The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, by Isaac Babel, edited by Nathalie Babel, translated by Peter Constantine, introduction by Cynthia Ozick. New York: Norton. 992 pages. $30. BUY NOW


Isaac Babel was born in 1894.

He was executed in 1940.

He was a Jew, and he was a Russian.

He lived through pogroms, World War I, the Revolution of 1917, the subsequent civil war, and the Russian war against Poland in 1920. He did not survive Stalin. He is the greatest Russian writer of his generation and belongs in the Russian pantheon of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Gogol.

Babel, in his war diary of 1920, wrote that he was "shattered," that "these never ending horrors are hard to bear." All his life he witnessed devastating violence and cruelty, until he, too, was taken, destroyed, and erased. From the time of his arrest in 1939 until his "rehabilitation" in 1954 (a year after Stalin's death), the world did not know what had become of Babelˇhe had simply disappeared, just as twenty million others disappeared during Stalin's rule.

It wasn't until the 1990s that the record of Babel's "trial" of January 26, 1940, was uncovered. His last words, revealed in transcript, were, "I am innocent. . . . I ask for only one thingˇlet me finish my work." He was shot the next day and buried in a communal grave.

Also in his diary of 1920, Babel writes: "Man's brutality is indestructible." Equally indestructibleˇand mercifully so, otherwise we might all give over to despair absolutelyˇare the forces of sex and love and comedy. And Babel's genius as a writer, and as a human being, is that for all he witnessed that was unspeakably cruel, his writer's eye and his soul had a great capacity for mirth and lust and sensuality. It must have been what kept him going. I know of no writer other than Babel who can break your heart in one story, as if you had been reading Primo Levi's The Survival of Auschwitz, and then in another story titillate you and make you want to jump in bed with somebody, like you had just been memorizing some Henry Miller.

Babel's early work, published before the revolution, shows his great flair for the sketch, the moment, as well as his gorgeously descriptive prose, which often reads like hard-boiled poetry. One of his most famous early stories is "The Bathroom Window." The narrator often hoists a ladder and watches the amorous adventures of his neighbor, a prostitute, in his boardinghouse. One night, though, the ladder falls, and our hero is left holding on to the windowsill, where he is discovered by the girl, her client, other tenants, and his landlady. When the dust settles and everyone retreats to their rooms, there is this comic exchange between the narrator and the madam:

"'Madam Kebchik,' I said. 'Put up the ladder one last time, and you can have ten rubles.'

'Your mind's even more unsteady than that ladder of yours!' the landlady answered, and agreed."

This early story has many crucial Babelesque traits. First of all, it is funny. Secondly, it is told by an unnamed "I," a device Babel employed in many of his stories throughout his career. The effect is that what we read feels "true," that Babel himself is speaking to us of his experiences, and this is intentional; in all his work Babel blended the made-up and the factual. Thirdly, the narrator is a voyeur. A recurring theme for Babel is someone lying in bed listening (aural voyeurism, if that's possible) to others making love. From the 1934 story "Dante Street": "Within seconds their room echoed with growls, the thud of tumbling bodies, frightened gasps, after which the woman's tender death throes began: 'Oh, Jean . . .'"

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