The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context

The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context

by Gregory Freidin (Editor)


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ISBN-13: 9780804759038
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 10/21/2009
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Gregory Freidin, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Stanford University, is the author of a critical biography of the poet Osip Mandelstam, A Coat of Many Colors (1987), and the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Isaac Babel's Selected Writings (2008, forthcoming).

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The Enigma of Isaac Babel

Biography, History, Context

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5903-8

Chapter One

Researching Babel's Biography Adventures and Misadventures


SEARCHING OUT THE LIFE STORY of Isaac Babel is the despair of the biographer. I have been at it, on and off, since 1962. The principal difficulty lies, of course, in the one stark fact that following Babel's arrest in 1939 he was expunged from Russian literature. His writings vanished from libraries, bookstores, and, often enough, from bookshelves in the homes of frightened readers. His unpublished manuscripts and other papers were seized and have not been recovered. His letters to people in the Soviet Union, numbering in the thousands, were often destroyed by his worried correspondents, or, if they themselves were arrested, taken by the NKVD. The biographies, appreciations, and reminiscences that in other countries would naturally follow the death of a great and celebrated author have remained unwritten. As the decades passed, Babel's contemporaries-those who knew him well and who had survived Stalin's terror-were dying off, many leaving little trace of their relationship.

In George Orwell's indispensable formulation, Babel had been dropped down the memory hole.

Of course he was not alone down there. As many as 2,000 writers were arrested during the Stalin years, 1,000 or so of whom were put to death. Others, uncounted, died in the Gulag.

In addition there are some special features about Babel that have hindered the reconstruction of his life and work. One is that he failed, unaccountably, to take precautions to preserve his unpublished work-even during the Great Terror.

In contrast, in post-Stalin times a number of such works by suppressed writers have been recovered from their hiding places or from courageous friends who had agreed to secrete them. For example: a novel, The Salt Barn, that Boris Pilnyak buried, page by page, in his backyard at Peredelkino, and the poetry rescued from the lips of a widow who committed much of Osip Mandelshtam's work to memory.

True, Babel gave copies of five of his unpublished stories to Olga Brodskaya and Maya Ovrutskaya, but, as I understand it, not to safeguard the stories, but as gifts. (They include two crucial stories: the autobiographical "Detstvo. U babushki" and the superb "Kolyvushka.") His 1920 Diary, written during the Soviet-Polish war, which served as the fundament of Red Cavalry, was also preserved by Ovrutskaya. But most of Babel's papers-original manuscripts, drafts, and letters-were in his Moscow apartment and his dacha in Peredelkino when the NKVD marauders arrived. Even the available texts of his writings, as originally published, were often unreliable, having been corrupted by censorship.

There was also the problem of Babel's penchant for mystifications. Some were meant to enhance his Bolshevik credentials-however dubious those might have been. Such as his claim to have fought in the defense of Petrograd against General Yudenich's army in 1919-unverifiable-or his preposterous assertion in 1930 that he had been working continuously for the Soviet Secret Police since October 1917, that is, two months before it was founded. Pertinent records have thus far proved inaccessible to present-day researchers. The truth seems to be that Babel worked as a translator in the Petrograd Cheka for a few weeks some time in 1918.

In addition, there were the mystifications calculated to put off his editors and creditors, his assurances that he was writing this and that piece of work (some of which he had really begun), which ultimately failed to materialize, including a novel about collectivization, another about a con man in the Donbas, and an evanescent novel (or was it a play?) about the Cheka.

Finally there are his myriad bits of mischief: lies about what he was doing when, where, and with whom. I prized one bit out of Clara Malraux, the former wife of the writer André Malraux, when I interviewed her in Paris. In Moscow in 1934 during the First Writers Congress, Babel drew her aside and whispered that he would like to have a long, quiet, unsupervised walk with her. During the walk he confided this to her: "Because I am a friend of Gorky I spend evenings, nearly once a week, together with him and Stalin. The Kremlin phones Gorky and announces Stalin's arrival. Then the three of us stretch out before the fireplace and chat, relaxed." Clara liked this cozy picture so much she repeated it in a later memoir.

Actually I believe Babel never met with Stalin. Even when meetings were scheduled for Stalin to talk with groups of writers, Babel avoided attending-one of his rare acts of prudence.

These, then, are the intrinsic problems of Babel's biography. In addition, I personally encountered some dismaying difficulties when I first undertook to seek the facts of Babel's life. What follows is an informal account of my adventures-and misadventures-as I began gathering materials about Babel in Moscow, Zagreb, and Brussels in 1962-1963, and then, later, in Paris.

When I started out in Moscow in July 1962 I was a fairly experienced journalist, speaking horrible-sounding but serviceable Russian. I had been to the Soviet Union before, as a reporter for Life and Time, covering various political and cultural events. Since then, however, a passion for contemporary Russian literature had overtaken me.

On the trip in 1962 I was on my own, and foolhardy enough to think I might gather enough materials for a biography of Isaac Babel-a writer whose work held me spellbound, then, and for the rest of my life.

It seemed like a pretty good time to go, for my purposes. Babel had been "posthumously rehabilitated" in 1954, a selection of his stories (though many in their censored versions) had been published in 1957, and the 22nd Party Congress in 1961 had lightened the general atmosphere. Stalin had been removed from the Lenin mausoleum. The Cuban missile crisis had not yet erupted.

At that time very little was known for certain about Babel's fate, save for the date of his arrest: May 15, 1939. Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozh kova, Babel's companion for more than six years before his arrest, had been a witness to that. The rest was mostly rumor, abundant as ever in the Soviet Union. People were looking for a reason for Babel's arrest, such as his relations with accused Trotskyites, or with purged Civil War officers, his visits abroad, Budenny's vendetta against him for Red Cavalry, and so forth. More to the point was Anna Akhmatova's indignant response when anyone asked "What was so and so arrested for?" She would cry out, "What do you mean what for? It's time you understood that people are being arrested for nothing."

Actually there is an explanation for the timing of Babel's arrest, which took place singularly "late," in 1939, that is, after the Great Terror had begun to subside. But that would not come clear for many years.

I DIDN'T GO TO MOSCOW COLD. I had found Babel's daughter Nathalie when she lived in Paris and we had become friends there, and also later in New York City, where she began teaching at Barnard College. She gave me an introduction to Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozhkova, which was to make all the difference.

When I called on Antonina Nikolaevna, she was still living in the apartment on Bolshoi Nikolo-Vorobinskii Pereulok that she had shared with Babel. I was inexpressibly moved to be there. The writer's workroom seemed to me too small to have contained so great a writer. I made a little sketch of it and its furnishings. Antonina assured me that hardly anything had changed there in the twenty-three years that had passed since Babel had been taken away.

She sat beside the only window, and as she talked with me she would occasionally lightly stroke the large chest by her side, where, she said, Babel had kept some of the papers that had been seized by the NKVD. She told me about his working routine, the morning tea that he had to brew a certain way, the writing paper he would cut to a particular size, his indispensable gold-trimmed fountain pen that had belonged to Antonina's father, how he composed cross-legged on the sofa or while pacing up and down, rolling a piece of string between his fingers like worry beads-that and a great deal more.

Antonina offered me a fine sense of what sort of person Babel had been to live with, as a man and as a writer. But the final years they had shared, during the Great Terror, had been dreadful ones, and I was hesitant to try to lead her into reliving much of them that day. Would there be another occasion? I was overjoyed when she said she would see me again before I left Russia.

Unfortunately, thanks to the intervention of the KGB, as I will shortly explain, I was not able to keep our appointment in Moscow until 1990.

Antonina sent me to see Babel's oldest and probably his dearest friend, Isaac Livshits. The two men had been brought up together in Odessa where Livshits was known as Izia and Babel as Isia, and that's what they called each other as grown-ups. Izia and Isia had gone to the Nicholas I Commercial School. They had learned to swim together in Odessa Harbor-Babel hit his head on a stone when he first dived in. They had even endured violin lessons by Stoliarsky, commemorated as Zagursky in Babel's "The Awakening" ("Probuzhdenie").

Izia, then, and his wife Liudmila, known as Liusia, were a delightful couple, very small in size, very friendly, very voluble. Close as Livshits had been to Babel, he had not written anything about him, and now, at the age of seventy, he was overflowing with reminiscences. He told me that he had been something like Babel's business manager, acting for him with editors when Babel was away-surely a forlorn enterprise for poor Izia.

The couple told me stories about Babel's youth, his early enthusiasms, his favorite foreign authors, some of which I found surprising-Ibsen, Strindberg, and, especially, Céline. But as they talked on I had a growing sense that there was something important that they wanted me to record in my biography.

Livshits came out with it. "You know," he said, "Babel was arrested the same day as Ezhov's wife. She was the reason he was taken." He was reluctant to elaborate. I was bewildered. Ezhov? The executor of Stalin's Great Terror? I had never heard of the wife of Ezhov, let alone that she had some connection with Babel.

It is a measure of how little information was available when I began my research that even so close a friend of Babel's as Livshits had his facts wrong. As I would later learn, Evgenia Ezhova, Ezhov's wife, was not arrested. She died under murky circumstances in a sanatorium on November 21, 1938, six months before Babel's arrest. Nonetheless, it appears that Livshits had grasped the mortal danger to his friend that lay in Ezhova's death, the presage to Ezhov's own and the purge of everyone officially or personally connected with the couple.

ALSO IN 1962, in Zagreb, I talked with Ervin Sinkó, Babel's Hungarian friend and his lodger for eighteen months until April 1937. A year before our meeting he had published memoirs in Hungarian that dealt with his relationship with Babel. Now, in his interview with me he had a great deal to say about Ezhov's wife, the ineffable Evgeniia Solomon-ovna-how she phoned Babel three or four times a day during the Great Terror-or, more pertinently, during the Ezhovshchina-and waited for him outside his apartment in her chauffeured limousine. Sinkó was convinced that she and Babel had then resumed an affair that had begun in 1927 before her marriage to Ezhov. I doubt that. But I do believe that Babel had come under Ezhova's protection, with all the advantages-and Perils-that that involved.

One person I could not fail to interview was Ilya Ehrenburg. In his case I had no need of an introduction; he had recently published in a Soviet newspaper a ferocious attack on an essay I had written on Mayakovsky, as the preface to my first book, a selection in English of the poet's plays and his lyric verse. When I phoned Ehrenburg he told me to come right over, and he received me warmly as if nothing had happened. His living room was uninviting, polluted by the black French tobacco he chainsmoked, the walls decorated with several enormous abstract paintings by the French Communist artist Fernand Léger, starkly industrial-looking and somehow menacing. Ehrenburg gave me a long and lively interview about Babel, elements of which he would later repeat in his memoirs.

He imparted one startling new thing. As a member of the Writers Union rehabilitation commission in 1954, he was present when the purported dossier of Babel's criminal case was opened. There was nothing in it, Ehrenburg told me, save for one document, Babel's death certificate. This gave no cause or place of death, only a death date: March 17, 1941.

This was not encouraging. If only one document in Babel's case file had been made available to the official rehabilitation commission, it seemed that prospects of ever recovering any further information about Babel's fate were nil.

Even that lonely certificate was to prove worthless. There, the date of Babel's death had been falsified, set forward fourteen months from the actual date of his execution: January 27, 1940. Many years later I learned that after 1956 death dates were routinely advanced in the records of people executed during the Terror whenever inquiries were made about their fate. The purpose was to make it appear that the deaths had taken place over ten years' time in the Gulag-presumably from natural causes-and not as the result of the killing of almost a million people in a short span of time during the Terror of 1937-1938.

I called on the eighty-six-year-old Ekaterina Pavlovna Peshkova, Gorky's wife, long separated from him but still his good friend and a frequent guest at Gorky's houses abroad and later, in the Soviet Union. She had known Babel there, and she obviously liked reminiscing about the goings-on at Gorky's mansion in Moscow and at his dacha in the suburbs where Babel visited, sometimes every day, until the NKVD barred visitors in early 1936.

She was a most impressive old lady. She told me in some detail about the so-called Political Red Cross she had founded, with Dzerzhinsky's permission, which had succeeded for almost twenty years in sending parcels of food and clothing to many thousands of political prisoners. In addition, relatives were often able to get from her Red Cross precious information about where prisoners were being held, what the latest charges and sentences were, when visits might be made-until Ezhov shut the organization down during the Terror and had the entire staff, and the relatives of prisoners currently being assisted, arrested and shot. "Only Peshkova was left alive, to suffer and die a free person," as Lev Razgon wrote in his memoirs. I was amazed and moved when Ekaterina Pavlovna told me that even after her life's work was shattered and her colleagues dead, when Babel was arrested she went to NKVD headquarters in Lubyanka Prison to try to intervene for him with Beria himself.

When it came time for me to leave she said she wanted to give me something to remember her by. She presented me with one of those brightly painted Russian serving spoons, which I stuffed in my pocket.

EKATERINA PAVLOVNA lived in a small apartment house with an elevator. As I walked out her front door I saw men, a lot of men, immobile and silent, crowded into the stairwell. They were dressed in the dark ill-fitting suits and the black clodhoppers typical of the KGB. Once I got out into the street I reckoned there were about twenty of these thugs walking behind me. I stopped to make a phone call from one of the old glass-enclosed booths that displayed the number of each kiosk high up one wall. One of the men ran up to the booth and under my nose held up a notebook, penciled in the kiosk number, and ran off to a car, unmistakably signaling that my call would be immediately monitored. It was ludicrous-a Keystone Kops cartoon with the balloon reading "Gotcha!" Still, there was no ignoring the threat behind it, to me and to others. When I got into my car-I had rented a small sedan and a driver-the men scattered to their limousines, three ZIMS, and proceeded to follow me.

I had been invited to lunch that day by the French chargé d'affaires, Jacques de Beaumarchais, and his wife. I was shaken and I considered canceling, but, I thought, no, this is just the day I need their company. They had been extremely welcoming-we had acquaintances in common in France. The couple were both charming, cultivated, and elegant-he a direct descendant of the great eighteenth-century playwright Beaumarchais, author of The Marriage of Figaro. When I arrived Madame de Beaumarchais gave me a present she had brought from Ukraine-it was my day for gifts-a green ceramic pitcher in the shape of a ram, which is still on display, together with Peshkova's spoon, in my kitchen.


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Table of Contents


Preface by Gregory Freidin....................vii
1 Researching Babel's Biography: Adventures and Misadventures PATRICIA BLAKE....................3
2 Two Babels-Two Aphrodites: Autobiography in Maria and Babel's Petersburg Myth GREGORY FREIDIN....................16
3 The Reds and the Jews, or the Comrades in Arms of the Military Reporter Liutov OLEG BUDNITSKII....................65
4 Isaac Babel and the Jewish Experience of Revolution CAROL J. AVINS....................82
5 Writers at the Front: Language of State in the Civil War Narratives of Isaac Babel and Dmitrii Furmanov MICHAEL S. GORHAM....................100
6 Thinned and Diluted: Babel in Published Russian Literature of the Soviet Period MARIETTA CHUDAKOVA....................116
7 Babel, Flaubert, and the Rapture of Perception ROBERT ALTER....................139
8 Toward a typology of "Debut" Narratives: Babel, Nabokov, and Others ALEXANDER ZHOLKOVSKY....................149
9 Pan Pisar': Clerkship in Babel's First-Person Narration ELIF BATUMAN....................157
10 The Child's Eye: Isaac Babel's Innovations in Narration in Russian-Jewish, American, and European Literary Contexts ZSUZSA HETÉNYI....................175
11 Text, Intertext, Context: Babel, Bialik, and Others EFRAIM SICHER....................193
12 Staging Babel's Maria-For young American Audiences, Seventy years After CARL WEBER....................213

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