous and hard place for Jews to survive. There was poverty and cruelty, and the more than occasional pogrom. And the czar and his army were threatening to conscript Jewish boys for a lifetime of service.

But then the revolution came, and Jews were supposed to be liberated, equal the world was suddenly open to them. But the revolution itself could not tolerate Jewish custom, difference, religious ways, and it hoped to purge Jews of their Jewishness. And often they treated Jews, assimilated or not, with fatal contempt, suspicion and violence. And so the Jews were caught in the middle of the great passions of the 20th century and in the end they fled — the wise ones, the ones quick on their feet, those who could.

Jewish life in the Pale was diminished and endangered before the Nazis came to complete the vicious work of destruction. But this conversation between Gedali and the Jewish soldier of the Red Army is not just about violence against Jews. It is also about the loss of tradition, of the Talmud, of the Sabbath, of the ways of Jewish life, the rhythms of Sabbath Queens and yeshiva boys and the smells of food and the courts of rabbis and the presence of the Shekinah on the poorest of streets when the hour comes for prayer.

At the end of the story the soldier asks Gedali, “Where can one get a Jewish cracknel, a Jewish glass of tea and a bit of that forbidden joy inside of the glass of tea? “

“Nowhere,” Gedali answers: ‘There is a tavern next door and good people used to run it, but they no longer eat there, they weep in there. The town is emptied of its Jewish colors. “

In a way this short story is a perfect Zionist proclamation: “Jews, it is over here in Europe. Flee while you can.” But this story is not a simple call for flight as much as it is a prayer for the lost imperfect world where the Sabbath meant rest and the synagogue stood at the center of the heart, and wistful, mystical clouds drifted in the evening sky.

But while there is a heavy sentiment, a kind of nostalgia is mingled with pain in these few pages. The story is clearly not a plea for return to the shtetl. It is a comment on Jewish fragility. And this is where its Zionist message beats loudest. The Pole, the revolution, both will crush the Jew. Christian nationalism, Communist triumphalism, in their certainty that they own the land, the future, that they have right and might on their side, will, in fact, in reality, soon after this story is written, destroy the Jewish world and its helpless inhabitants. That is what Babel saw unfolding, and while he was neither a political philosopher nor a religious scholar, he saw what writers can see: the dark human animal that growls on and on, and the sharp teeth of the beast that waits for the moment to tear into flesh.

Isaac Babel wrote a whole book about Jewish gangsters. He was not a romantic soul. In this brief short story the modern writer, now a soldier, talks with Gedali, who is a keeper of odds and ends, things of another time, not of much use in the present. Babel leaves us, even now in 2017, afraid of the next turn of history, afraid of the next army that has the truth, the one truth, and is coming for us wherever we are. This story lets us mourn for all that was lost and leaves us more than a little afraid of what we ourselves can become when we have the guns and someone else is rushing to the house of prayer. Perhaps sometime in the future, someone will visit a curio shop and find a jacket with a Hillary button pinned to its lapel and pause to wonder: What if that America had not disappeared, leaving behind only vague signs of what might have been?

The plot of this story is Jewish fate, and the language of the story is the sound of Jewish loss. Once read, this story will never be forgotten.

Gedali wanted a world in which there were gramophones for everyone. I want a world in which Isaac Babel lives into his 95th year. He can have as many mistresses as he likes.

This essay is part of a series made possible by the Posen Foundation.


Further Reading

The most thorough biographical account of Babel is in his own The Lonely Years, 1925-1939: Unpublished Stories and Private Correspondence, edited by Nathalie Babel (trans. 1964). There are valuable additional accounts, including reminiscences of the writer by his contemporaries, in Babel's You Must Know Everything: Stories, 1915-1937, edited by Nathalie Babel (trans. 1969). Both volumes contain important stories never before published. Interesting interpretations of his writing are in the introduction by Lionel Trilling to Babel's Collected Stories (1955), and in Edward J. Brown, Russian Literature since the Revolution (1963).


The Elusive Life of Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel lived a short and tumultuous life, flooded with questions of his Russian-Jewish identity, numerous love affairs, and above all, the desire for expression. His stories were more often than not built upon autobiographical experiences, from his memories of the pogroms in his childhood to his time serving in the Red Army. The tension between the individual and his inner world pitted against the surrounding environment permeates Babel’s works, for this was a tension he faced throughout his life. (Rubin, 10)

Babel left behind few traces of his life and work. What is worse, many of those books and autobiographical facts that he left behind have been heavily edited or are pure misinformation or rumor. It is important to keep in mind the time in which Babel was writing. He was a passionate, outspoken Jewish author, who was active in an ultra-censored, cautious country directed by an iron ideology and ultimately controlled by a brutal dictator.

Thus, Babel’s books, letters, drafts and unpublished manuscripts were destroyed after his execution. In addition, according to the Babel biographer Patricia Blake, Babel “failed…to take precautions to preserve his unpublished work” (Blake, 3). Furthermore, many of Babel’s works that are available today were “corrupted by censorship” (Blake, 4). Facts float around that are rumored to be true, but cannot be verified. One such fact, apparently claimed by Babel himself, is that he worked for “the Soviet Secret Police from October 1917 to 1930”. This is a strange claim, considering that the NKVD “was founded in August 1917” (Blake, 5).

The below chronology is based on facts gathered from multiple notable Babel biographers. I have included various rumors within the chronology and have demarcated them as such. Although much of what we know about Babel may be untrue, I believe it is still important to take rumors into account, for a grain of truth may lie within them.

Childhood :

  • 1894: Born on June 30 1894 in Moldavanka, a poor region near Odessa
  • At a young age, he begins an extensive education that included English, French, and German, and private Hebrew lessons.
  • 1905: Yet, Babel did not and could not live the sheltered life of a student. The town to which his family moves, Nikolayev, faces pogroms in 1905. Many of Babel’s stories, especially those told from an innocent child’s point of view, are inspired by this raw reality.
  • 1911: He attempts to enter the University of Odessa in 1911, but is rejected because of quotas on Jews. (Freidin)
  • Instead, he enrolls in the Institute of Finance and Business Studies in Kiev. It is here that Babel wrote his first story, Old Shloyme, and meets his future wife, Eugenia Borisovna Gronfein. (Freidin)
  • 1916: In 1916, Babel graduates university and re-locates to St. Petersburg. There, he meets Maxim Gorky, a writer and political activist. (Freidin)
  • Babel contributes sketches and stories to Gorky’s political, literary, and scientific journal Letopis (Летопись). The journal brings together authors philosophers who oppose nationalism and World War I. (Zakharova)
  • 1917: Babel volunteers for the Red Army on the Rumanian front for a short time. He fights alongside “uneducated Cossacks” and serves “under Commander Budenny”, both of who are infamous for initiating pogroms against Jews. (Rubin, 10)
  • In November, he returns to Odessa, where he decides to take the dangerous trip to Petrograd. (Freidin)
  • Once Babel reaches Petrograd, he joins the Cheka for a brief period, acting as a translator for their counter-intelligence department. (Freidin)
  • 1918: Babel authors numerous sketches that were published in Maxim Gorky’s anti-Leninist newspaper, Novaya Zhizn. This publication is then closed on August 6 th . (Freidin)

  • 1920: The Odessa Party Committee grants Babel the title of war correspondent. He is given the codename Kiril Vasilevich Lyutov. Babel is to spend the months of June through September on the Polish front with with Commander Budyonny’s Cavalry Army. (Freidin)
  • 1923: Babel publishes many of his famous Benya Krik stories. (Freidin)
  • 1923-24: Babel spends these years writing his Red Cavalry stories, influenced by his time on the front. (Freidin)
  • 1925: Babel publishes his first two stories from the child’s point of view. (Freidin)
  • 1925: Babel’s wife Eugenia moves to Paris. (Freidin)
  • 1925-1927: Babel has an affair with Tamara Kashirina. Their child, Mikahil, is born in July 1926. (Freidin)
  • 1926: Red Cavalry is published. Once these stories are published in English, Babel acquires international fame. (Freidin)
  • Commander Buddyony takes issue with the stories upon their publication. He continues to criticize and attack Red Cavalry for the rest of the 1920’s. (Freidin)

    1930: Babel is charged with giving an anti-Soviet interview to a Polish newspaper. He denies the interview, claiming that it was a fabrication. His requests to return to Paris are denied. (Freidin)


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