Excerpt from 'The Possessed'
By Elif Batuman
Farrar, Straus and GirouxISBN: 9780374532185
Babel in California
When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together an author’s Collected Works, they aren’t aiming for something you can put in a suitcase and run away with. The “millennium” edition of Tolstoy fills a hundred volumes and weighs as much as a newborn beluga whale. (I brought my bathroom scale to the library and weighed it, ten volumes at a time.) Dostoevsky comes in thirty volumes, Turgenev in twenty-eight, Pushkin in seventeen. Even Lermontov, a lyric poet killed in a duel at age twenty-seven, has four volumes. It’s different in France, where definitive editions are printed on “Bible paper.” The Bibliothèque de la Pléiade manages to fit Balzac’s entire Human Comedy in twelve volumes, and his remaining writings in two volumes, for a combined total weight of eighteen pounds.
The Collected Works of Isaac Babel fills only two small volumes. Comparing Tolstoy’s Works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch. Babel’s best-loved works all fit in the first volume: the Odessa, Childhood, and Petersburg cycles; Red Cavalry; and the 1920 diary, on which Red Cavalry is based. The compactness makes itself felt all the more acutely, since Babel’s oeuvre is known to be incomplete. When the NKVD came to his dacha in 1939, Babel’s first words were, “They didn’t let me finish.” The secret police seized and confiscated nine folders from the dacha, and fifteen from Babel’s Moscow apartment. They seized and confiscated Babel himself, on charges of spying for France and even Austria. Neither manuscripts nor writer were seen again.
In the next years, Babel’s published works were removed from circulation. His name was erased from encyclopedias and film credits. Rumors circulated—Babel was in a special camp for writers, he was writing for the camp newspaper—but nobody knew for sure if he was dead or alive. In 1954, the year after Stalin’s death, Babel was officially exonerated, and the dossier of his criminal case made public. Inside was just one page: a certificate attesting to his death, under unknown circumstances, on March 17, 1941. Like Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” Babel had vanished, leaving behind a single sheet of paper.
Nobody really knows why Babel was arrested when he was. He had made powerful enemies early in his career with the publication of the Red Cavalry stories, which immortalize the botched Russo-Polish military campaign of 1920. In 1924, Commander Semyon Budyonny of the First Cavalry publicly accused Babel of “counterrevolutionary lies” and character assassination. In later years, as Budyonny rose in the Party system, from marshal of the Soviet Union to first deputy commissar for defense and Hero of the Soviet Union, Babel found himself on increasingly thin ice—especially after the death of his protector, Maxim Gorky, in 1936. Nonetheless, he survived the height of the Great Purge in 1937–38, and was arrested only in 1939, when World War II was just around the corner and Stalin presumably had bigger fish to fry. What tipped the scale?
The Nazi-Soviet pact might have played a role: because of Babel’s close ties with the French Left, his continued existence was necessary to maintain Soviet-French diplomatic relations—which became a moot point once Stalin sided with Hitler. Some evidence suggests that Babel was arrested in preparation for one last show trial that was to accuse the entire intellectual elite, from the film legend Sergei Eisenstein to the polar explorer Otto Schmidt, but which was called off in September when Hitler invaded Poland.
Some scholars attribute Babel’s arrest to his bizarre relationship with the former people’s commissar Nikolai Yezhov: Babel had had an affair in the 1920s with Evgeniya Gladun-Khayutina, Yezhov’s future wife, and it was said that, even in the 1930s, Babel would visit the couple at home where they would all play ninepins and listen to Yezhov tell gruesome stories about the gulag. When Lavrenty (“Stalin’s Butcher”) Beria came to power in 1938, he made a point of exterminating anyone who had ever had anything to do with Yezhov.
Others insist that Babel was arrested “for no reason at all,” and that to say otherwise is to commit the sin of attributing logic to the totalitarian machine.
When Babel’s box in the KGB archives was declassified in the 1990s, it became known that the warrant for his arrest had been issued thirty-five days after the fact. Following seventy-two hours of continuous interrogation and probably torture, Babel had signed a confession testifying that he had been recruited into a spy network in 1927 by Ilya Ehrenburg and for years systematically supplied André Malraux with the secrets of Soviet aviation—the last detail apparently borrowed from Babel’s late screenplay, Number 4 Staraya Square (1939), which chronicles the byzantine intrigues among scientists in a plant devoted to the construction of Soviet dirigibles.
“I am innocent. I have never been a spy,” Babel says in the transcript of his twenty-minute “trial,” which took place in Beria’s chambers. “I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others . . . I am asking for only one thing—let me finish my work.” Babel was executed by firing squad in the basement of the Lubyanka on January 26, 1940, and his body was dumped in a communal grave. Nineteen forty, not 1941: even the death certificate had been a lie.
The first time I read Isaac Babel was in a college creative writing class. The instructor was a sympathetic Jewish novelist with a Jesus-like beard, an affinity for Russian literature, and a melancholy sense of humor, such that one afternoon he even “realized” the truth of human mortality, right there in the classroom. He pointed at each of us around the seminar table: “You’re going to die. And you’re going to die. And you’re going to die.” I still remember the expression on the face of one of my classmates, a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife. The expression was confused.
In this class we were assigned to read “My First Goose,” the story of a Jewish intellectual’s first night at a new Red Army billet during the 1920 campaign. Immediately upon his arrival, his new comrades, illiterate Cossacks, greet him by throwing his suitcase in the street. The intellectual, noticing a goose waddling around the billet, steps on its neck, impales it on a saber, and orders the landlady to cook it for his dinner. The Cossacks then accept him as one of their own and make room for him at the fireside, where he reads them one of Lenin’s speeches from a recent issue of Pravda.
When I first read this story in college, it made absolutely no sense to me. Why did he have to kill that goose? What was so great about sitting around a campfire, reading Lenin? Among the stories we read in that class, Chekhov’s “Lady with Lapdog” moved me much more deeply. I especially remember the passage about how everyone has two lives—one open and visible, full of work, convention, responsibilities, jokes, and the other “running its course in secret”—and how easy it is for circumstances to line up so that everything you hold most important, interesting, and meaningful is somehow in the second life, the secret one. In fact, this theme of a second, secret life is extremely important to Babel, but I didn’t figure that out until later.
Excerpted from The Possessed by Elif Batuman Excerpted by permission.
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