B+ Babel


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 on going. 

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 soul"…

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.