Friday, September 9, 2011

My hero / Isaac Babel by AD Miller

Isaac Babel

My hero: Isaac Babel by AD Miller

'A writer of stunning emotional understatement'

AD Miller
Fri 9 Sep 2011

Of the Russian authors I have come to revere, Isaac Babel was the biggest revelation, and not only for his style. He was born in 1894 in Odessa: technically in the Russian empire, in practice a cosmopolitan city state unto itself. In the bittersweet tales he wrote about his hometown, Babel chronicled the beginning of the end of its old, tolerant way of life. The best-known ones feature Benya Krik, Odessa's Jewish gangster king, and a narrator with "glasses on [his] nose, and autumn in [his] soul".
As much as any writer I know, Babel transmuted journalism into art. He covered the 1919-21 Polish-Soviet war, riding into battle with the Cossack cavalry. It was an unlikely and brave assignment for a Jewish intellectual. Babel kept a diary, whose staccato account of the campaign's horrors is punctuated with exhortations to its author to "remember" and, above all, to "describe". He is already grieving for the revolution. At the same time, the diary is a sort of instruction manual for descriptive fiction. The stories about the Cossacks that he produced soon afterwards, collected in English as Red Cavalry, are among the best war fiction I've read, partly because of their stunning emotional understatement.
He is as much my hero for what he didn't write. Red Cavalry made Babel famous (though it also made him powerful enemies) and earned him the perks that the Soviet system bestowed on favoured artists. But he stubbornly published very little more, though he stayed in Russia when he might have emigrated – the classic act of Russian self-sacrifice. In 1934, in a moment of suicidal irony, Babel declared himself a "master of the genre of silence".
Political almost in spite of himself, he nevertheless cultivated the worst secret policemen – whether out of writerly curiosity or in the hope of protection, nobody knows. You could go mad thinking about how he and many others must have lived and felt during the terror.
Stalin had him shot in 1940.
AD Miller's Snowdrops (Atlantic) has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.


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