Excerpt of The Possessed by Elif Batuman
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Babel in California
When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together an authors Collected Works, they arent 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. Its different in France, where definitive editions are printed on Bible paper. The Bibliothèque de la Pléiade manages to fit Balzacs 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 Tolstoys Works to Babels is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch. Babels 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 Babels oeuvre is known to be incomplete. When the NKVD came to his dacha in 1939, Babels first words were, They didnt let me finish. The secret police seized and confiscated nine folders from the dacha, and fifteen from Babels 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, Babels published works were removed from circulation. His name was erased from encyclopedias and film credits. Rumors circulatedBabel was in a special camp for writers, he was writing for the camp newspaperbut nobody knew for sure if he was dead or alive. In 1954, the year after Stalins 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 iceespecially after the death of his protector, Maxim Gorky, in 1936. Nonetheless, he survived the height of the Great Purge in 193738, 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 Babels close ties with the French Left, his continued existence was necessary to maintain Soviet-French diplomatic relationswhich 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 Babels arrest to his bizarre relationship with the former peoples commissar Nikolai Yezhov: Babel had had an affair in the 1920s with Evgeniya Gladun-Khayutina, Yezhovs 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 (Stalins Butcher) Beria came to power in 1938, he made a point of exterminating anyone who had ever had anything to do with Yezhov.
Excerpted from The Possessed by Elif Batuman.
Copyright © 2010 by Elif Batuman.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.