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[Book reviews]

Red writer
Isaac Babelís triumph

BY WILLIAM CORBETT

The Complete Works of Isaac Babel
Edited by Nathalie Babel. Translated by Peter Constantine. Introduction by Cynthia Ozick. W.W. Norton & Company, 1072 pages, $45.

Isaac Babel is a great, an essential 20th-century writer. Barring an unexpected discovery in Moscowís KGB archives, we now have his work complete, as edited by his daughter Nathalie and in a new translation by Peter Constantine. Having no Russian, I can report about the translation only that Constantineís English reads smoothly. I will have no trouble explaining why Babel is a great writer. I do so in honor of Donald Haberman, who introduced Babelís work to me 40 years ago in our freshman English composition class at Lafayette College. He did this by reading aloud Babelís Benya Krik story " The King. " Since then I have read some few or many of Babelís pages every year.

In 1937, L. Kagan opened his entry on Babel in the Small Soviet Encyclopedia with these words: " Babel, Isaac Emmanuelovich (born 1894) ó Soviet Writer, son of an Odessa merchant. His first stories appeared in 1916, although the height of his literary output occurred during the years 1923-24. Babelís literary output is small in volume. "

What this bald account leaves out is that Babel, a Jew from Odesa, the Black Sea port and probably the most free and easy Soviet city for a Jew to grow up in during that time, rode with General Budyonnyís Cossacks into Poland in 1920. He did so as a war correspondent and committed revolutionary. It was on this campaign that Babel had the experiences he later turned from newspaper dispatches into the stories he published under the title Red Cavalry. He wrote as a Jew and a revolutionary riding with Jew killers. He was, he often reminds us, a man who wore " eyeglasses, " an intellectual. Babel came to know, as he wrote in a later story " Guy de Maupassant, " " the horror in his eyes mixed with rapture. " It is the emotional quality of this horror and rapture, the relentlessness with which it arises from Babelís sentences and propels the reader forward, that is his genius.

Babel wrote in telegraphic prose, stories that are sometimes little more than a page in length ó this is true of the Red Cavalry tales but his other stories are in more conventional lengths. This style blends the compression of lyric poetry with the expanse that can be taken in by a movie camera. His images have been described as surrealistic, but they seem to me to reflect more a heightened, everything-at-once sense of reality than a dreamlike or hallucinatory state. His images are wild and thrown on the page, and then he moves on. In " My First Goose, " he writes of Savitsky, the commander of the Sixth Division: " He smelled like perfume and the nauseating coolness of soap. His long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots. "

The overall affect is of being in a real world and simultaneously, if only for seconds, thinking about it. Babel delivers the rapture of feeling and the horror of contemplating that which we have seen and felt without giving either precedence. His readers are in the position of the character (Babel himself?) in " Dolgushovís Death " who, confronted with a wounded soldier whose guts are spilling from his belly, cannot use his pistol to put him out of his misery. A Cossack rides up to do the job and says, " Get lost, or Iíll shoot you! You spectacled idiots have as much pity for us as a cat has for a mouse! " This is our 20th and 21st century ó we can see but we cannot act. And those who act do so with an instinctual and frightening vehemence. " Dolgushovís Death " ends with the spectacled idiot being offered a wrinkled apple to eat. A lesson on innocence boldly given. Babelís stories, alternating between violence and calm, have great soul.

They also have great, raucous humor, especially " The Odessa Stories " about the Jewish gangster Benya Krik. " The King " also ends with a mouse. Dvoira, the 40-year-old sister of Benya the King, " with her swollen goiter and eyes bulging out of her sockets, " is seen " edging her timid husband toward the door of their nuptial chamber, looking at him lustfully like a cat which, holding a mouse in its jaws, gently probes it with its teeth. " The life in this indomitable, unfathomable spirit, which keeps us going in lust, anger, and wonder, is everywhere in Babel. " The Odessa Stories " and Red Cavalry are his masterpieces, but hardly a page in this book ó including alternate drafts, sketches, journalism, diary entries, plays, and screenplays ó is unmarked by his violently lyrical and life-loving gift.

What became of this child of the Russian Revolution? After the international fame of the late 1920s and early 1930s, he wrote less, spoke of himself " as a great master of the genre of literary silence, " worked on movie scripts, traveled to Paris where his daughter Nathalie lived with her mother; he might have stayed there, but instead he returned to Russia on the eve of the show trials. This was in 1935. He must have known that he was in danger. Why did he return? He told his friend Boris Souvarine, " I am a Russian writer. If I did not live with the Russian people, I would cease being a writer. I would be like a fish out of water. " I wonder whether he didnít also return because he wanted to see how the red fervor of his youth would play out. He had a need, I think, to know the end of his story.

In May 1939 Babel was arrested by the secret police and taken to Moscowís Lubyanka Prison, where on January 26, 1940, he was tried. He recanted the confession extracted from him by force, pled his innocence, and asked the court to " Let me finish my work " ; he was shot the following morning. Today we know that there was nothing exceptional about either these proceedings or their outcome. His great predecessors Gogol and Chekhov could easily have suffered the same fate in Stalinís Russia.

In " Guy De Maupassant " Babel wrote his most often quoted sentence, " No iron spike can pierce the human heart as icily as a period in the right place. " We know this to be true because such periods are the essence of his incomparable art.

William Corbettís latest book is All Prose, published by Zoland Books.

Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001

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