The Enig­ma of Isaac Babel: Biog­ra­phy, His­to­ry, Context

Gre­go­ry Freidin

  • Review
By – August 25, 2011

On the morn­ing of May 15, 1939, agents of the Sovi­et secret police arrest­ed Isaac Babel in Pere­delki­no, seiz­ing his unpub­lished writ­ings. Accused of spy­ing for the French and Aus­tri­an gov­ern­ments as well as of par­tic­i­pat­ing in an anti-Sovi­et Trot­skyite orga­ni­za­tion, one of Russia’s great­est mod­ern writ­ers was exe­cut­ed by a fir­ing squad in Jan­u­ary 1940, and his life and work dis­ap­peared from mem­o­ry for over 50 years.

In this col­lec­tion of essays — all of which were pre­sent­ed at the Isaac Babel Work­shop at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty in 2004 — a num­ber of Babel schol­ars attempt to recov­er Babel’s life and art for a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers as well as to pen­e­trate the veil of the enig­mat­ic writer whose iden­ti­ty has for­ev­er been wrapped in a rid­dle. The essays range over top­ics from the adven­tures of writ­ing Babel’s biog­ra­phy (Patri­cia Blake) and the chal­lenges of stag­ing Babel’s play Maria for young Amer­i­can audi­ences (Carl Weber) to Babel and the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of rev­o­lu­tion (Car­ol J. Avins) and the typol­o­gy of debut” nar­ra­tives in Babel and Nabokov (Alexan­der Zholkovsky). In one of the collection’s most com­pelling essays, lit­er­ary crit­ic Robert Alter engages in close read­ings of Flaubert’s Sen­ti­men­tal Edu­ca­tion and Babel’s work to illus­trate the ways in which Babel draws upon Flaubert’s lit­er­ary style of indi­rect dis­course to reveal beau­ty amidst the squalor of the real world. While some of the essays are over­ly aca­d­e­m­ic in tone, this col­lec­tion nev­er­the­less pro­vides fas­ci­nat­ing glimpses of this mys­te­ri­ous and impor­tant writer.

Hen­ry L. Car­ri­g­an, Jr. writes about books for Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, Library Jour­nal, Book­Page, and Fore­Word. He has writ­ten for numer­ous news­pa­pers includ­ing the Atlanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion, The Char­lotte Observ­er, The Cleve­land Plain Deal­er, The Orlan­do Sen­tinel, The Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, and The Wash­ing­ton Post Book World.

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