Babel, Isaac Emmanuyelovich
BABEL, ISAAC EMMANUYELOVICH
(1894–1940), regarded as one of the finest writers of fiction of the twentieth century.
Babel was born to a middle-class Jewish family in Odessa. Though nonobservant, he remained interested in Jewish culture—he translated Shalom Aleichem—and Jewish identity became a central interest of his art. Odessa was a vibrant port city, without a heritage of serfdom, more cosmopolitan than was the custom in Russia. Babel saw it as fertile ground for a southern school of Russian literature—sunny, muscular, centered on sensuous experience, free of the metaphysical yearnings and somber seriousness of the Russian tradition. French literature attracted him. He had a Flaubertian dedication to his craft; Maupassant's skill in depicting the surface of things was a model. Babel's playful side is most evident in his first cycle of short stories, The Odessa Tales (1921–1924). But an age of war, revolution, and terror demanded sterner stuff. Babel responded with his tragic Red Cavalry (1923–1925) and his study of the complexities of growing up Jewish, The Story of My Dovecot (1925–1931).
Babel was sympathetic to the aims of the Russian Revolution and served it in several capacities, including a stint as translator for the secret police (Cheka). For a long time he enjoyed the benefits and celebrity of a Soviet writer, though he eventually became a victim of Soviet terror. In 1920 he signed on as correspondent with the First Cavalry Army, a leading unit of the Reds in the civil war, at the time engaged in battle with Poland. His summer with this largely Cossack army gave him the material for his great book of revolution and war.
Success brought pressures to conform. With the ascendancy of Josef Stalin and the mobilization of society commencing with the First Five-Year Plan (1928–1932), writers could no longer feel safe pursuing their private visions as long as they avoided criticism of communist rule. They were now expected to produce work useful to the state. Babel made abortive attempts to conform but mostly sought the safety of seclusion and silence. As he said at the First Congress of Soviet Writers: "I have so much respect for [the reader] that I am struck dumb." Nevertheless, he produced some outstanding work in the thirties, including "Guy de Maupassant" (1932) and "Di Grasso" (1937)— two parables of the life of the artist. He was arrested as a spy on May 15, 1939. Like millions of innocent men and women, he fell victim to Soviet tyranny; he was shot on January 27 of the following year.
Babel wrote many fine stories and several interesting plays. Among his best work are his cycles. The Odessa Tales treat a crew of Damon Runyon–like gangsters and their cohorts of the Jewish ghetto of Moldavanka. They are not clothed in realism's ordinary dress but in the colorful garments of romance or the crazy garb of comedy. The stories are designed to charm, not move the reader, though their rejection of Jewish resignation to suffering is a common theme for Babel. The four tales comprising The Story of My Dovecot have greater depth. They tell of the breaking away of a Jewish boy from his highly pressured home—the father is compensating for the indignities wrought by anti-Semitism. Red Cavalry is a masterpiece. It weaves its complex ways between irreconcilable antagonisms—of constancy and change, action and culture, revolution and tradition—to offer an image of the tragic character of human life.
See also: purges, the great
Carden, Patricia. (1972). The Art of Isaac Babel. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Ehre, Milton. (1986). Isaac Babel. Boston: Twayne.
Poggioli, Renato. (1957). "Isaac Babel in Retrospect." In The Phoenix and the Spider. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Trilling, Lionel. (1955). Introduction to The Collected Stories, by Isaac Babel. New York: New American Library.