Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel

Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel

by Jerome Charyn

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Hailed as the first great Soviet writer, Isaac Babel was at once a product and a victim of violent revolution. In tales of Cossack marauders and flashy Odessa gangsters, he perfectly captured the raw, edgy mood of the first years of the Russian Revolution. Masked, reckless, impassioned, charismatic, Babel himself was as fascinating as the characters he created. At… See more details below


Hailed as the first great Soviet writer, Isaac Babel was at once a product and a victim of violent revolution. In tales of Cossack marauders and flashy Odessa gangsters, he perfectly captured the raw, edgy mood of the first years of the Russian Revolution. Masked, reckless, impassioned, charismatic, Babel himself was as fascinating as the characters he created. At last, in renowned author Jerome Charyn, Babel has a portraitist worthy of his quicksilver genius.

Though it traces the arc of Babel’s charmed life and mysterious death, Savage Shorthand bursts the confines of straight biography to become a meditation on the pleasures, torments, and meanings of Babel’s art. Even in childhood, Babel seemed destined to leave a mark. But it was only when his mentor, Maxim Gorky, ordered him to go out into the world of revolutionary Russia that Babel found his true voice and subject. His tales of the bandit king Benya Krik and the brutal raids of the Red Cavalry electrified Moscow. Overnight, Babel was a celebrity, with throngs of admirers and a train of lovers.

But with the rise of Stalin, Babel became a living ghost. Charyn brilliantly evokes the paranoid shadowland of the first wave of Stalin’s terror, when agents of the Cheka snuffed out artists like candle flames. Charyn’s chilling account of the circumstances of Babel’s death–hidden and lied about for decades by Stalin’s agents–finally sets the record straight.

For Jerome Charyn, Babel is the writer who epitomizes the vibrancy, violence, and tragedy of literature in the twentieth century. In Savage Shorthand, Charyn has turned his own lifelong obsession with Babel into a dazzling and original literary work.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This portrait of Babel by the prolific Charyn (The Green Lantern, etc.) is confounding for reasons he himself elaborates on: it's difficult to know much for certain about the life of the great Russian Jewish short-story writer (1894-1940), whom Charyn emphasizes was a self-mythologizer. Charyn begins the book by seeming to appropriate Babel's qualities for himself by describing how an editor said Charyn's first book called Babel's writings to mind. Ellipses at the end of paragraphs to indicate uncertainty in the narrative underscore the lack of hard facts; using the word "some" as a modifier, as in "Mandelstam would die in some transit camp," has the effect of lessening the horror being described. Babel's death at Stalin's hand remains legendary for the reported sighting of the writer that followed his murder, but Charyn gets so caught up in such myths that he forgets to give us the man. "Even as he bares himself, it's hard to figure Babel out," Charyn notes. So perhaps one would do best to read Babel himself; his collected works have been reissued by Norton. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (On sale Oct. 18) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Charyn (Darlin' Bill) shares his lifelong passion for the Soviet writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940) in a work that is as much a detective story as it is a biography. From a close reading of Babel's work to an interview with his daughter Nathalie, Charyn offers a number of fresh insights into the life and death of this historic figure. All the same-and as Charyn will be the first to admit-every answer in Babel's life seems only to lead to more questions. Filling in these gaps with research and conjecture, Charyn does a masterful job of assembling a chronology of the last ten years of Babel's life, which ended when he was shot as a spy on orders from Stalin. Charyn is certain that the key to understanding Babel is through the character of Benya Krik, a fairy-tale king who first appeared in Babel's work in 1921. Though Krik is ultimately as mysterious as Dickens's Magwitch or Melville's Bartleby, Charyn manages at least to bring the reader closer to the heart of the enigma. Recommended for academic libraries.-Anthony Pucci, Notre Dame H.S., Elmira, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The tireless Charyn's 39th book (The Green Lantern, 2004, etc.) is a feisty "biographical meditation" on the truncated career of the great Russian modernist. Babel (1894-1940) was a Jew who grew up breathing the rich ethnic air of the Moldavanka district of the northern seaport city of Odessa. His efforts to become Russia's Guy de Maupassant (whose stories Babel revered) were both thwarted and enriched as he was drawn into the orbits of national revolution and global war-as a correspondent and, perhaps (biographical details are unclear), a soldier and Soviet Secret Police officer-and, eventually, declared enemy of the people (once his mentor-protector, writer Maxim Gorky, was imprisoned and executed at Joseph Stalin's order). Charyn's approach to this ambivalent, fascinating figure-an artist sensitive to the romantic lure of violence, an unprepossessing physical specimen who collected multiple wives and mistresses-is twofold. He finds the sources of Babel's fiction in his experiences-for example, Babel's "attachment" to the legendary First Cavalry (manned by Cossacks renowned for their savagery), magically transposed in his 1926 masterpiece Red Cavalry. But the use of biography is haphazard. Charyn devotes disproportionate space to such ancillary matters as Babel's supportive critics Victor Shklovsky and Lionel Trilling; memoirist Antonina Pirozhkova (whose At His Side is compared, to its detriment, with Nadezhda Mandelstam's magisterial Hope Against Hope); and Babel's surviving daughter Nathalie, editor of his recently published Collected Works. These emphases distract, yet Charyn's enthusiasm for Babel's spare, slashing prose and nightmarish intensity register strongly. And it's nevertoo late to rediscover this great writer's unique admixture of brutality, peril and paradoxical beauty. Both a very uneven book and a very welcome one-a paradox Babel would have appreciated.

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Chapter 1



In 1955, lionel trilling published a dazzling introduction to the collected stories of Isaac Babel, a writer who’d become a ghost in his own country, his books removed from libraries, his name scratched out of encyclopedias, as if he’d never existed. Babel had written the first masterpiece of the Russian Revolution, Red Cavalry, a cycle of stories about Cossack horse soldiers fighting against the Poles in a brutal and bloody campaign; these stories had the “architecture” and complexity of a novel, a Cubist novel built on a wild geometry where the missing pieces were an essential part of the puzzle. Babel was idolized and attacked for the same reason: rather than celebrate the Revolution, he galloped across it with a cavalryman’s panache. He was the one Soviet writer who was read abroad. That made him an infidel in the Party’s eyes. And he had to walk a curious tightrope for the rest of his life—revere the Revolution and write a prickly, personal prose that was like a time bomb to the Revolution’s dull, pragmatic songs.

Babel fell into silence, wandered the Soviet Union; in the few photographs we have of him, he looks like a man wearing the mask of a grocery clerk. The rebellious writer had to be hidden at all cost. And so Babel became the jovial pal of the proletariat, who’d rather talk with jockeys and whores than with a fellow writer. Whereas he’d talked about literature day and night with his first wife, Zhenya, while he was with her in Batum, would read his stories to her until they were burnt into her heart and she could recite them twenty years later, he wouldn’t even show his manuscripts to his second wife, Antonina. He was practicing to become a man of the people who hung out at a stud farm, but he’d used up his own interior space. He was one of the voiceless men—“Ten steps away no one hears our speeches”—in Osip Mandelstam’s poem about Stalin, a poem that got Mandelstam arrested, exiled, and killed. Babel never attacked the Kremlin’s “mountaineer” with “cockroach whiskers.” Stalin was one of his readers, but that couldn’t save him.

He was given a dacha in the writers’ colony of Peredelkino, and he disappeared from that dacha in May 1939. The secret police had moved him and his manuscripts to their own “dacha” in the middle of Moscow, otherwise known as the Lubyanka. And when Lionel Trilling wrote about him sixteen years later, his death had become only one more enigma in a land of enigmas. He’d been declared an enemy of the people, a spy for Austria, England, and France, and was finished off in 1940, shot twice in the head—the bullet holes were stuffed with rags—and cremated, his ashes emptied into a communal pit. Neither Stalin nor his Cheka bothered to tell anyone, and the myth of Babel languishing in some Siberian camp lingered for years. There were constant sightings of Babel, campmates who swore he was still alive. The Cheka itself manufactured these tales. It was imitating the artistry of Isaac Babel. . . .

By 1954, a year before Trilling’s introduction, Babel was “resurrected” in the Soviet Union, pronounced a person again, though the Cheka persisted in giving him a phony death date, March 17, 1941, and wouldn’t reveal how or where he had died. It was the United States that had to reinvent Babel in the person of Lionel Trilling, a godlike figure on Columbia’s campus. Trilling abhorred violence. And here he was writing about Isaac Babel, the poet of violence, who touched upon a primitive, amoral madness and seemed deeply ambivalent about it.

Babel himself had been a war correspondent attached to General Budenny’s First Cavalry, which consisted almost completely of Cossacks, and in a fictional rendering of his ride across Poland and the Ukraine with Budenny’s troops, one can almost feel Babel imagine himself as a little Cossack, with more than a bit of self-mockery as he begins to imitate their own cruel creed. Readers loved the stories, which belonged to that tiny “window” during the twenties when Russia was like a Wild, Wild West with its own avant-garde in the middle of NEP (Lenin’s New Economic Policy), as “beautiful women in mink coats” suddenly appeared in Moscow, some of them clutching copies of Isaac Babel. It troubled Trilling when he first read the stories in 1929. He’d been hoping that the Revolution might offer him an art with “as little ambiguity as a proposition in logic.” And here was Babel, full of ambiguities.

In a 1948 essay about Huckleberry Finn, Trilling describes Huck’s moral dilemma regarding Jim, the runaway slave whom he condescends to but can never seem to denounce. Huck’s own heart, like Babel’s, is a “battleground” of competing ideas and obligations. In a land of liars, he learns to lie. Yet whatever Huck’s chicanery, we never doubt his essential goodness and his reverence for the godlike Mississippi, a river that equips him with language and a sense of wonder. But there are no river gods on the ride to Poland, only Cossacks and their rituals of slaughter.

Trilling notes Babel’s “lyric joy in the midst of violence,” a rhapsody that almost numbs the reader and allows Babel to detach himself from the suffering he describes. Trilling finds in this the key to Babel’s art: “the apparent denial of immediate pathos is a condition of the ultimate pathos the writer conceives.”

And this masked pathos is but one more enigma of Isaac Babel, the man of many masks. Babel had crept under the wing of Maxim Gorky, Russia’s most revered writer, whose popularity rivaled Stalin’s. Gorky had been living in Sorrento, under Mount Vesuvius, and it was Stalin who lured him back to the Soviet Union in 1932, naming streets and parks and entire cities after this writer-saint who’d risen out of the lower depths, and “crowned” him the first president of the Soviet Writers Union. Babel couldn’t be harmed while Gorky was alive. In one apocryphal tale that Babel himself loved to tell, Gorky pops into the Kremlin with his protégé, has an audience with Stalin, who asks Babel why he hasn’t written a novel about Gorky’s “Boss” (it was Gorky who began calling Stalin the country’s “senior comrade” and “Boss”). Babel doesn’t answer. He smiles. At the first Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934, attended mostly by half-men and hacks who’d sold themselves to the Soviet dogma of socialist realism, Babel stood outside this dogma, said he was the master of a new genre, the genre of silence. He praised the Boss’s laconic style—sentences that had the sensation of steel. Yet there was something perverse about Babel’s speech, as if he were “addressing his fellow-writers in a dead language,” the dead talking to the dead in a country that sought to destroy all the idiosyncrasy of art.

Gorky died in 1936, probably poisoned by Stalin, who could no longer afford the whimsies of this old man. Stalin was bent on killing as many intellectuals as he could, and the starik might have used his prestige to get in the way. With Gorky gone, Babel no longer had a protector. How could the Soviets have reconciled themselves to Babel’s wayward art? “Intensity, irony, and ambiguousness . . . constitute a clear threat to the impassivity of the State. They constitute a secret.”

And so Babel was shoved into oblivion. And I couldn’t help but marvel at Trilling’s devotion to Babel, who wrote about Cossacks and the Moldavanka, the Jewish slums of Odessa, which had given birth to the King, Benya Krik, Babel’s most celebrated character, a gangster in orange pants—“the Jewish gangs of Odessa were famous,” Trilling tells us, without realizing that it was Babel who made them famous, that the Moldavanka was a poor, pathetic slum that Babel had mythologized, that there was nothing but the remotest counterpart to Benya Krik, the Crier, who could outwit Odessa police chiefs, fall in love with a merchant’s daughter during one of his night raids, and immediately return all of the merchant’s goods.

Trilling was a classicist who did not believe in creativity’s lower depths. He was too much of a measured man. I remember him on campus, with his silver hair and tweed vests and British diction that every English instructor adopted in the hope of cannibalizing Lionel Trilling. He was the lord of enlightenment and reason in the late 1950s, when literature still ruled the earth, and we poor undergraduates had a talmudic devotion to the writer’s craft. He was much more vivid than a movie star.

He was also a novelist, a teller of tales, but his fiction was curiously cloistered and flat, as if he didn’t dare to enter any wildness. “For all my life, the fear of insanity has blocked the free play of my imagination and made me too intent upon reasonableness,” declares Diana Trilling, Lionel’s wife, but she could have been writing about Lionel himself. It was in his essays that he paid homage to the river gods and found his own lilt—freed of creativity, he could afford to become creative. His essays were as musical as his name. He could have been writing a kind of dream-novel when he wrote about Huckleberry Finn and Isaac Babel.

And there were wicked stories about him. That he was the son of a Bronx tailor, that he himself was a child of the ghetto, that Lionel Trilling couldn’t have been his real name, that he was some kind of Monte Cristo who took revenge on his own impoverished past, the Jewish Gatsby who’d become a literary critic rather than a bootlegger, and reinvented himself as an Oxford don with his own kingdom on Morningside Heights.

The don died in 1975, and pretty soon his own belief in a measured imagination seemed expendable in a world that was moving closer and closer to chaos.

And then a couple of years ago I happened upon Diana Trilling’s memoir about her marriage to Lionel. And suddenly I had a different Trilling. He was indeed the son of a tailor, but a men’s custom tailor who might have dressed the king of England . . . or an Oxford don, a tailor who turned to manufacturing coats for the chauffeurs of millionaires and hadn’t brought up Lionel in any rough equivalent of the Moldavanka.

A bookish child who never had a bicycle or roller skates, he would become the first Jewish professor of English in the Ivy League. Even with a name that could have been invented by the master of all novelists, Henry James, Trilling had to twist himself into some kind of Anglo-Saxon golem (it was the 1930s, and the very best English departments still believed that Jews weren’t refined enough to teach Shakespeare or Keats or Matthew Arnold). He suffered from long bouts of depression, saw himself as a failed writer of fiction, and must have sensed his own unlived imaginative life, the mask he had to wear as Lionel Trilling.

And perhaps this explains his attraction to Babel, and his ability 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.


in 1996 antonina pirozhkova, well into her eighties, published her own memoir of a marriage, At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel; it was the reworking of a sketch written in 1972, when she had to erase all “criminal elements,” including Babel’s arrest (which the Soviets still didn’t like to acknowledge), as if the author of Red Cavalry had died in bed, or had never died at all. The Last Years of Isaac Babel is a curious, almost neutral text. It seems to lack what Emily Dickinson called “a certain slant of light”—an opening, a signature, a point of view. It’s a memoir in search of a voice, without the least bit of persona. “Lionel taught me to think; I taught him to write,” declares Diana Trilling, and we never mistake her own presence in the marriage or in the memoir, where she claims her own territory as a writer, next to Lionel Trilling, but Antonina doesn’t see herself as a writer, only as Babel’s handmaiden.

We discover details about Isaac, that he loved to fondle a piece of string while he wrote, that he was a prodigious tea drinker, that he would pretend to be a woman if he really didn’t want to answer the phone, and that he had a ruinous generosity: “Babel’s kindness bordered on the catastrophic. . . . He would give away his watch, his shirts, his ties, saying: ‘If I want possessions, it’s only so that I can give them away.’ ”

Babel “believed that people were born for merriment,” but how much merriment could there have been by the mid-thirties, when Stalin began to crush every single independent voice around him? It’s to another writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, that Babel confesses: “Today a man only talks freely with his wife—at night, with the blankets pulled over his head.” But we don’t get much of this world under the covers from Antonina, or the crippling pain that Babel must have had about his own inability to produce under Stalin’s reign of terror, when no one’s wild geometry would have been welcomed. . . .

In 1935–1936, Babel collaborated with Sergei Eisenstein on Bezhin Meadow, a film about Pavlik Morozov, a young Soviet “Pioneer” killed by the kulaks (rich peasant farmers) after denouncing his own dad as a hoarder of grain. Stalin encouraged a Pavlik cult, and statues of Pavlik Morozov sprang up in the remotest places. He’d become the little secular saint of the Soviet Union. Antonina had gone to Yalta with Babel and “Eisen” while they worked on Bezhin Meadow. And Antonina allows us a tiny glimpse into Eisenstein’s metaphysics. Eisen wanted to film the little saint wandering through a wheat field, wounded, and wearing a halo around his head. “Eisen,” Babel said, “has told me many times he prefers what isn’t there to actuality—the isn’tness.”

Isn’tness was the invisible border of Eisenstein’s (and Babel’s) art, that violent rendering of a strange new reality that came from the clash of images. Babel had practiced his own kind of cinematic crosscutting in Red Cavalry—the bump of invisible borders, where epiphanies could collide with the commonplace, Cossacks in bloodred boots lost in a land of poor, disheveled Polish Jews.

From the Hardcover edition.

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