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November 14, 2001, Wednesday

BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Stabbing the Heart and Soul With the Savagery of Truth


Edited by Nathalie Babel
Illustrated. 1,072 pages. W. W. Norton. $39.95 (slipcased), $24.94 (cloth).

This collection of the works of Isaac Babel, edited by Babel's daughter Nathalie and marvelously translated by Peter Constantine, is a cause for a kind of melancholy celebration: a celebration of literary genius framed by 20th-century tragedy. Babel, the Odessa Jew who was executed in 1940 at age 46, is probably not among the greatest writers of the 20th century. His work is too fragmentary, unsustained, too hampered by bureaucracy and murder, for him to belong in the category of, say, Proust or Kafka.

But Babel comes close. His stories and sketches, his journalism and diaries, even his screenplays -- until now only available in English in partial collections -- have an electrifying cumulative impact. Babel wrote a kind of cauterizing prose that Hemingway declared to be even leaner and more concise than his own. Cynthia Ozick, in an admirable introduction to this collection, describes him as a figure who ''wrested his sentences out of a purifying immediacy.''

Even the propaganda he wrote for the new Soviet government -- which reveals him as either a not-yet-disillusioned believer in revolutionary promise or a youthful opportunist -- has an impudent, poetic sting. In his short, eventful life, Babel experienced the worst of human behavior in pogroms and war. He portrayed a stricken and flagrant world but viewed it from a darkly comic, modernist distance that intensified his power. He is a writer who stabs the mind and the heart and the inner eye with short, savage strokes.

Babel also exemplified his historical epoch. Born near Odessa in 1894, the city on the Black Sea that comes to life in a dozen or so of his best stories, he owed to the Bolshevik Revolution a chance to break out of the ghetto into the wide world. He began early and was noticed by Maxim Gorky, who published his early work. He achieved global renown with ''The Red Cavalry Stories,'' which were published in the Soviet Union from 1923 to 1926 and which were translated into most of the European languages. He was then cut down by the revolution in which he had invested his hopes.

It is a sadly common story. What is not common about Babel is the depth of his implication in Soviet history and the quality of the writing he left behind. ''The Red Cavalry Stories'' are amazing not only as literature but also as biography, showing Babel the Jew traveling with a detachment of Cossacks, the Jews' eternal enemy, during the Polish-Soviet war of 1920. This is conspicuously a Jew -- described elsewhere by Babel as a man with ''glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart'' -- playing an unaccustomed role, but staying within the framework of Talmudic morality.

Babel's stories depict a Cossack world of brutality, drunkenness, syphilitic disfigurement, cunning, valor and unintentional comedy. They also show the writer, who used a fake name and kept his Jewishness a secret, as a double agent, a secret sympathizer with the battered inhabitants of the shtetls, the semi-rural ghettos he saw. ''Brody!'' Babel writes of a mostly Jewish town in Volhynia, a territory in a stretch crisscrossed by the two armies. ''The mummies of your trampled passions have breathed their irresistible poison upon me.''

Babel was a kind of magical naturalist. He wrote about the world as he really experienced it, but he experienced it with an eye that anthropomorphized objects and concepts while exaggerating the misshapenness of humans. ''The Odessa Stories,'' centering on the life and exploits of an Odessan Jewish gangster named Benya Krik, expose a lost universe of brawling sensuality and rampant individualism. If better stories than these have ever been written, I don't know them.

''The purple eye of the sunset, rummaging over the earth, stumbled upon Grach in the evening, snoring under his cart,'' one passage reads. ''An impulsive ray bumped into the sleeping man, and with its blazing reproach led him to Dalnitskaya Street, which lay dusty and shimmering like green rye in the wind.''

Babel was at his most active for only about 20 years, until he began to practice what he called ''the genre of silence'' and wrote, it seems, mostly though not entirely for the drawer. Among the works collected here are several plays and screenplays for silent films.

''Roaming Stars,'' based on a story by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, may be the best. It is a stormy and tragic story of two lovers whose lives are destroyed by greed and history. Babel wrote another screenplay just before his arrest in 1939. It is entitled ''Number 4 Staraya Square,'' after the address of the Communist Party Central Committee in Moscow. It is half a satire on Soviet bureaucracy and half a paean to the inevitable triumph of Communism. Though it was never produced, it does seem to illustrate the impossibility of being a member of the Soviet Writers' Union and keeping entirely silent at the same time.

In any case, it is Babel's short stories that are immortal, some of the best of which seem drawn from Babel's youth -- at least they depict a young man growing up in a weirdly unconventional family in Odessa: ''There were drunks in our clan, we had run away with the daughters of generals and then abandoned them before crossing the border.'' The boy is caught midway between Jewish ritual and the excitement of Odessa itself with its harbor, its English sea captains, its Turkish traders, its Kirghiz wet nurses and its music teachers who sent Jascha Heifetz and Efrem Zimbalist into the world.

''The heavy waves by the harbor wall separated me more and more from a home reeking of onions and Jewish fate,'' the boy says, running away from violin lessons and into the arms of literature and adventure.

The boy seems to be the same as the narrator of one of Babel's most gaily bawdy stories, about a young man living a bohemian life in St. Petersburg in 1916 who gets a job helping a buxom, literary matron translate the works of Guy de Maupassant. This story is a compact marvel, full of social ambition and youthful exuberance. It also includes a few lines, frequently cited in commentaries on Babel, that show the young man telling his rich, untalented patron how he works:

''I spoke to her of style, of an army of words, an army in which every type of weapon is deployed. No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place. She listened with her head inclined and her painted lips apart.''

There is an entire literary theory in the first two sentences of that passage, and in the last there is a delicious glimpse into the human condition, about which we learn more in a few words from Isaac Babel than in many heavier tomes of lesser writers.

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