Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel
By Jerome Charyn
Random House, 224 pages, $24.95.
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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.