The tireless Charyn’s 39th book (The Green Lantern, 2004, etc.) is a feisty “biographical meditation” on the truncated career of the great Russian modernist.
Babel (1894–1940) was a Jew who grew up breathing the rich ethnic air of the Moldavanka district of the northern seaport city of Odessa. His efforts to become Russia’s Guy de Maupassant (whose stories Babel revered) were both thwarted and enriched as he was drawn into the orbits of national revolution and global war—as a correspondent and, perhaps (biographical details are unclear), a soldier and Soviet Secret Police officer—and, eventually, declared enemy of the people (once his mentor-protector, writer Maxim Gorky, was imprisoned and executed at Joseph Stalin’s order). Charyn’s approach to this ambivalent, fascinating figure—an artist sensitive to the romantic lure of violence, an unprepossessing physical specimen who collected multiple wives and mistresses—is twofold. He finds the sources of Babel’s fiction in his experiences—for example, Babel’s “attachment” to the legendary First Cavalry (manned by Cossacks renowned for their savagery), magically transposed in his 1926 masterpiece Red Cavalry. But the use of biography is haphazard. Charyn devotes disproportionate space to such ancillary matters as Babel’s supportive critics Victor Shklovsky and Lionel Trilling; memoirist Antonina Pirozhkova (whose At His Side is compared, to its detriment, with Nadezhda Mandelstam’s magisterial Hope Against Hope); and Babel’s surviving daughter Nathalie, editor of his recently published Collected Works. These emphases distract, yet Charyn’s enthusiasm for Babel’s spare, slashing prose and nightmarish intensity register strongly. And it’s never too late to rediscover this great writer’s unique admixture of brutality, peril and paradoxical beauty.
Both a very uneven book and a very welcome one—a paradox Babel would have appreciated.