Review of 'The Complete Works of Isaac Babel', ed. Nathalie Babel, Picador £30.00
As one of the greatest writers of the early Soviet period in Russia, the first single volume edition of the works of Isaac Babel is an event. In the epoch of war and revolution Babel is an author of the first rank.
Born in the busy Russian port of Odessa on the Black Sea in 1894, Babel grew up in a shtetl, a Jewish village. The son of a small businessman of mixed fortunes, he grew up amid cultural riches and material poverty, assailed by racism from all sides.
He was pushed hard to succeed in school. But rebelling against violin lessons and the life of a scholar, he travelled to Petersburg where, in the midst of the turmoil of the First World War, he met the leading left writer of the time, Maxim Gorky, who encouraged him to write. Gorky was impressed by his sharp, realist style but told him he needed to find out more about life. This he did by signing up as a war correspondent in the bloody and ill-fated campaign against Poland which, encouraged by the western powers, had declared war on the exhausted Soviet Republic in the summer of 1920. For months the Jew Babel lived and wrote among brutalised Jew-hating Cossack fighters.
On his return Babel wrote a series of stories about characters like the gangster Benya Krik, all from the Jewish quarter of Odessa, the Moldavanka, 'crowded with suckling babies, drying rags and conjugal nights filled with big-city chic and soldierly tirelessness'. A couple of years later he published 'Red Cavalry'. This collection of 30 short semi-autobiographical pieces, written in an uncompromising modernist style, is unflinching in its depiction of the horrors as well as the heroism of the Polish war. The book was an immediate success and established Babel's reputation. There was, however, sharp criticism from Budyonny, the legendary commander of the Red cavalry, and other senior figures, angered at the thinly veiled portraits of themselves.
Now seen as an important writer, Babel embarked on a number of projects including plays and film scripts. But his output was small and diminishing. As the Stalin dictatorship tightened, at the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers he called himself 'a great master of the genre [of literary silence]'. Such implied criticism of the regime, together with the powerful enemies he had made with Red Cavalry, effectively guaranteed his arrest in May 1939. He was shot in the Lubyanka prison in early 1940.
This collection covers it all. It isn't the complete works but as much as has survived Stalin and his secret police--the Odessa stories, 'Red Cavalry', his astonishing war diary of the 1920 campaign, tales from Moscow, the Caucasus, and elsewhere, plays and film scripts. Here is Russia on the eve of the First World War, the Civil War, the strangled revolution in Moscow under Stalin, the Ukraine in the early stages of collectivisation.
Babel's stories, typically half a dozen pages or less, written without any attempt to show continuity, have an honesty and a vivid sharpness that is unparalleled. His style, so hard to describe, tends to be terse, almost cryptic. Babel goes everywhere, sees a great deal and relates it without flinching: the deaths, the rapes, the brutality of every kind. Sharply critical of everything he observes, he supports Soviet power without illusions.
Babel is perhaps unique in his incorruptibility, his directness. His work has an enduring quality. It remains a mirror of our times, both city and rural life, sweat, horses, alcohol, race, sex, death, violence, laughter. To face the horrors of Russia before, during and after its revolutions, horrors so close to those of our own times, there is no better place to go.