Friday, October 8, 2010

The Life & Death of Isaac Babel

No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.
—Isaac Babel

At any rate, here was Babel's book and I found it disturbing. It was obviously the most remarkable work of fiction that had yet come out of revolutionary Russia, the only work, indeed, that I know of as having upon it the mark of exceptional talent, even of genius.

—Lionel Trilling, remarking about Red Cavalry
in Isaac Babel's Collected Stories



Isaac Babel's widow, Antonina Pirozhkova, died on September 12th at her home in  Sarasota, Florida. Ms. Pirozkhova, who was 101, was the wife of one of the Soviet Union's most famous short-story writers, Isaac Babel.

Babel, born in Odessa in 1894, the son of a Jewish merchant family, moved to St. Petersburg at age 21. There, he had to be careful of the Tsarist police, as he lacked the proper residency permits required of all Jews. After having met Gorky, who published two of his stories in his magazine, Babel became a published writer, and eventually a well-regarded one, at least until Gorky's death in 1936. Gorky had became his protector of sorts from the reproaches of Soviet authorities.

After this period, Babel's last years under the steel grip of Stalinism and its purges were generally ones of silence. His inability to serve the causes of socialism caught up with Babel, and eventually silenced him with bullets from a firing squad on January 27, 1940. He was arrested on May 15, 1939, and charged with espionage. There was a perfunctory short 20-minute trial on January 26, 1940, and then the state-sanctioned execution the next day. Babel was 45.

Those are the barest details of the short life of Isaac Babel. Yet, there's more to be told.

Isaac Babel's life and untimely death matters greatly, as his life and stories show that revolutions take on a life of their own, and that truth is always a casualty of war, particularly truths that go against the official narrative put forth by its leaders. Isaac Babel, in some extreme test of the idealistic renderings of Brotherhood of Man, pushed himself out of his natural skin to better understand the ambient life of the Soviet Union and its destructive forces.

That his and the Jewish people's hopes for a better life quickly turned sour is a well-told story. Yet Babel remained and wrote, like a stoic soldier, even for the most unlikely sources. Babel, as a war correspondent for ROSTA, the Soviet news agency, re-crafted his stories of the Cossacks in Red Cavalry (1926), his most famous work.  A masterpiece, it vividly recounts the command of Semyon Budyonny and the Cossacks in the Red Army's 1920 campaign to spread the revolution outside Russia's borders.

"Under the non-Jewish name of Lyutov, the Jewish Babel served with this army, and the stories fictionalize—sometimes without even changing names—what happened to the invading soldiers, to the Polish and Jewish inhabitants they encountered, and to Lyutov (the name of the stories’ principal narrator) himself," says Gary Saul Moroson in the New Criterion's Isaac Babel's Genre of Silence:
The cycle, taken as a whole, remains one of the masterpieces of Russian literature. If one thinks of a great work as one that will be read by nonspecialists a hundred years hence, then I think there are only three works of post-Revolutionary Russian prose that are without qualification great: Mikhail Bulgakov’s comic masterpiece about the devil’s visit to Soviet Russia, The Master and Margarita; Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, which finds an appropriate strategy for making an endless chronicle of horrors into compelling reading; and Babel’s Red Cavalry.
It is precisely such horrors that make the book disturbing, in a way that great literary works often are, an assault to the expected order of things, says Lionel Trilling, the noted literary critic in a 1955 essay.
There was anomaly at the heart of the book, for the Red cavalry of the title were Cossacks regiments, and why were Cossacks fighting for the Revolution, they were the instruments and symbol of tsarist repression. The author, who represented himself in the stories, was a Jew; and a Jew in a Cossack regiment was more than an anomaly, it was a joke, for between Cossack and Jew there existed not merely hatred but polar opposition. Yet here was a Jew riding as a Cossack and trying to come to terms with the Cossack ethos.
Isaac Babel in 1908.
In The Complete Works of Isaac Babel (2001: Norton), edited by Nathalie Babel (Isaac Babel's first daughter) and translated by  Peter Constantine), an article in The Independent by Robert Chandler points out a side of Babel not completely understood, even today:
It is uncertain whether Babel witnessed pogroms in his youth, but he was clearly fascinated by sadism and violence. Once he boasted to a friend: "I've now learned to watch calmly as people are shot." He was on friendly terms with Yezhov, head of the secret police during the height of the Purges. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, her husband Osip once asked Babel why he was drawn to such people. Was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death? Did he want to touch it with his fingers? No, Babel replied. "I just like to have a sniff and see what it smells like."
However perverted this seems, there is nothing voyeuristic about Babel's art. The greatness of Red Cavalry stems from the depth and clarity of Babel's understanding of the human capacity for violence. Sadism and vengefulness, in Babel's world, come in a variety of guises, and victims and executioners absorb one another's identity.
Babel went to great lengths to find out how The Other thinks, feels and even smells, even at great risk to self.  It begs the question if the Other differs than us. He had a chance to leave the Soviet Union, particularly after the death of Lenin in 1925 made life more ominous for writers. Babel moved members of his family, including his first wife, Yevgeniya Borisovna Gronfeyn, to Western Europe. His daughter, Nathalie, was born in Paris, France in 1929. (She became a scholar in her own right, and died in 2005.)

Yet, Babel remained apart from his family. Although he took frequent trips to Western Europe, his heart remained in the Soviet Union. "Nathalie's only personal memory of Babel was from when she was 5. Babel, then a privileged Soviet writer, visited an international writers' congress in Paris, along with Boris Pasternak, in 1935," writes the New York Times. Although Babel was pressured to stay, he resisted it, Nathalie writes, chiefly out of sense of patriotism and personal honour: 
"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 to escape. Moreover, his sense of honour demanded that he stay among his own people,"
He began living with Antonina Pirozhkova in 1934, and in 1937 she gave birth to a daughter, Lidiya. And there Babel remained to the bitter end, knowing that his voice was being silenced. "In a remarkable appearance at the Congress of Writers in 1934, Babel gave a wry speech in which, with multiple layers of irony, he praised the Soviet regime for having deprived writers of the right to write badly," says Moroson writes in the same New Criterion article noted above, adding:

[C]commenting on his lack of publications in recent years, he also claimed to have mastered “the genre of silence.” It was as if his own laconism had merely been taken a step further. And yet, even in the writings we do have, the hint often speaks loudest. We hear, in the resonant tonalities of the barely but piercingly audible, the appreciation, in extraordinary times, of all that is careful, precise, and ordinary.
When the secret police took Babel, they also seized his manuscripts, which were destroyed along with him. Babel's last words before he was executed were: "I am asking for only one thing—let me finish my work."  In a sense of poetic justice, his work has outlasted the Soviet Union. Babel the man is no longer with us, but Babel's writings remain.

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