Five Minutes of Life

The Lonely Years 1925-1939

by Isaac Babel, edited by Nathalie Babel, translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 402 pp., $6.75

You Must Know Everything: Stories 1915-1937

by Isaac Babel, edited and with Notes by Nathalie Babel, translated by Max Hayward
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pp., $5.95

Isaac Babel
Isaac Babel; drawing by David Levine

Isaac Babel was the most telling writer of abrupt stories to come out of the Russian revolution. This gentle Jew was a man who hit one in the belly. More important he had—what is indispensable to short stories—a distinct voice. Made famous by Red Cavalry and the Odessa stories—he was rewarded with a very pretty dacha—he worked under Gorki’s influence and protection as a writer precariously accepted by the regime but increasingly restless and finally silent under it as a person and an artist; he was allowed to go to Paris and Italy, but his foreign contacts must have brought him under suspicion; he was arrested, secretly tried, and presumably executed, in the general Stalinist attack on the arts in 1939. A blunt story—rather like one of his own. His works vanished; references to them were cut out of histories and criticism; his manuscripts and papers were either destroyed or, haphazard, lost. Not until 1964 was he rehabilitated and there was a public celebration of his genius.

Letters written to his first family who were in Brussels and Paris have been recovered; also stories lost in periodicals or in salvaged manuscripts. Few have yet appeared in Russia or in translation. It is the same old stupid Soviet tale. The MacAndrew edition contains his letters and two early stories, including the famous My First Fee: the Max Hayward edition which first appeared in 1964 also contains early work like An Evening at the Empress’s and The Chinaman, the text of a long interview, and of the speeches made in 1964 by Ehrenburg, Paustovsky, Nikulin, Munblit, and others. The Paustovsky piece supplements the fine portrait in this writer’s Years of Hope and is a valuable and intimate account of his habits as a writer in the early days. He and Paustovsky belonged to the very talented group who began to write in Odessa in the terrible period of the Civil War. In spite of biographical criticisms made by Nathalie Babel, the edition of her father’s stories introduced by Lionel Trilling in 1955 is important.

The subjects of a very large number of Babel’s stories are primitive and direct. The war and the expropriations have turned the peasants on the Asiatic border into murderers, looters, and bandits; the new government forces were as ruthless in getting a new regime set up. Babel’s prose is sharp and laconic. There is little comment. And yet within the fatalism of the tales there is the unmistakable Jewish humanity, sometimes the Jewish humor and fantasy—what one can only call the irony of recognition: the recognition of the manly or womanly essence of each briefly elicited character. Babel had a master in Gorki, but his deeper master were Gogol and Maupassant: Gogol for the imaginative richness, Maupassant for detachment, economy, and devilish skill. Eventually Babel was to find Maupassant cold. What I think Babel meant was that the Frenchman was…

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