On January 17, 1940, Stalin approved the sentences of 346 prominent people, including the dramaturge Vsevolod Meyerhold, the former NKVD (secret police) chief Nikolai Yezhov, and the writer Isaac Babel. All were shot. Babel had been arrested on May 15, 1939, in the middle of the night, and, the story goes, he remarked to an NKVD officer: “So, I guess you don’t get much sleep, do you?”
Grim wit was Babel’s trademark. He is best known for a cycle of short stories entitled Red Cavalry, a fictionalized account of his experiences as a Bolshevik war correspondent with a Cossack regiment during the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920. Lionel Trilling, who introduced Babel to the English-speaking world, recognized these stories as the masterpiece of Soviet literature.1 Some of Babel’s other stories, especially his Odessa tales, also impressed Trilling and have remained favorites. They offer a tragicomic portrait of Odessa’s large Jewish community, with its rabbis, sensitive schoolboys, and, improbably, a Jewish gangster whose adventures combine epic heroism with a trickster’s ingenuity.
How did a young man “with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart,” as he describes himself in one story, wind up in a regiment of Cossacks, known for their extreme brutality, violent masculinity, and hatred of Jews? Born into a middle-class Jewish family in 1894, Babel, who received a traditional Jewish education, was steeped in the polyglot, multicultural communities of Odessa, where he acquired fluency in Hebrew, Yiddish, and French, as well as Russian. In one story, he describes how Odessa Jews were obsessed with turning their sons into great violinists, like Mischa Elman or Jascha Heifetz; but Babel, who concealed copies of Turgenev on his music stand, preferred the traditional Russian view of literature as the most important thing in the world.
Influenced by Maupassant, he wrote his first stories in French, but as he recalls in his autobiographical tale “My First Honorarium,” he was inhibited by his belief that “it was pointless to write worse than Lev Tolstoy.” With Tolstoy, he told an interviewer, “the electric charge went from the earth, through the hands, straight to the paper, with no insulation, quite mercilessly stripping off any and all outer layers with a sense of truth…both transparent and beautiful.” But it was not Tolstoy’s incomparable realism and transparent style that Babel would cultivate. It was his ability to strip away all life’s accidents and reveal its “essence.”
In his tale “Childhood. At Grandmother’s,” the young Babel learns to see everything around him—streets, shop windows, stones—“in a special way…and I was quite certain that I could see in them what was most important, mysterious, what we grown-ups call the essence of things.” He discovered in his grandfather a man who “was ruled by an inextinguishable search for knowledge and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.