Archive for May 8th, 2010

The first “truly embedded” war journalist

Saturday, May 8th, 2010
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Grisha Freidin

Gregory Freidin has a very good review in the April 30 Times Literary Supplement for his two recent volumes, Issac Babel’s Selected Writings and The Enigma of Isaac Babel.

If you have a subscription, it’s here.  If you don’t, you’ll have to settle for these excerpts (or my article here), unless you can find a paper copy of the TLS somewhere (good luck to you if you try):

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Isaac Babel

“Isaac Babel’s fellow writers resented his fame. It erupted in the early 1920s and persisted until his arrest in 1939 and execution at the beginning of the following year – and all for a mere 200 pages of miniature short stories, mostly from his work as the first truly embedded war journalist with the Sixth Red Cavalry Division and as the chronicler of Odessa’s Jewish and criminal quarters in his childhood and during the Revolution. Following his rehabilitation in 1954 and the slow recovery (still incomplete) of his fiction and letters, his achievement has come to seem even more extraordinary. Babel did for Russian prose what Hemingway did for English: he applied the rules of journalism – objectivity, graphic eyewitness accounts, language shorn of all superfluity – to fiction. But Babel went further than Hemingway: he condensed his similes and impressions into surreal epiphanies, he made his authorial persona a quivering, inadequate coward, not a macho role model, and he leaves his readers in a state of shock, as if they have not just witnessed, but participated in executions, rapes and pogroms. …

Babel’s death was one he himself foretold, and his choice of lovers and friends was as lethal as the themes of his prose. He slept with the babel2understandably unbalanced wife of Nikolai Yezhov, chief butcher of the terror, and almost everyone who slept with either of the Yezhovs was shot in early 1940. The only enigma is the fate of the papers and manuscripts that the NKVD took away with their victim. Did they burn them, lose them, or are they still filed away in the Lubyanka? If the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service] ever runs out of money, it could make itself the world’s best endowed literary publisher.

Books about Babel must therefore be provisional.”

Provisional nature of Freidin’s work notwithstanding, Babel is one of those cheering cases where a writer’s whole ouevre, or what we can find of it, is at the literary forefront largely because of one scholar’s indefatigable efforts — and for that we have reason to be grateful to Grisha.