But Babel was a voyeur in a much larger way, beyond the usual erotic associations of the word. As much as Kafka is a writer who seemed to live inside himself and report back from the psyche, Babel was on the outside, quite literally on the front lines of human experience.
Babel is most famous for his book Red Cavalry, which was born out of his time as a war correspondent during Russia's failed 1920 attack on Poland. Its stories are quick, violent, chaotic dispatches. Read in conjunction with his diary, the resource for Red Cavalry, the effect is utterly devastating. Just as Babel was left shattered by his time on the front, so is his reader.
Eerily prescient in the stories and the diary is Babel's sense of what is coming for European Jewry. From the story "Zamosc" is this exchange of dialogue:
"'It's all the faults of those Yids,' he said. 'They try to please everybody. After the war there'll be hardly any of them left. How many Yids you reckon there's in the world?'
'Around ten million,' I answered, and began to bridle my horse.
'There'll be two hundred thousand of them left!' the muzhik yelled . . ."
And from the diary, this frightening line: "Is it not bound to be our century in which [Jews] will perish?"
Twenty years after the war with Poland, Babel himself perished. If only he could have been allowed to finish his work, as he requested. He could sing in so many different voices. Allusions have already been made to Levi and Miller, but Babel's journalism, his reportage of life in Saint Petersburg, brings to mind Joseph Mitchell; his Odessa Stories, which are tales of Jewish gangsters, read like Dashiell Hammett but with echoes of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio; and his stories of his childhood, an unfinished collection, which was going to be called The Story of My Dovecote, could be a beginning to a Russian Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
In one of the Odessa stories, "Froim Grach," a powerful Jewish gangster goes to the new Soviet police, who have been wiping out the Jewish underworld. The gangster hopes to make a deal with them, but he himself is shot. Before he is killed, he says to the "commandant": "You know who you're killing off, boss? . . . You're killing off all the lions!"
Isaac Babel was a lion who was killed off. But his stories still roar, they still frighten, they still overwhelm, they still break your heart, and they still make you want to grab the person next to you and hold on. What else is there to do?
Jonathan Ames's most recent book, My Less Than Secret Life, a collection of fiction and nonfiction, will be published in June 2002 by Thunder's Mouth Press.