An enormous—and enormously important—retrospective collection assembles for the first time in any language all the surviving work of the great Russian Jewish writer (1894–1941) who was murdered in a Stalinist prison camp.
Babel’s own terrible story is told in a moving preface and afterword contributed by this volume’s editor and guiding spirit, his daughter Nathalie. Babel earned early fame for the crisp prose and blunt realism with which he depicted the misfortunes of war while serving as a correspondent and propagandist with the Red Army in Poland in the wake of the 1917 Revolution. The great works from this period include unsparingly detailed portrayals of poverty and terror on the home front as well as battlefield pieces (where Babel unwisely named names and exposed strategical blunders) both fictional and journalistic (including “Reports” from various fronts). He soon broadened his approach, with “Odessa Stories” about his birthplace and its notorious criminal underclass, and classic autobiographical tales (notably “First Love” and “The Story of My Dovecote”). The collection also includes Babel’s revealing “1920 Diary” (which was not intended for publication, and in which we see his devotion to revolutionary principles begin to crumble); two complete plays (the better, “Sunset,” is a virtuosic distillation of his Odessa tales); and nearly 200 pages’ worth of screenplays written for silent film director Sergei Eisenstein. Reading Babel, one is reminded at various times of the young Tolstoy, Maupassant, Chekhov, Stephen Crane, and Sholom Aleichem (several of whose works he in fact adapted for the screen). Still, he’s a writer ultimately unlike any other: a chronicler of the extremes to which human beings subject one another, whose clarity and precision give his harsh fiction an intensely lyrical and visual luminosity.
Every great writer deserves a tribute like this magnificent gathering. Nathalie Babel has honored her father’s memory and given readers a book to be endlessly reread, and treasured.