In 1955 Lionel Trilling published a dazzling introduction to the collected stories of Isaac Babel, a writer who'd become a ghost in his own country, his books removed from libraries, his name scratched out of encyclopedias, as if he'd never existed. Babel had written the first masterpiece of the Russian Revolution, Red Cavalry, a cycle of stories about Cossack horse soldiers fighting against the Poles in a brutal and bloody campaign; these stories had the "architecture" and complexity of a novel, a Cubist novel built on a wild geometry where the missing pieces were an essential part of the puzzle. Babel was idolized and attacked for the same reason: rather than celebrate the Revolution, he galloped across it with a cavalryman's panache. He was the one Soviet writer who was read abroad. That made him an infidel in the Party's eyes. And he had to walk a curious tightrope for the rest of his life--revere the Revolution and write a prickly, personal prose that was like a time bomb to the Revolution's dull, pragmatic songs.
Babel fell into silence, wandered the Soviet Union; in the few photographs we have of him he looks like a man wearing the mask of a grocery clerk. The rebellious writer had to be hidden at all cost. And so Babel became the jovial pal of the proletariat, who'd rather talk with jockeys and whores than a fellow writer. Whereas he'd talked about literature day and night with his first wife, Zenya, while he was with her in Batum, would read his stories to her until they were burnt into her heart and she could recite them twenty years later, he wouldn't even show his manuscripts to his second wife, Antonina. He was practicing to become a man of the people who hung out at a stud farm, but he'd used up his own interior space. He was one of the voiceless men--"Ten steps away no one hears our speeches"--in Osip Mandelstam's poem about Stalin, a poem that got Mandelstam arrested, exiled, and killed. Babel never attacked the Kremlin's "mountaineer" with "cockroach whiskers." Stalin was one of his readers, but that couldn't save him.
He was given a dacha in the writers' colony of Peredelkino, and he disappeared from that dacha in May 1939. The secret police had moved him and his manuscripts to their own "dacha" in the middle of Moscow, otherwise known as the Lubyanka. And when Lionel Trilling wrote about him sixteen years later, his death had become only one more enigma in a land of enigmas. He'd been declared an enemy of the people, a spy for Austria, England, and France, and was finished off in 1940, shot twice in the head--the bullet holes were stuffed with rags--and cremated, his ashes emptied into a communal pit. Neither Stalin nor his Cheka bothered to tell anyone, and the myth of Babel languishing in some Siberian camp lingered for years. There were constant sightings of Babel, campmates who swore he was still alive. The Cheka itself manufactured these tales. It was imitating the artistry of Isaac Babel.
By 1954, a year before Trilling's introduction, Babel was "resurrected" in the Soviet Union, pronounced a person again, though the Cheka persisted in giving him a phony death date, March 17, 1941, and wouldn't reveal how or where he had died. It was the United States that had to reinvent Babel in the person of Lionel Trilling, a godlike figure on Columbia's campus. Trilling abhorred violence. And here he was writing about Isaac Babel, the poet of violence, who touched upon a primitive, amoral madness, and seemed deeply ambivalent about it.
Babel himself had been a war correspondent attached to General Budenny's First Cavalry, which consisted almost completely of Cossacks, and in a fictional rendering of his ride across Poland and the Ukraine with Budenny's troops, one can almost feel Babel imagine himself as a little Cossack, with more than a bit of self-mockery as he begins to imitate their own cruel creed. Readers loved the stories, which belonged to that …