The Genius of Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel: The Lonely Years, 1925-1939

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

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 right to write badly”: “Let us give up this right, and may God help us. And if there is no God, let us help ourselves…” In the speech as printed in The Lonely Years, these sentences do not appear, and their absence, while not affecting the ironic sadness of Babel’s words, certainly makes them seem less militant than the version given by Trilling.

Perhaps the most striking revelation in Miss Babel’s sketch is that the short “official” autobiography published by Babel in 1924, and since used by most of his critics, contains significant inaccuracies. Like many other writers, “he loved to confuse and mystify people” and besides, his “intention was to invent an appropriate past for a young Soviet writer who was not a member of the Communist Party.” This prudential concern may partly explain Babel’s twisting of the facts, but it hardly seems a sufficient explanation for his most startling invention, namely, that he “served in the Cheka” (the words are his) during and/or after the Russian Civil War. “My mother,” adds Miss Babel, “who shared Babel’s life during most of these years, told me that his service with the Cheka was pure fabrication.” There is a fascinating problem here: Was not Babel, in fabricating this past, responding to the same imaginative needs that went into the composition of Red Cavalry, above all, the need to identify himself with, yet ultimately stand apart from, the most terrible and even indefensible extremes of historical violence?

Miss Babel offers other valuable information. She corroborates Paustovsky’s memoirs concerning Babel’s compulsive rewriting: “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.” Miss Babel offers an explanation, to be taken seriously if not given full credence, of why her father failed to take advantage of his several opportunities to escape the Stalinist terror: “Babel was convinced that a writer mutilates himself and his work when he leaves his native country. He always refused to emigrate and never once thought of his trips abroad as a means of escape.” And one bit of information is chilling: “During the winter of 1944-45 Ilya Ehrenburg, visiting Paris for the first time after the war, assured my mother that Babel was still alive, under house arrest somewhere inside of Russia. But then in the spring of 1956, Ehrenburg had to tell another story: It was he who communicated to my mother the official date of death (March 17, 1941) together with the announcement of Babel’s posthumous rehabilitation.” This passage is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. Did Ehrenburg, knowing in 1944-45 the truth about Babel’s fate, fulfill still another mission for his masters? Or was he, this time, himself a victim of lies from above? (There is a troubling story told by Howard Fast which may parallel this incident. After breaking from Communism, Fast revealed that his friend Boris Polevoi, an influential Soviet literary figure, had assured him that the Jewish writer Kvitko was still alive and in fact living near Polevoi—at a time when Polevoi knew that Kvitko had already been liquidated.)

After Miss Babel’s sketch there follow two groups of Babel stories: four early ones, which in their Maupassantlike charm show why Gorky became enchanted with the young Babel, and five pieces from the middle and later years of his career. In the youthful stories his romanticism and love for the picturesque come through without much complication—this, one realizes, is what he had to suppress, but not destroy, to reach the mastery of Red Cavalry. Of the five mature pieces, two are chapters from novels which Babel could not complete or which were confiscated and perhaps destroyed after his arrest in 1939. These fragments show the peasants resisting, through guile and desperation, the forced collectivization of the late Twenties; they suggest that Babel was planning a series of loosely connected stories in the manner of Red Cavalry; and all that needs to be said about them here is that they are marvelous, tense with a brilliant clash between blind collective and immovable peasants. It is a tragedy of modern literature that this work remains uncompleted, or has been destroyed.

Froim Grach,” the third of the later stories, has never been published in the Soviet Union. Written with Babel’s harsh ellipsis and compressed nostalgia, it rounds out the Benya Krik series, depicting the end of a Jewish roughneck, older and tougher than even Benya himself, “the real boss of Odessa’s 40,000 thieves,” who cannot strike a truce with the new Soviet power which locally he has helped bring into existence. “Tell me,” says the head of the Odessa Cheka, “tell me as a revolutionary: what good was this man for the society of the future?” The writing is suffused with regret for the vivid unruly past, a time of glorious ruffians and “extraordinary stories”—all of which was totally at variance with the death-voice of “Socialist Realism.”

The remaining two stories, “Answer to an Inquiry” and “My First Fee,” provide a beautiful opportunity, here only to be glanced at, for studying Babel’s literary methods and development. “Answer to an Inquiry” is an early version of “My First Fee,” with both using the same plot: an encounter in Tiflis between a green young writer and an unsentimental prostitute which leads to a night of affection. Each story deserves to be called a masterpiece, though in sharply different ways. “Answer to an Inquiry” is stripped to a tense objective notation, condensed and stylized in dialogue—somewhat like a narrative coiled several times into itself, so that much of it is not immediately visible: “That night, this thirty-year-old woman taught me her simple art. I experienced that night a love full of forbearance and heard the words that one woman speaks to another.” More than twice as long, “My First Fee” moves along the same fierce road-bed of narrative, but interrupting the rush of events are a series of reflective-lyrical rests: “It is difficult for a man who has been captured by an idea and tamed by its snake-like gaze to expend himself in the froth of meaningless and nagging words of love.” The injection of an ironic subjectivity, sharply incongruent with the narrative and breaking through its surface like a man’s uncontainable struggle with his memories, makes the second story richer, more devious and complex. Yet it lacks that harsh momentum of personal action, taken also to reflect the momentum of an historical epoch, which gives the first story a quality of iron. No matter; any writer in his senses would give his right arm to have written either version.

The bulk of The Lonely Years is devoted to Babel’s letters, written between 1925 and 1939, to his mother and sister, who had both emigrated to Belgium. Babel’s wife had also left Russia, to settle in Paris, and the tension between the two—he repeatedly entreating her to come back to Russia and she refusing—forms an undercurrent of interest in letters otherwise flat in expression and claustrophobic in family detail. Still, here and there one comes upon a revealing passage. 1925: “Like everyone else in my profession, I am oppressed by the prevailing conditions of our work in Moscow; that is, we are seething in a sickening professional environment devoid of art or creative freedom.” (Within a few years, wary of the censors, Babel will not dare speak out so openly.) 1928 (from Kiev): “There’s poverty here, much that is sad, but it is my material, my language, something that is of direct interest to me…I don’t mind going abroad on vacation but I must work here.” 1930: “As for the apparent misfortunes in my literary life, up till now I have brilliantly allayed the fears of my short-sighted admires and it will be the same in the future. I am made of a dough that is a mixture of stubborness and patience and it is only when these two elements are strained to the utmost that la joie de vivre comes over me…” 1936: “Akademia has entrusted me with the editing of Sholom Aleichem’s works. I read him in my spare hours and roll around with laughter; it brings my young years back to me.” 1937: “Have spent a few days in town attending the stormy literary meetings, the gravity of which you know from the newspapers. Their beneficent effect upon the future is beyond doubt but in the meantime it keeps breaking one’s writing rhythm.”

Mainly these letters serve as a screen upon Babel’s life; they are fogged with silence and necessary cautions. About the political or intellectual events of the Twenties and Thirties Babel says nothing. About his work, almost nothing. About his personal experiences, nothing. Like all duty letters, they are drearily impersonal, enfolding a man in his kindnesses.

What, finally, is the impression one brings away from this partial record of Babel’s later years? A sense, above all, of how strong is the Jewish side of his experience and sensibility. This has not received enough attention from his American critics, perhaps because they simply lack the knowledge to detect the muted echoes of Mendele Mocher Sforim and Sholom Aleichem in some of the stories. (The fragments from Babel’s novels have a distinct similarity, at least on their comic side, to the fiction of Moishe Kulbak, a very talented Soviet Yiddish writer who was arrested and murdered at about the same time Babel was; though whether the two men knew each other or each other’s work I cannot say.) To stress Babel’s underlying Jewishness of sensibility means even more than noticing, as the Russian critic Vladimir Polonsky did, that “in Red Cavalry the rugged iron of Lenin’s skull and the faded silken portraits of Maimonides live side by side. But they cannot go on living in peace…” If these letters finally tell us anything about Babel, it is what his stories reveal more ambivalently: that beneath his various masks, the celebrant of Cossacks, the intellectual questing for sensations of violence, the fabricator of a Chekist past, the delighted parent of Benya Krik’s pranks, there lives, as he writes in “The Death of Dolgushov,” one of those “chaps with specs,” turning his Jewish self inside out to create his overwhelming stories. Driven to strike blows against the past, he also clings to it, cherishing in his fiction the image of Gedali, the Hasid who wants “an International of good people,” and worrying in real life about his sister’s operation, his mother’s varicose veins. He is a good Jewish son.

The talent displayed in the later stories printed here (they should be added to the next edition of the Collected Stories) is one of the most brilliant in our century. But finally Babel’s talent also seems a limited one, for if the later work shows a deepening of theme and an even more gorgeous coloring of language, there is no sign that Babel could have reached the cultural breadth one associates with the twentieth-century masters. In this respect—though not in any other—he reminds one of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish writer who has recently been much admired by American readers: a new and brilliant note is struck, and then struck with greater force and clarity, and then struck again…

But it is a note of genius. Reading The Lonely Years, hungering for the later work of Babel that will probably never reach us, one feels again that helpless rage before the destruction Stalinism wrought upon one of the most gifted generations of Russian writers, the generation of the Twenties. “A writer’s way,” Gorky had warned Isaac Babel, “is littered with nails, mostly large ones, and he has to walk on them barefoot. He will bleed profusely, and more and more every year.”