The Genius of Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel: The Lonely Years, 1925-1939

edited by Nathalie Babel
Farrar, Straus, 402 pp., $6.75

Isaac Babel
Isaac Babel; drawing by David Levine

Isaac Babel was one of those rare writers—our century has not seen very many—about whom one is tempted simply to cry, genius. There is present all through his mature stories evidence of a great blessing, a profusion of gifts as hard to explain as it is impossible to ignore. His life as a craftsman was spent in hard and self-conscious labor, a subtle refining of violent effects; but what strikes one first and last is the luck of his endowment, the mystery of what was his alone.

Babel reached prominence in the Twenties, one of that tragic generation of Russian modernists almost all of whom, in one way or another, would suffer from the cultural despotism of the Stalin regime. The prescription for modernism which his contemporary Eugene Zamyatin noted in a remarkable essay, “Literature, Revolution and Entropy,” came to severe embodiment in Babel’s work: a clenched upheaval, a disciplined turmoil, a ruthless entanglement with history, a permanent revolution of awareness. But beneath this cultivated figure—cultivated in somewhat the same way as he had willed for himself, while in the Red Army, a measure of Cossack ruthlessness—there is also the relaxed guile of the “natural” story teller.

Babel composed frugally. Most of what he wrote during the Thirties he never published, and most of what he never published was seized by the secret police when it arrested him in 1939. What little is available from this last decade—a few stories and fragments, a group of personal letters—has now been brought together in The Lonely Years. Whether more might still be hidden away in some police files, no one seems able to say. The book begins with a careful biographical sketch of Babel by his eldest daughter Nathalie. While the most authoritative we now have in English, it leaves unanswered a good many questions (e.g., what were Babel’s political views, if any, during the last fifteen years of his life, what were his relations with other Russian writers, precisely why was he arrested in 1939?). Most of all, Miss Babel’s essay whets one’s appetite for the fullscale biography that needs to be done of this remarkable writer.

Miss Babel corrects the few English-language accounts of her father’s life: the nasty insinuations in Bernard Guilbert Guerney’s Anthology of Russian Literature in the Soviet Period from Gorky to Pasternak, the slurs in Olga Carlisle’s Voices in the Snow to the effect that Babel was arrested “for alleged black-market activities” and that to him, of all people, “Stalin was the strong but good master whom Russia needed then,” and on a far more serious level, certain statements in Lionel Trilling’s Introduction to the English-language Collected Stories. The most important error, if error it be, in Trilling’s essay appears in the translation he offers of Babel’s famous speech at the first Soviet Writer’s Congress in 1934; this translation ends with two sentences concerning Babel’s phrase about “the…

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