Monday, December 12, 2011

Thoughts on Isaac Babel

Having finished The Complete Works of Isaac Babel...I kind of have to say that it was an even more appropriate followup to reading Javier Marias' brilliant Your Face Tomorrow than I could have anticipated. So far as I know, I didn't make a conscious decision to place the one after the other, and even if I had...

Suffice it to say, but the legacy of Babel, or at least the impulses of his literary executors, seem to have the idea of "narrative horror" on the mind, stuck on the Kennedy-Mansfield scale. What matters most is that Babel was a victim of a repressive government, was murdered, and thus whatever else he might have done was robbed from our cultural history. The only problem here is that what he does leave behind may not actually suggest what it seems to.

I don't mean to piss off book enthusiasts (something I seem to do, in one form or another anyway, because I don't seem to readily agree with the critical canon, in whatever medium, and this pisses off those who do, who are if not a majority than at least the deciding minority, like an even more tyrannical version of OWS's 1%), but Babel may not be the treasure he appears to be. His Red Cavalry cycle, the work on which he made his name, is justifiably hyped to this day, but otherwise...he tended to write far more trivially, or to a very limited, native audience, than true literary genius ought to be considered to do. There is one particular anecdote from an aborted semi-autobiographical sequence wherein he relates how he was early on encouraged to "know nature," as it were, as if narrative detail is the only thing truly worth embellishing. I'm of the school, rather, that if you can't properly present the actual story, no matter of decoration is actually worth it. Those who argue that films are an inferior creative medium because they're less subtle fail to realize that they carry the same intrinsic values as the majority of literary output, though the same idiots will then argue that books challenge you to visualize whereas films force-feed imagery. Maybe I should count myself inferior to those who can truly have a good time picturing descriptive passages in their minds, but I would rather know what the story is actually trying to accomplish rather than trying to set a mood. A movie, like a painting, is better able to set a mood. A story on the written page is able to plunge deeper.

Babel was a writer who immersed himself into what he knew, and wrote at length about people he knew, and in that sense he was something of a folk tale weaver, like Hans Christian Anderson, except he tended to ground his stories in the harsh real world. He was praised for his "Odessa" cycle, which pivots around the gangster Benya Krik, but unlike Sacred Games , for instance, he fails to make anything interesting of it. He was too dependent on the short story form. That alone, and not because short stories are inferior to longer ones, disqualifies him from being the next great Russian voice, as his contemporaries believed, well before his tragic death. To then depend on that death in a suggestion that the world was robbed of a great voice is to put too much weight on a potential Babel himself scuttled long ago. He robbed himself of his own future when he insisted on remaining in Russia well after the point that it was clear bad things would inevitably happen to him for staying.

He fell in love with the social landscape, and that's what he wrote about, and that's why he could only write in short stories, in anecdotes, because that's how he saw the world. He wasn't one for the big picture. That's the real tragedy. He had potential and he decided to scuttle it all on his own, maybe on some bad advice early in his career, maybe because circumstances demanded it, but not because he didn't have a chance.

Babel's death doesn't really define him, his stories do. It's interesting that I had to read him to find that out, but it doesn't mean that I now find him to be anymore noteworthy than I did when I had to read someone else's far more intriguing writing (Travis Holland's The Archivist's Story), because in this case, the legend is the thing that ought to be printed. For anyone interested in the truth, now you know.

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