The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context

The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context

The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context

The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context

Synopsis

A literary cult figure on a par with Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel has remained an enigma ever since he disappeared, along with his archive, inside Stalin's secret police headquarters in May of 1939. Made famous by Red Cavalry, a book about the Russian civil war (he was the world's first "embedded" war reporter), another book about the Jewish gangsters of his native Odessa, and yet another about his own Russian Jewish childhood, Babel has been celebrated by generations of readers, all craving fuller knowledge of his works and days. Bringing together scholars of different countries and areas of specialization, the present volume is the first examination of Babel's life and art since the fall of communism and the opening of Soviet archives. Part biography, part history, part critical examination of the writer's legacy in Russian, European, and Jewish cultural contexts, The Enigma of Isaac Babel will be of interest to the general reader and specialist alike.

Excerpt

The dean of the Odessa mobsters Froim Grach liked Benya Krik.

“Benya speaks little,” he told the council of thieves when asked to size Benya up, then added, “But he speaks with zest. He says little but you feel you want him to say something more” (“How It Was Done in Odessa,” 1923). Maxim Gorky liked Isaac Babel and thought him better than Nikolay Gogol. Gorky's praise of Babel is echoed by the fictional elder gangster promoting his brilliant protégé. Literature and gangland raids, literature and violence, literature and the Russian Revolution, Russian literature and the Jews—welcome to the world of Isaac Babel.

What Froim Grach said about Benya Krik encapsulates Isaac Babel and his legacy. a rather small body of work is all that has survived of Babel's writings. But most of it is zesty and brilliant, leaving generations of readers gasping for more. the words are spoken by a gangster, an outlaw, with a slight local accent (Odessa) and lightly damaged Russian syntax, revealing the speaker to be a little more comfortable in Yiddish than Russian. the words of praise coming from one gangster about another are composed tongue-in-cheek, for they mark a sly intrusion by an outsider into the very serious world of Russian letters, suggesting, perhaps, that the gangster's words mean the opposite of what they say, or the opposite of the opposite, or something in-between the opposite and the same. Was the statement just an aside to shape the character of the story as a man of few words but plenty of action? Or was this a joke, ostensibly about the gangster's verbal parsimony, but made at the expense of the torrents of prose contained in Russia's nineteenth-century “baggy . . .

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