Mingled Biographies and Mangled Lives: Isaac Babel-A First Glance

By Charyn, Jerome | Midstream, September-October 2005 | Go to article overview

Mingled Biographies and Mangled Lives: Isaac Babel-A First Glance


Charyn, Jerome, Midstream


1.

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 tiny "window" during the twenties when Russia was like a Wild, Wild West with its own avante-garde in the middle of NEP [Lenin's New Economic Policy], as "beautiful women in mink coats"{Radzinsky, 170} * suddenly appeared in Moscow, some of them clutching copies of Isaac Babel. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Mingled Biographies and Mangled Lives: Isaac Babel-A First Glance
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.