Never knew literary conferences could be so lively…


Isaac Babel

Literary conferences are mostly staid affairs, opportunities for academics to exhibit themselves.  But not always.

I discussed Elif Batuman’s book a few days ago here.  Her new book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, was reviewed yesterday in the Los Angeles Times here.  Clearly, I should have made an effort to attend The Enigma of Isaac Babel: International Conference, held almost exactly six years ago.  A few highlights from that memorable event:

“Babel in California” tells how Batuman fell in love with Isaac Babel, the most electric of Russian writers, then shows that idealized literary love bumping up against actual life in the hilarious, chastening shape of a Babel conference at Stanford organized by her mentor, the great Babelogist Grisha Freidin. Batuman helps with an exhibit and discovers in the bowels of Stanford’s Hoover library a true wonderland of previously hidden connections between Babel and the 1933 movie “King Kong.” She’s sent to the airport to pick up Babel’s second wife and one of his daughters, two tired Russian women who keep firing questions about the McDonald’s Happy Meal toy, a tiny stuffed Eeyore wearing a tiger suit, hanging from the mirror of the car that Batuman is driving.

Conference panels end in pandemonium; Russian scholars, upset by the presence of two Chinese filmmakers preparing a script from Babel elif2stories, mutter “We don’t mess with your ‘I-Ching’ “; and there’s a dinner “straight out of Dostoyevsky” in which Batuman and Freidin get the evil eye from a vain English translator in whose acclaimed Babel collection edition they have discovered mistakes. Yet even this isn’t the marvelous climax of the dinner, which comes when Babel’s daughter by his first wife stares at Babel’s second wife and shouts “THAT OLD WITCH WILL BURY US ALL.”

The writer, Richard Rayner, describes Babel as “the most electric of Russian writers.”  Not sure it’s the adjective I would have chosen (more electric than, say, Tsvetaeva?)  I wrote about Grisha Freidin’s work on the doomed Soviet writer today here.  See what you think.

The upshot:  Rayner praise’s Batuman’s “dazzling flair and originality”:  “If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written this book.”

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