Of Russians: Returning to Babel’s Verve

My Russian kick (first Chekhov, then Vladimir Sorokin) has led me back to Isaac Babel, and the rogue is finally starting to get interesting. As I mentioned in a previous post, I ambitiously took out Babel’s collected short stories from the library, then found one story might have been enough for me. On a second perusal, I find his lively verve thrilling and terseness masterful.

Babel’s folksy tales are rollicking in a way Sorokin’s The Queue was not. (To The Queue‘s credit, it ended with a hilarious dialogue of sex sounds.) Babel writes the Jewish experience in Odessa in the 1920s and 30s, so he isn’t dealing with Communism as Sorokin is. Yet he critiques society in a way that suggests he must poke fun at life because he must somehow bear the status quo. These Russians attempt humor through criticism, or criticism through humor, but I’m not sure to what effect, as I haven’t laughed out loud as of yet.

I flipped through Babel’s collection again, hopping from Odessa stories to Red Calvary stories to autobiographical stories. There’s always a joke on someone by the end, and with a modicum of detail he suggest a world of characterizations. His people don’t always have great depth, but they fit in their role in society that grows increasingly complex as we read his cycles of stories. His portrait is one of Russia rather than an individual. Humble lives are transformed into red-blooded exercises in existence. What I’m trying to say is, Babel is a great storyteller.

Babel, photographed upon his arrest

Babel’s life is a story unto itself: he survived the 1905 pogrom that killed his grandfather. He became a journalist and fiction writer, only after fighting in wars and studying finance for lack of other options. He become silent under Stalin’s tightening control. Accused of being an aesthete, Babel would pay for his artistic licence (see Wikipedia article here):

After the suspicious death of Gorky in 1936, Babel noted: “Now they will come for me.” …In May 1939 he was arrested at his dacha in Peredelkino, and eventually interrogated under torture at the Lubyanka….After a forced confession, Babel was tried before an NKVD troika and convicted of simultaneously spying for the French, Austrians, and Leon Trotsky, as well as “membership in a terrorist organization.” On January 27, 1940, he was shot in Butyrka prison.

Reportedly, while Babel confessed under torture, “once he realised he was doomed, he recanted” but “it made no difference.” His last recorded words were,

“I am innocent. I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union. I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others… I am asking for only one thing — let me finish my work.”

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