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The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context, edited by Gregory Freidin. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. 288 pp. $60.00.
The Enigma of Isaac Babel is infused with a sense of loss: Babel’s manuscripts and correspondence were arrested with him, presumed lost in the wake of his execution at the age of forty-five. Laments of a life cut short, stories never written, and papers presumed gone forever contribute to a sense that there is much more to know about Babel, whose early fame with the publication of Red Cavalry in 1926 seemed to foretell a long and fruitful career. In the absence of an archive, Gregory Freidin in his introduction compares Babel to the hackneyed Russian riddle inside an enigma, hence the title of this interdisciplinary volume. Comprising mainly essays presented at the Isaac Babel Workshop at Stanford University in 2004, the book is divided into three unequal parts: a short first section on Babel’s biography, a rich middle part on his works in their historical context, and a crowded third section on his stories in the context of world literature. Highlighting the complexities of what it meant for Babel to be a Jew from Odessa who wrote in Russian in the Soviet Union, the volume successfully demonstrates his centrality to European, Soviet, and Jewish literary and historical traditions.
In Part One are essays by Patricia Blake and Freidin, both of whom are completing book-length biographies of Babel. Seeking evidence about Babel’s life in his own writing, their essays are by turns autobiographical as well. Blake tells a captivating story about her start as a Babel scholar in Moscow in 1962, when she was a journalist casting around for biographical sources while being tailed by a KGB motorcade. Freidin’s contribution is an account of the writer’s early influences and reference points, concluding with a reading of the play Maria, the last major new work published in Babel’s lifetime. Freidin, who organized the 2004 Babel Workshop, also invited theater director Carl Weber to stage a production of Babel’s Maria for the conference participants, and Weber’s statement about adapting the play for a contemporary American audience concludes the volume as a whole. Freidin and Weber’s essays stand on either side of the collection like bookends, reminders both of the value of reinterpretation and also of the event that occasioned the publication of the book itself.
Parts Two and Three exceed expectations by providing a sustained and layered analysis of Babel as both a Jew and as a Soviet man participating in the creation of a new revolutionary culture. Reading Red Cavalry and Babel’s civil war diary for evidence of the Red Army’s attitudes toward the Jews, Oleg Budnitskii also examines press clippings and archival material to confirm that the antisemitism Babel documented as an “embedded” war reporter reached the highest levels of party, state, and army leadership. Similarly, Carol Avins offers a reading of “The Journey” as a record of the complex Jewish experience of the Russian Revolution. Babel occasionally concealed his own Jewishness behind an assumed name, while at the same time noting in his diary empathetic accounts of Jewish revolutionaries, and Avins reads a similar ambivalence in his story that has as its centerpiece the murder and mutilation of a Jew witnessed by a fellow Jew who narrowly escapes the same fate. Turning from the Jewish experience to the language of the Soviet state, Michael Gorham’s brilliant contribution juxtaposes Red Cavalry with Dmitrii Furmanov’s Chapaev, a foundational text in the Soviet literary canon instrumental in developing a new revolutionary discourse. Concluding the section, Marietta Chudakova illuminates Babel’s impact on Soviet prose, arguing that diluted elements of his style became staples of Russian-language literature from the 1930s through the 1950s.
Part Three asserts Babel’s place in the canon of world literary fiction, amassing an army of scholars to argue the importance of a relatively small body of work. Here Robert Alter situates Babel alongside luminaries like Tolstoy and Kafka in following Flaubert’s first-person narration. Similarly, Alexander Zholkovsky compares Babel’s “debut” narratives to those of Nabokov, Chekhov, Andreev, and Shalom Aleichem. Turning to Babel as a Jewish writer, Zsuzsa Hetenyi credits him with the genesis of the Jewish childhood archetype in twentieth-century European and American literature, and Efraim Sicher examines Babel in the context of contemporary Yiddish and Hebrew literature. In her contribution to The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Elif Batuman explores Babel’s refusal to work as a clerk in his life as the root of the doubling of the clerk and the writer and the double-accounting styles evidenced in his writings.
In comparing Babel to Kafka, the dust jacket copy optimistically suggests that this first examination of Babel’s life and art since the fall of communism and the opening of Soviet archives will be of interest to the general reader and the specialist alike, but fans of Babel’s stories will more likely find their way to Batuman’s 2010 book, The Possessed, which includes a more lighthearted account of the Babel Workshop. She concludes the chapter on “Babel in California” with an inventory of the belongings confiscated from Babel’s Moscow apartment that scholars pore over as though it could tell us something more about the beloved writer. In its reverence for the relics of a writer who left to little to posterity, The Enigma of Isaac Babel includes excellent examples of such scholarship.
New York University