The Fictionalized Babel: Twisting a Novelist’s Life Into Novelistic Shape

By Saul Austerlitz

Published September 26, 2003, issue of September 26, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

King of Odessa: A Novel

By Robert A. Rosenstone

Northwestern University Press, 256 pages, $24.95.

* * *

The great Soviet writer Isaac Babel is renowned less for his work than for his status as a symbol of the brutality of the Communist regime. Justly famed for his short story collection, “Red Cavalry,” and his gangster bon vivant creation, Benya Krik, Babel was arrested on trumped-up charges in 1939, accused of Trotskyite activity and conspiracy to overthrow Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. He was found guilty after a trial that lasted all of 20 minutes and killed in January 1940.

Rather than retell the familiar story of Babel’s death, in “King of Odessa” Robert A. Rosenstone gives us a Babel in the full swing of life. In a high-modernist maneuver appropriate to Ford Madox Ford and the like, the book purports to be a recovered manuscript, written by Babel during his last sojourn in his hometown of Odessa, four years before his death. In a manner reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’s “Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life,” or Leonid Tsypkin’s recently reissued “Summer in Baden-Baden,” Rosenstone attempts to twist the life of a novelist into novelistic shape.

Still basking in the success of “Red Cavalry,” Babel has not published a book in 10 years and has made a living from film screenwriting. Intending to work with director Sergei Eisenstein on a new film, “Bezhin Meadow,” Babel returns to Odessa, home to all his stories, particularly the legendary Benya Krik tales. He discovers an Odessa that, to a large extent, has been created by the author himself. As a petty criminal that he encounters tells him, “You’ve given us to the world. You’ve made us what we are.” Babel finds himself in a modernist hall of mirrors where the creator is trapped inside his own imaginary world. The harsh realities of life in the Soviet regime have only made the need for art’s consolations all the greater. Unsure of what the next day will bring, or even whether Stalin and his minions will allow them what small measure of freedom they still possess, the citizens of Odessa look to Babel to bring them dignity. “Now make our lives important,” they command him.

Babel, needless to say, has troubles of his own. Publishers are hounding him about the promised novel on collectivization he has, so far, failed to produce. He is being pursued by shadowy state agents for mysterious purposes. His wife Zhenya and daughter Natasha live in Paris, and he has not seen them for more than three years. Babel has two other women who are longstanding presences in his life: Nina, an engineer working on the Moscow subway, and Kashirina, with whom he has a child while in Moscow, and who is now married. In addition to juggling the women in his life, Babel has a difficult relationship with the members of his family, who have emigrated to Brussels. In exchange for the steady infusion of genuine Odessa bagels he sends them, they supply a stable flow of guilt-inducing correspondence regarding his abandonment of his kin. Hoping some time at a government-supplied villa in Odessa will be a respite, Babel is instead followed by Kremlin representatives who demand his help in a top-secret rescue mission of someone (in a Kafkaesque touch) referred to only as K.

Rosenstone leaves us in the dark about these puzzling goings-on for much of the book, which gives us breathing room to enjoy some of the book’s other pleasures. While he is clearly no Babel in the writing department, Rosenstone possesses his own charms and crafts a pleasing first-person voice for his novel. His Babel is a charming rogue, a slightly less criminal version of the writer’s celebrated Benya Krik. He skims through the world on the strength of his wit, and women crowd his life because he is capable of literally charming the pants off of them. Underwhelmed by the political excitements of his age, Babel is the anti-socialist realist; his “dialectical surrealism,” as Babel brands it, features dancing brides in wedding dresses cavorting down the famed Odessa steps, in lieu of Eisenstein’s revolutionary romanticism. His alternate vision of history has more bounce to the ounce and less “workers of the world unite.”

Babel’s refusal to write, to engage a Soviet regime that contradicted, in body and spirit, all that he stood for, has created a saintly aura around his memory. Rosenstone makes an admirable effort to bring Isaac Babel back to the world of the flawed and real, giving us a Babel hounded by the stress of day-to-day existence. He also provides intriguing insight into the writer’s psyche, the nature of his artistic project and his conflicted relationship with communist ideology.

From the distance of 70-plus years, Babel’s life and writings take on a prophetic quality, his stories of the Russian civil war in “Red Cavalry” bearing the seeds of Communism’s downfall. Babel’s gift of foresight, however, did not extend toward his own existence; in Rosenstone’s account, he is offered the possibility to flee the Soviet Union and join his wife, and he turns it down. By his reckoning, his Russian soul would wither and die in the wilds of Western Europe. In a clever and emotional touch, Rosenstone grants symbolic freedom to Babel, writing a final Benya Krik story in which Benya sees the rise of Communism as bad for business and — in a nod to Babel’s spiritual heir, Mordecai Richler — flees to that paradise on earth that is Montreal, where he flourishes as a bookie and raises four children. Babel’s work is granted the freedom to wander the world, no longer trapped in the constrictions of Soviet society, where, as one character describes it, “we are free from freedom.”

Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer based in New York.

Find us on Facebook!
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • 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.