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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835

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Russian writer Isaac Babel was born on July 13, 1894, and given the full name Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel. Though some of his writing implies that he was raised in a Jewish ghetto by a crazy family of drunks and criminals, Babel was in fact raised middle class in Odessa, which, nearly 50 percent Jewish by 1917, had no legal restrictions on Jewish living quarters. Babel’s father, who managed an agricultural warehouse, was not particularly observant of Jewish religious tradition. Babel attended the competitive Commercial School and studied violin. Anti-Semitic sentiment remained strong in the early part of the twentieth century in Russia, and it is believed that the young Babel witnessed violent anti-Jewish demonstrations, though not necessarily the pogroms he claimed to have seen. He was small, fragile, needed glasses, and suffered from asthma. Acutely aware of these weaknesses, Babel believed them to be caused by nerves—nerves further grated upon by persecution. Later in life, Babel once wryly excused his small literary output with a physical explanation, claiming that his asthma only allowed him to say so much with words.

After graduating from The Institute of Finance and Business in Kiev, a mediocre college he attended only because of limits on Jewish attendance at better Odessa schools, Babel moved to St. Petersburg (the city later known as Leningrad). There he published his first story, ‘‘Old Shloyme,’’ which was about a suicidal Jew, a character type he explored in many later works. In 1916 Babel met the influential revolutionary writer Maxim Gorky, who published two more of Babel’s stories in his journal Letopis. Early on, Babel’s writing contained shocking images and sexual overtones, and included vague details about the characters’ histories. Babel’s own personal history is equally vague, as he often told stories about himself that were later contradicted, either by himself or some revelation of fact. However, some details are known. Upon Gorky’s advice to gather material for his writing, Babel volunteered for the Russian army during World War I, serving on the Romanian front. He returned to Odessa after becoming ill. There Babel met his first wife, Evgeniya Gronfein, with whom he had a child. He did not live with his wife throughout much of their marriage, and he later had a child with Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozhkova, a Soviet engineer.

In a gesture central to much of his fiction, Babel volunteered to serve in the Red Army in 1920 on the Polish front—a strange choice for a Jewish intellectual. The Cossacks were a brute, illiterate force, known to hate Jews. Yet Babel survived the fronts much like the narrator of ‘‘My First Goose,’’ working as a propagandist and spreading the socialist word. During that time and in the years immediately following, Babel published work under the pseudonym ‘‘K. Lyotov,’’ and gave the name ‘‘Lyotov’’ to his narrator as well, suggesting that much of his fiction may be largely autobiographical. These publications established him as a writer popular with the Russian public. Red Cavalry (the collection in which ‘‘My First Goose’’ appears) was published in 1926, and is considered by many critics to be the most artistically significant Babel work. In this book he displays a remarkable gift for startling images (‘‘Blue roads flowed past me like streams of milk spurting from many breasts’’) and an ability to portray sensitively even the ugliest scenes. For example, in ‘‘The Story of a Horse,’’ Babel famously ends a tale of a man driven mad by war with the line ‘‘Both of us looked on the world as a meadow in May—a meadow traversed by women and horses.’’ Yet this story, like most of those from the Polish front, are full of blood and death.

After his next publication, a series of autobiographical sketches entitled Odessa Tales, Babel’s literary output slowed. He defended this silence with various excuses. He did not want to write only propaganda, as writers were increasingly pressured to do. He also claimed he was no genius, like his literary predecessor Tolstoy. He wrote two plays that were produced (Sunset and Maria), and one final story, ‘‘The Trial.’’ Many additional facts about Babel’s life remain uncertain even to this day. In part this is because he was evasive about his own history. He presented himself as a socialist yet there is no evidence that he ever joined the Communist party. His work was considered pornographic and not propagandistic enough by the Soviet regime.

Babel was arrested by the Soviet regime for unclear reasons in 1939. For many years it was believed that he was taken to a labor camp, where he died either from suicide or a heart failure. His second wife later revealed, however, that he had been beaten in prison until he confessed to spying against the Soviet regime. No proof exists that Babel in fact did spy; he did have anti-Fascist associations, which under Stalin’s regime were deemed a threat to Russia. Babel later recanted his confession, but in 1940 his fate was sealed: sentenced to death, he was shot.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel was born in Odessa on July 13, 1894, into a Jewish family that had lived in southern Russia for generations. Soon after his birth, the family moved from this thriving port on the Black Sea to the nearby small town of Nikolayev, where Babel spent the first ten years of his life. His childhood was typical of a child growing up in a colorful Jewish environment and, at the same time, in a Russian society replete with prejudices against Jews. In his stories, Babel describes the difficult lessons of survival that he had to learn from childhood on, which enabled him not only to survive but also to keep striving for excellence against all odds. He was a studious child who read under all conditions, even on his way home, and his imagination was always on fire, as he said in one of his stories. Among many other subjects, he studied Hebrew and French vigorously, becoming more proficient in them than in Russian.

After finishing high school in Odessa—which was difficult for a Jewish child to enter and complete—Babel could not attend the university, again because of the Jewish quota. He enrolled in a business school in Kiev instead. It was at this time that he began to write stories, in French, imitating his favorite writers, François Rabelais, Gustave Flaubert, and Guy de Maupassant. In 1915, he went to St. Petersburg, already thinking seriously of a writing career. He had no success with editors, however, until he met Maxim Gorky, a leading Russian writer of the older generation, who published two of his stories and took him under his wing. This great friendship lasted until Gorky’s death in 1936. Gorky had encouraged Babel to write and had protected him but had published no more of his stories, and one day Gorky told Babel to go out into the world and learn about real life. Babel heeded his advice in 1917, setting off on a journey lasting several years, during which he volunteered for the army, took part in the revolution and civil war, married, worked for the secret police, was a war correspondent, and finally served in the famous cavalry division of Semyon Mikhaylovich Budenny in the war against the Poles. Out of these dramatic experiences, Babel was able to publish two books of short stories, which immediately thrust him into the forefront of the young Soviet literature. The period from 1921 to 1925 was the most productive and successful of his entire career.

By the end of the 1920’s, however, the political climate in the Soviet Union had begun to change, forcing Babel to conform to the new demands on writers to serve the state, which he could not do, no matter how he tried. His attempts at writing a novel about collectivization never materialized. His inability (or, more likely, unwillingness) to change marks the beginning of a decade-long silent struggle between him and the state. Refusing to follow his family into emigration, he tried to survive by writing film scenarios, unable to publish anything else. In May, 1939, he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. On January 27, 1940, he was shot for espionage. His confiscated manuscripts—a large crate of them—were never found.