Excerpt from The Possessed by Elif Batuman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Possessed

Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

by Elif Batuman

The Possessed
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    Feb 2010, 304 pages

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Julie Wan

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Print Excerpt

Babel in California

When the Russian Academy of Sciences puts together an author’s Collected Works, they aren’t 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. It’s different in France, where definitive editions are printed on “Bible paper.” The Bibliothèque de la Pléiade manages to fit Balzac’s 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 Tolstoy’s Works to Babel’s is like comparing a long road to a pocket watch. Babel’s 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 Babel’s oeuvre is known to be incomplete. When the NKVD came to his dacha in 1939, Babel’s first words were, “They didn’t let me finish.” The secret police seized and confiscated nine folders from the dacha, and fifteen from Babel’s 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, Babel’s published works were removed from circulation. His name was erased from encyclopedias and film credits. Rumors circulated—Babel was in a special camp for writers, he was writing for the camp newspaper—but nobody knew for sure if he was dead or alive. In 1954, the year after Stalin’s 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 ice—especially after the death of his protector, Maxim Gorky, in 1936. Nonetheless, he survived the height of the Great Purge in 1937–38, 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 Babel’s close ties with the French Left, his continued existence was necessary to maintain Soviet-French diplomatic relations—which 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 Babel’s arrest to his bizarre relationship with the former people’s commissar Nikolai Yezhov: Babel had had an affair in the 1920s with Evgeniya Gladun-Khayutina, Yezhov’s 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 (“Stalin’s 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.

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