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Wednesday, November 28th, 2001


The Complete Works of Isaac Babel

by Isaac Babel

His Finished Work

A review by Adrienne Miller

In 1940, at the age of forty-six, the great Russian short story writer Isaac Babel was executed by Stalin's police. His last words were "let me finish my work." What was lost when he died is bitter (to paraphrase what a critic said of Flannery O'Connor). Babel was a Jew and an artist and a revolutionary at a moment in space-time when it was very dangerous to be any one of those things. This remarkable 1,072-page volume, edited by Babel's daughter Nathalie, is a compilation of his lifetime's writings — here are the Red Cavalry stories that made him famous, the Odessa Stories, pieces of journalism (written under a non-Jewish pseudonym), an astonishingly trenchant diary from 1920, plays, screenplays, and two in-progress novels he never lived to finish. His world, the cosmopolitan Russian port city of Odessa, swirls with life: "Beside the ancient synagogue, beside its indifferent yellow walls, old Jews, Jews with the beards of prophets, passionate rags hanging from their sunken chests, are selling chalk, bluing, and candle wicks" (from "Gedali" from The Red Cavalry Stories). Babel is a concise, precise writer, and, already in his early stories, he is an expert at nailing character in very few lines ("He reads every day. He also sleeps every day. There is a terrible, ineradicable weariness in his face, almost madness. A martyr to books — a distinct, indomitable Jewish martyr" (from "The Public Library"). The Complete Works of Isaac Babel is a beautiful testament to one of the true geniuses of twentieth-century literature. Perhaps Babel's youthful prediction that "literature's Messiah, so long awaited, will issue from there — from the sun-drenched steppes washed by the sea" (from "Odessa") was as true as any prediction has ever been.

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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