The first criticism I read about the famous short-story writer Isaac Babel was an essay by Lionel Trilling, then the dean of the New York Jewish intellectual crowd and one of the most prominent academics in the country. His piece was, at the time, one of the central pronouncements on the Soviet Jewish writer's remarkable work and brief, tragic life. I still recall the potent effect both the stories and the essay had upon me.
For, much like Trilling, I had found reading the intense, often shockingly violent stories that fill Babel's first collection, Red Cavalry, to be a disquieting experience. And it was not just the circumstances of the stories – they told of Babel's experiences as a journalist traveling with the Red Army during the war against Poland – but something that had to do with the writer's style as well.
Trilling understood this inherently, and so had a highly personal reaction to the stories. Babel's book, the critic noted, "was obviously the most remarkable work of fiction that had yet come out of revolutionary Russia, the only work, indeed, that I knew of as having upon it the mark of exceptional talent, even genius." At the time of Trilling's first reading – meaning the late 1920s – he noted that there was still talk of the "Russian experiment," which was to lead all humanity to a finer future. For Trilling, one of the benefits of this new dawn in human history would be "an art that would have as little ambiguity as a proposition in logic."
Trilling admitted that he did not understand why this was so, but suggests that it was a product of those "radical" times and such specialized political thinking.
And yet, he conceded, Babel's stories were "all too heavily charged with the intensity, irony and ambiguousness from which I wished to escape."
The "anomaly" at the heart of the book was what struck Trilling most forcefully. The Red Cavalry announced in the title were actually Cossack regiments, so why was it that Cossacks were fighting on behalf of the Revolution? Hadn't they always been instruments of repression? And the author, who was a clear presence in these stories, riding along with this Red Cavalry, wasn't he a Jew? Wasn't this yet another anomaly since Jews and Cossacks were polar opposites, sworn to mutual hatred?
Admiration, Sort of
"Yet here was a Jew riding as a Cossack and trying to come to terms with the Cossack ethos," Trilling continued. "The stories were about violence of the most extreme kind, yet they were composed with a striking elegance and precision of objectivity, and also with a kind of lyric joy, so that one could not at once know just how the author was responding to the brutality he recorded, whether he thought it good or bad, justified or not justified.
"Nor was this the only thing to be in doubt about. It was not really clear how the author felt about, say, Jews; or about religion; or about the goodness of man. He had – or perhaps, for the sake of some artistic effect, he pretended to have – a secret. This alienated and disturbed me. It was impossible not to be overcome by admiration for Red Cavalry, but it was not at all the sort of book that I had wanted the culture of the Revolution to give me."
As it turned out, Trilling noted in the next sentence, nor was this the book that the revolution wanted to give to anyone. As the critic made clear, this startling and abundantly talented debut story collection undermined the rest of Babel's career, and probably amounted to his death warrant in Stalinist Russia. Babel, who had been a protégé of Maxim Gorky and acclaimed during the 1920s, eventually became a victim of Stalin's paranoia and his periodic purges of "anti-revolutionary elements." By 1940, Babel was dead, a nonperson in the Soviet Union; his work was fully expunged from the record.
I have written at length about Trilling's critique – which served for many decades as the introduction to an early version of Babel's collected stories – because Jerome Charyn's new book, Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel, recently published by Random House, brings to mind the earlier critical response. In fact, in the early pages of this new book, Trilling's essay plays a significant part in the narrative.
Charyn, the author of more than 30 books, many of them unconventional and inventive novels, speaks of owning two copies of The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, the version that contained the Trilling introduction. The book had a cover by graphic designer Milton Glaser that showed "three Cossacks on horseback wiggling against a white background like quarks or some other magic material suddenly visible to the eye."
In Charyn's opinion, Glaser's design "caught both the ferocity and the fragile charm of Babel, whose language seems to slice at us while his characters float across our field of vision. Babel is dangerous; he disturbs our dreams. He's cruel and tender, like some kind of crazy witch. Each of his best stories – 'The King' or 'Di Grasso' or 'Guy de Maupassant' – is like a land mind and a lesson in writing; it explodes page after page with a wonder that's so hard to pin down. The structure of the stories is a very strange glass: we learn from Babel but cannot copy him."
Charyn's choice of favorite stories refers to the other major group of tales that Babel wrote before the Soviet officials brought his creative life to a standstill.
Known collectively as the "Odessa Stories," they deal for the most part with the Jewish gangster Benya Krik, who Charyn calls the "perverse outlaw in orange paints who reigned over Odessa and disposed of his enemies by firing bullets into the air."
Much like Trilling's reaction to the Red Cavalry stories, Charyn had a personal response to the Odessa tales.
He said he "knew" Benya Krik – or people like him – so intimately from his own life that he "suffered through palpitations of pleasure and pain" when first reading Babel. Benya's territory was a Jewish slum called the Moldavanka, and Charyn had met him in his own Moldavanka – the East Bronx.
One of the things that Charyn does in his unwieldy but often brilliant book is add correctives to Trilling's facts about Babel, as have many other Babel commentators (notably Babel's daughter Natalie) after the Collected Stories appeared in English in the mid-1950s. Trilling was going on the best information he had 50 years ago but much of it was incorrect, part of the myth that had grown up around Babel, some of which was of the short-story writer's own making. Aside from everything else Charyn does in Savage Shorthand – and he wears many hats here – at several spots in the book he provides timelines of Babel's life that help clear away the cobwebs of myth and speculation.
And in his unconventional manner, Charyn stops the narrative flow of this book for a moment and constructs his own portrait of Trilling, a professor at Columbia University, where Charyn was a student. The author speaks of Trilling's imperious manner, but that he learned later that this eminent man – the first Jewish professor of English in the Ivy League – was, in fact, riddled with doubt and plagued by bouts of depression.
Charyn suggests that these psychological states explain why Trilling was so attracted to Babel's work, how the critic was able "to intuit the pathos beneath Babel's savage lines."
"Trilling must have felt an affinity with Benya Krik, that gangster in orange pants, as lyrical as language itself, a warrior with all the grace and willfulness of poetry. Trilling could have been dreaming about himself when he says of Babel: '[T]he unexpectedness which he takes to be the essence of art is that of a surprise attack.' He was Babel's secret sharer, a writer who would have liked to shuck off his academic clothes and veer toward the unexpected, with its quota of surprise attacks."
Savage Shorthand moves at a different pace than most other works of criticism. Structurally, it's all over the place – part biography, part analysis, part autobiography – though its many pieces do eventually add up to a coherent portrait of Babel. Don't try this book before you read Babel himself. This is not an introduction or a guide. But if you do read Babel and are smitten, you'll doubtless make your way to Savage Shorthand; there's something inevitable about it – an experience all Babel-lovers must afford themselves.