A Babel Biographer Chases His Moving Target

Biography

By Ilan Stavans

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel

By Jerome Charyn

Random House, 224 pages, $24.95.

* * *

Isaac Babel was an iconoclast whose small, mysterious oeuvre, delivered in a deft, compact Russian shaped at a time of revolution, becomes more alluring with the passage of time. As Jerome Charyn puts it in his meditation on Babel’s life and career, “Savage Shorthand,” “his entire life is about falsehood, about evasion, about manufacturing myth.”

Babel turned Benya Krik, the Jewish gangster, into another Ali Baba and transformed the Moldavanka, the Jewish quarter in Odessa where he was born in 1894, into a Baghdad on the Caspian Sea. Disregard the fact that the place didn’t have “a population of two thousand bandits and thieves.” And that his “service” in General Budenny’s Red Cavalry’s journey in 1920 into Poland, in a war between Cossacks and Polish cavalrymen in which Babel hid under the pseudonym of Kiril Lyutov, is equally filled with fabrications. Or that he would fashion a perfectly credible French accent to tell friends and relatives about his visits to Maupassant’s last flat in Paris — “the sun-warmed frilly pink lampshades, like the underclothes of expensive courtesans, the smell of brilliantine and coffee.” All these are tall tales from a once sickly child and an adult myth maker who had not yet set foot outside Russia.

It doesn’t matter, because Babel’s value was never to be found in his accuracy, despite what some have claimed. Instead, it is in the hypnotizing music of his prose and the agonizing commitments in his heart. In and of themselves, Babel’s vicissitudes are a labyrinth of misinterpretation. There is Lionel Trilling’s famous 1955 essay, in which he portrays Babel as an adventurer with a talent for surprise attacks; the dichotomy he describes between the bookish Jew and the physical Cossack in the Red Cavalry is as enchanting as it is Manichean. Then comes Cynthia Ozick, whose style is a triumph in intellectual obfuscation. For her, Babel is what Kafka isn’t: Kafka is “the man who thinks but barely lives,” Ozick claims, whereas Babel “lives, lives, lives!” And finally, there is Natasha (aka Nathalie) Babel, the author’s daughter, whose Babel is a more humane figure, elusive and sentimental. She is an insider with invaluable information at her disposal, which she made accessible to others while supplementing the missing pieces of the puzzle, but her failure lay in the desire to present the puzzle whole, refusing to recognize that her father wanted it to be forever incomplete. Still others have been mystified by Babel, including Irving Howe. Even I entered the quagmire. In 1993, I wrote a long preface to the Spanish edition of Babel’s “Caballería Roja” and “Cuentos de Odesa.” (In English, the piece was included in “The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Culture.”) Partially my focus was on resistance and criminality, wondering what made Krik so glamorous. I wrote in the piece that I’ve keep rereading his stories, especially the autobiographical ones. That he’s an impostor enthralls me; I, too, often feel like a fake.

Charyn is an illusionist prone to edgy types. His memoirs, “Bronx Boy” and “The Dark Lady From Belorusse,” read like a tangential tribute to Moldavanka. And his acquaintance with the ins and outs of canonical American Jewish literature, displayed in full in his anthology “Inside the Hornet’s Head” (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), makes him a fitting Virgil to (mis)understand — once again — Babel’s cosmology.

“Savage Shorthand” is an example of what unpretentious, passionate criticism is able to accomplish. There are no lessons in it, no ultimate messages about the value of literature. Charyn simply lets his pen loose. He talks about Maxim Gorky, Babel’s mentor in the Soviet landscape. He discusses Tolstoy, Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Ilya Ehrenburg, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and Yiddish stage-actor Solomon Mikhoels. But he also sprinkles his pages with disparate yet candid references to “Huckleberry Finn,” the photographs of Diane Arbus and André Malraux’s politics, as well as with substantive comments on Trilling and Ozick, of course. (She appears to be the bee in his bonnet.) If Charyn’s pyrotechnics call attention to themselves, it is because he recognizes that the only way to delve into a sophisticated world of fiction is with clear convictions. All in all, his volume is superb.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture and Five College-40th anniversary professor at Amherst College. His book, “The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories,” will be released in August by Northwestern University Press. The novella, “Morirse está en hebreo,” is the source of a Mexican feature movie to be released at the same time.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.