If Saint Peter should ever locate the keys to the Lubyanka and release all the writers slaughtered there, the only shade in the procession likely to be wearing a smile would be Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel. As his second wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, tells us, “Babel ascribed great importance to merriment.”
“What has the Jew studied?” asks the rabbi in one of Babel’s Red Cavalry stories.
“What is the Jew seeking?”
Wit and irony are often a requirement for passage into the Russian canon (even Dostoevsky is, not least, a hilarious writer), but it has long been a cultural style to withhold any outward signs of pleasure. Remember the paintings and the photographs of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, and, in the Soviet period, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, even the riotous Daniil Kharms: the style was to radiate seriousness, spirit, weariness, suffering, but not delight. Even Gogol withheld all traces of pleasure from the portrait painters. Nabokov, too, seemed to shift to his signature expression of bemusement only after crossing the border of emigration to Berlin, Paris, and Ithaca.
Pirozhkova wrote her memoir in secret decades ago, but it was published, in uncensored form, for the first time in 1989, the crest of the glasnost wave in Moscow. The book does not pretend to do the heavy lifting of a biography, and yet it is especially rich with the evidence of Babel’s good humor in a dark time. The handsome English edition includes pictures of Babel smiling with his young wife and his various children. Especially striking is a photograph of Babel in 1938, at the height of the purges, sitting cross-legged on a couch, his head resting in the palm of his right hand: he is smiling blissfully, a Jewish Buddha in wire-rimmed glasses.
One can only begin to imagine the levels of irony, the fatalism, in that smile. The next year, in May 1939, Babel would be arrested at the order of the head of the secret police, Lavrenty Beria. Babel was keenly aware of the possibility, even the inevitability, of this end. Some commentators have remarked on his political naiveté, his innocence of politics. This is preposterous. As early as 1920, when he was working as a war correspondent on the Bolshevik side during the civil war, Babel made clear in his diary that the ideals of the revolution had been trampled by the cruelties committed in their name: “They all say they’re fighting for justice and they all loot,” Babel wrote as he traveled with Semyon Budyonny’s cavalry through the doomed cities and shtetls of eastern Poland and western Ukraine—Dubno, Chelm, Belz, Zamosc—the scene of Jewish pogroms and, twenty-odd years later, the scene of Jewish obliteration. Few writers of the early Soviet period witnessed more cruelty at such close range. Babel’s smiles concealed bottomless pain as well as his uncanny ability to see—and to foresee. (“Can it be that ours is the century in which [the Jews] perish?” he asked himself …