BABEL, ISAAC EMMANUILOVICH


BABEL, ISAAC EMMANUILOVICH (1894–1940), Russian writer. He was born in Odessa, then the center of Yiddish as well as Hebrew literature (both Mendele and Bialik lived there), of Jewish communal and political life (Odessa was, simultaneously, the center of Zionist and Socialist movements), a cosmopolitan port with a strong Western European orientation. Although Russian was not, strictly speaking, Babel's native or even second language (he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking milieu, and his first literary efforts were written in French), he is now generally acknowledged as one of the truly great Russian stylists, and probably the most sophisticated Russian prose writer to emerge by mid-20th century. At the same time Babel is a profoundly Jewish writer not only in his choice of settings and of subject matter, but also in a more profound sense. His imagination is nourished primarily by the tension between his Jewish ethos and the non-Jewish environment and by his inability to conquer within himself traces of residual Jewishness, particularly those of a moral character.

Babel was not a prolific writer. His renown rests chiefly on two collections of short stories, Red Cavalry (Konarmiya, 1926) and Odessa Tales (1927). Together with two plays, The Sunset (1928) and Maria (1935), several tales and a few film scripts, these constitute his entire literary legacy.

The incongruities and paradoxes that are so characteristic of Babel's work are also, by a strange coincidence, to be found in Babel's biography. He fought for the Communist cause in the ranks of Cossack horsemen, those traditional archenemies of Jewish shopkeepers, whose role in the antisemitic pogroms Babel knew from personal experience and had, in fact, described in sharp outline in "The History of My Dovecote." A peaceful intellectual, he sought acceptance by fierce warriors. Only recently emancipated from a religious orthodoxy, he desperately tried to embrace a secular faith that was even more rigid. The author of a book that made an army immortal, he was denounced by that army's commander, Semyon Budyonnyi, as a slanderer. A fighter for the Soviet regime, he was executed by it‥

A disciple of Flaubert and Maupassant, Babel excelled in the highly polished conte, often an extended anecdote related by the protagonist in his own language – be it a peasant dialect, soldier slang, or the strongly Yiddish-accented Russian of Odessa slums. Few writers could equal Babel in the ability to portray a character by means of a few malapropisms, a partiality for a single "fancy" foreign word, or a slightly irregular syntactical construction.

In the neo-Romantic Babel the traditional motif of infatuation with a "noble savage" is found often and in many different forms. Babel, however, posits the problem somewhat differently. Where other writers – from Rousseau to Tolstoy – saw a confrontation between an intellectual and the natural man, Babel sees a Jew aspiring to the status of a pagan, yet destined to remain frustrated in his desire by the restraints of the Jewish ethic. Try as he may, he will never learn the ways of violence and will, therefore, never gain acceptance into the gentile world: in one of his tales the narrator vainly implores Providence to grant him "the simplest of all proficiencies, the ability to kill fellow men." He loses his best friend, Afonka Bida (to an ear attuned to Yiddish, "the Russian Misfortune") because he would not shoot a wounded comrade. To be admitted into a circle of Cossacks, he must first hideously kill a goose – but then, that night, he must wrestle with his Jewish conscience which abhors murder. Babel's Jewish narrator envies his non-Jewish protagonists' ability to kill one's own father, trample to death a former master, or shoot a black marketeer masquerading as a helpless mother. His Jewishness and hence his alienations have numerous attributes – he wears glasses, he cannot learn to swim, he is a poor horseman, he carries with him books.

It is this envy of what he saw as gentile physical strength and absence of moral restraints that caused Babel to create a gallery of Jewish protagonists who bore little resemblance to pathetic Jews described in certain Yiddish literature or to the Zionist dreamers and visionaries in certain modern Hebrew novels. Babel's Odessa Jews who "bubble like cheap red wine" include an imposing amazon, who presides over a den of thieves and a brothel, dignified beggars with patriarchal beards who oversee Jewish cemeteries and discourse on the vanity of human existence, and the legendary Benya Krik ("Bennie the Howl"), a colorful gangster, the terror of Odessa's merchants and policemen. Babel's scenes of resplendent Jewish wedding feasts and magnificent funeral processions are reminiscent of the lush canvases of a Breughel.

The picturesque world of Polish Ḥasidim and Odessa cart drivers, of waterfront philosophers and ritual slaughterers was disappearing before Babel's eyes, a victim of secularism, pogroms, and the Revolution. Its death was recorded in some of Babel's best tales. A few of these relate only an amusing or a paradoxical incident – e.g., an old-age home receives a new lease on life as a funeral cooperative, but only for as long as it continues the swindle of not burying the corpse together with the only coffin it owns; the first honest funeral arranged by it will also spell its doom. Other stories have moral overtones of varying degrees of significance. An infant is named Karl by its Communist atheist parents in honor of Marx; but the grandparents conspire to have it secretly circumcised and the infant emerges with the hybrid name Karl-Yankel (i.e., Jacob). A rabbi's son joins the Communist Party but, for the time being, continues to live with his parents because he does not want to leave his mother. Just as Babel, long after ceasing to believe in God, could not shed the commandment "thou shalt not kill," so the rabbi's son remains faithful to another commandment which makes it incumbent upon us to honor our parents. In another story, the rabbi's son ultimately leaves his parental home to fight and then to die for the Revolution, but the break with his past is tortured and incomplete: among the killed soldier's belongings his comrades find a portrait of Lenin and another of Maimonides, Communist Party resolutions with Hebrew verse written in their margins, the text of the Song of Songs, and some empty cartridges.

The inability to shift one's allegiances completely was most poignantly illustrated in the short story "Gedali." The protagonist, an old Jew, the owner of a Dickensian curiosity shop, is puzzled because murder and looting are his town's lot no matter whether its current masters are Communist or anti-Communist: how then, he asks, can one tell which is the Revolution and which the counter-revolution? Old Gedali cannot agree to the proposition that ends justify means. He is troubled because the Revolution demands that all of the old values, the good as well as the bad, be discarded: "To the Revolution we say 'yes,' but can we say 'no' to the Sabbath?" And he tells his Communist visitor that what the world really needs is not more politics, but an International of Good Men, in which all men could live in peace and harmony, and in which "every soul would get first category rations."

After some twenty years of disgrace, Babel – or, more precisely, his memory – was cleared by the Soviet authorities of the false charges which caused his arrest and death. His best known works were reprinted in the 1950s and in 1966 but subsequently he was again ignored in the Soviet Union.

[Maurice Friedberg]

His Life

Until the age of 16, Babel was provided, by private tutors, with a thorough Jewish education, including Hebrew, Bible, and Talmud. At the same time he attended a Russian commercial school in Odessa. During his student years he seems to have been active in Zionist youth circles. In 1915, after graduating from the Kiev Institute of Financial and Business Studies, he went to Petrograd, where he had to avoid the police because as a Jew he had no residence permit. It was in prerevolutionary Petrograd that his first two stories were published in Maxim Gorki's Letopris (November 1916; in English in The Lonely Years, 1964). After the revolution, he served on the Romanian front in 1918 and contracted malaria. According to his autobiographical note, the details of which are sometimes contested, he subsequently served the new regime in various functions, e.g., in the Cheka (security police), the Commissariat of Education, in "expeditions for provisions" (i.e., confiscating agricultural products in the villages), in the northern army against the White counterrevolutionaries, etc. During his service on the Polish front in Budyonny's 1st Cavalry Army, he developed asthma, and while convalescing in Odessa and the Caucasus, between 1921 and 1924, he wrote and published most of his Jewish Odessa Tales.

In 1931, while reporting on the collectivization in the Ukraine, Babel conceived a full novel or a cycle of stories on the collectivization. One chapter appeared in Novy Mir (October 1931), but it did not meet ideological requirements and the publication was stopped. Only one other chapter was found and published posthumously (both are in The Lonely Years). A fragmentary story called "The Jewess" (published for the first time in the New York Russian magazine Novy Zhurnal, June 1968, and in English in You Must Know Everything) also seems to have originated in the same period as the beginning of a full-fledged novel. In 1928 and 1932 he was allowed to visit his wife and daughter, who had emigrated to Paris. Babel was sent abroad for the last time as a member of the Soviet writers' delegation to a left-wing congress in Paris in 1935, but in the meantime he had virtually stopped publishing. The literary authoritarianism inaugurated in 1934 with the establishment of the Soviet Writers Union induced him to become "a master of silence." He continued writing incessantly but evaded publishing by finding various excuses. "With the death of Gorki" (1936), says his daughter, Natalie, "Babel lost not only a friend but a powerful protector. The ground crumbled under him." Babel was arrested and disappeared in 1939, and all his manuscripts, except those which were deposited with personal friends, were probably destroyed by the secret police. The reason for his arrest is unknown, though Ilya *Ehrenburg indicated in a speech in 1964 that it was somehow connected with his frequent visits to the house of the head of the secret police (NKVD), Nikolai Yezhov, whose wife Babel had known for a long time. Since Yezhov was deposed and executed in 1938, there might be something to this theory. Officially the date of his death was subsequently given as 1941, but after his arrest he was never seen in a camp or in exile, and apparently he was executed in January 1940.

Babel's ties with Judaism never ceased. Six of his stories appeared in 1926 in Hebrew translation, "edited by the author," in the only issue of Bereshit, a Hebrew literary almanac in the U.S.S.R. In 1937 he was given the task of preparing the jubilee edition of *Sholem Aleichem's works. He reported for a newspaper on the new Jewish agricultural settlements established in 1928. Though not religious, he went to synagogue on the Day of Atonement, celebrated with his friends the Passover seder, and in his letters always reminded his family of approaching festivals. Jewish themes were constantly on his mind as a writer, from the folkloric "Shabbos Nahamu" (in-tended as the first story in a cycle centered on the figure of Hershele Ostropoler) to the Judaic concept of a "revolution of good people" in the Red Cavalry story "Gedali."

The first English edition of Red Cavalry appeared in 1929 and the Collected Stories (with introduction by Lionel Trilling) in 1955. His other writings became known in the West only in the 1960s, when his daughter, Nathalie, edited and published in English The Lonely Years, 1925–1939 (1964) containing unpublished stories and private correspondence and You Must Know Everything (1969), which also includes a biographical introduction and speeches and reminiscences by I. Ehrenburg, Konstantin Paustovsky, and others. Since that time his stories have appeared in various English editions along with his 1920 diary (1995) depicting the cruelty of the Polish and Russian armies toward the Jews. A definitive edition of his collected works, edited by his daughter, was published in 2001.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

J. Stova-Sander, Isaac Babel', 18941941: l'homme et l'oeuvre (1968); A.B. Murphy, in: Slavonic and East European Review, 44 (1966), 361–80; I. Ehrenburg, Memoirs, 19211941 (1963), 108–18 and index; R. Rosenthal, in: Commentary, 3 (1947), 126–31; Russkiye Sovetskiye Pisateli: Prosaiki, 1 (1959), 103–18 (incl. bibl.). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H. Bloom, Isaac Babel (Modern Critical Views Series, 1987); A.N. Pirozhkova, At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel (1996).


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.