Isaac Babel the Master of the Genre of Silence

Isaac Babel the Master of the Genre of Silence


Part 2 of The Genre of Silence, an essay.

Isaac Babel, a Jewish and Russian short story writer, was one of the greatest naturalists who ever lived. His book The Red Cavalry and Other Stories along with James Joyce’s Dubliners–two early 20th century short story collections–are definitive statements of the naturalistic short story that has become so codified as a genre that writers of the literary short story don’t consider it a genre at all. There may be the genre sections in the bookstore: murder mystery, thrillers, travel books, science fiction, but literary fiction finds itself in a section-less section: just books organized in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

Naturalism is a kind of writing that borrows from journalism. The great naturalistic writers of the 19th century such as Tolstoy and Emile Zola lifted from the techniques of reporters. It seems amusing now to think of War and Peace being considered a realistic novel, and yet at the time it was considered a startling and vivid slab of undigested observational power, a throbbing piece of life, and a photograph in prose. This type of work became central to our conception of the 20th century literary short story from what might be called the Russian and Soviet Realist. Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway readily accepted their influence, and through Hemingway the tenants of naturalism became synonymous with literary fiction. Any deviation from the fundamental approach of documenting reality as a stream of phoneme appealing to our five senses became something strange. It goes by terms such as magic realism, fabulism, post-modernism, slipstream, and so on.

Isaac Babel is one of the reasons this work came to be seen as conventional. He was a Jew who wore eye glasses from Odessa, a port town on the Black Sea. He was well educated and he served in the Red Army during the revolution. He served with a regiment of Cossacks that were thought of as the Vikings of Eastern Europe. The juxtaposing of Babel and the Cossacks and his clear, minimal writing that would focus on the concrete and specific details appealing to the senses, captured the experience of war, the anti-Semitism of the Cossack regiment, and their atrocities in high definition. Babel became one of the most celebrated writers in the new Soviet Union. His work was even made widely available in translation. There was a sense in the dawn of the Soviet Union that this would be a new world order and that artists, writers, and their labor would finally be supported in the same way as factory workers and farmers.

It didn’t work out that way. The Soviet Union kept the Tsar’s prison systems and expanded them into the Gulag. People with dangerous ideas were rounded up and sent away. To be killed before you got sent to Siberia was a good thing, because it meant being worked to death in the frigid hinterlands of the Soviet Empire.

Babel, whose collected work-up that included his celebrated book and a handful of fantastic short stories about his childhood in Odessa, indicated he was working on a magnum opus. He traveled throughout the Soviet Union, and did amass a large number of papers. He didn’t publish anything however for five years, and then ten years, and again for twelve years. He became head of the Writers’ Union, and in the early 1930s, delivered a famous address where he claimed that he was a master of a new genre, The Genre of Silence.

During this time some of the Cossacks he had written about in his book had become very influential in the Soviet Union. The problem with realism is that people think what they read is real even if you call it fiction, and so these Cossacks were not fans of how they were portrayed in the book. Worse, Babel had a long term affair with the NKVD chief. The NKVD was the precursor to the KGB. Babel was arrested on May 15, 1939 in the Great Purge and vanished along with his papers, and presumably, whatever he had been working on during this year of silence.

The master of the genre was never heard from again. After the fall of the Berlin wall, there was hope that his fate would be uncovered. Had he been sent to Siberia? Did he manage to get released and lived out his life in some obscure corner of the empire? And what happened to his work?

Unfortunately, he was executed shortly after his arrest, on January 27, 1940. His work was in an archive that burned down during World War II.

What separates a dilatant from a master in the art of silence is the potential of speaking and keeping that potential in motion. Babel will always have that potential. One day, we may uncover his work; Babel will break his silence.

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Written by mattbriggs

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