By LAWRENCE GOODMAN
The Life and Death of Isaac Babel
By Jerome Charyn
244 pages. Random House. $24.95.
There are no Cliffs Notes for
the works of Isaac Babel. David Guterson, Robert Lipsyte, and even Ayn Rand all
get their own study guides, but Babel,
a Russian Jew regarded as one of the greatest authors of the 20th
Century, is entirely overlooked. If there weren't Notes for Arthur Miller
and Elie Wiesel, I
would cry anti-Semitism.
I can only think that Charyn wrote this book to remedy this omission. It
contains a handy time line of Babel’s life, a useful selection bibliography to do
additional research, and a few nuggets that a college freshman could toss into
an essay and easily score a B+. There are no great revelations or deep insights
though, and, given how many illustrious authors have already written about
Babel—Roland Barthes, Borges, Cynthia Ozick,
and Lionel Trilling—you have to wonder why Charyn even tried.
Charyn, a successful novelist who most recent outing, The Green Lantern, was
a finalist for the 2005 PEN/Faulkner prize, argues that Babel was a mystery—to
himself, to his closest friends and relatives, and, ultimately, to his readers.
There is no way of penetrating the many guises Babel employed in his writing
and life, Charyn says. Well, fine, but then what’s the point of reading this
book? “So who the hell was Isaac Babel, and what can we reliably say about
him?” Charyn writes toward the beginning of the book. “Very little.” Such a
sloughing off of any authorial omniscience may win you points in
deconstructionist circles, but it doesn’t much inspire the lay reader to keep
Babel was born in 1894 in Odessa, a city whose gangsters, peasants, and pogroms
would later prove ample fodder for some of his best short stories. In 1920,
Babel managed to get himself a plum assignment as a war correspondent covering
the Cossacks’ campaign to impose Communism outside Russia. A few years later,
he published Red Cavalry, a collection of tales based on what he’d seen.
The book made him a literary star.
Charyn spends a great deal of time on Red Cavalry because he believes
the time Babel spent on the front transformed him into a writer. He developed
an aesthetic that Frank O’Connor described as “a romanticism of violence,”which
doesn't mean they romanticized violence, but that the barbarism depicted
possesses a mythic grandeur--they tell you about the true nature of man.
Charyn insists the stories in Red Cavalry aren’t true and that they were
written by Babel through the eyes of a persona that bore almost no resemblance
to the book’s real author. He sees Babel as a writer addicted to narrating and
mythologizing his own life, the consequence of which was that he became
indistinguishable from the stories he wrote about himself, an author lost and
“drifting in his own mirage of words.”
I have nothing against this interpretation. I just don’t think it goes far
enough. Why did the violence Babel witnessed drive him to adopt multiple and in
many ways irreconcilable personalities? What are the ethical implications of
fabricating history in the way Babel did when many of the events he witnessed
really happened? And almost any writer will tell you he becomes swallowed up by
his words when he writes so what made Babel’s disappearance any different? None
of these meaty matters are dealt with. I also think there was a fascinating
chapter to be written in this book about the links between Stalin, whose regime
executed Babel, and Babel himself. This not because there is any moral
equivalency between them, only that the former was a “riddle wrapped in mystery
inside an enigma," while the latter, in Charyn’s words, was “his own
haunted house” and a “man of many masks.”
There are also, I have to say, some examples of truly atrocious writing in this
book. Here’s what I think is one example:
The little commissars of the
Revolution had plucked of all his [Babel’s] plumage, until he was one more
Jewish giant, lantern-jawed and weak within a terrifying enfeeblement of
language that strangled an entire country and left Babel a "dead
Elsewhere, we are told that Babel wrote “as if he were tearing at language
itself with a machine gun mounted up on a murderous yet playful tachanka [a horse-driven fighting
vehicle] that could swallow up whole paragraphs and spit back sentences with
missing pieces that cohered into a new design.” It is not clear to me how
either of these passages, with their mixed metaphors and overwrought reasoning,
made it past the copy desk.
What I really wish is that Charyn had talked at greater length and with more
insight into his own debt as a writer to Babel. Charyn interviews Babel’s
daughter, Nathalie, and has some interesting things to say about the many women
in the Russian author’s life, many of whom continued to adore him even after
learning of his faithfulness. But Charyn doesn’t write much about his own
devotion, or at least personal connection, to Babel, which may be why the book
comes across as short on passion, and long on overblown rhetorical praise. It’s almost as if in
writing about Babel’s self-erasure, Charyn decided to take the same tack in
this work as well.
Lionel Trilling, Cynthia Ozick, and Jorge Louis Borges, among many others—they
have written incisively about Babel. College students hoping to get better than
a B+ are best advised to look there first.