The Life and Death of Isaac Babel
Random House, Hardcover, 9780679643067, 224pp.
Publication Date: October 18, 2005
Hailed as the first great Soviet writer, Isaac Babel was at once a product and a victim of violent revolution. In tales of Cossack marauders and flashy Odessa gangsters, he perfectly captured the raw, edgy mood of the first years of the Russian Revolution. Masked, reckless, impassioned, charismatic, Babel himself was as fascinating as the characters he created. At last, in renowned author Jerome Charyn, Babel has a portraitist worthy of his quicksilver genius.
Though it traces the arc of Babel’s charmed life and mysterious death, Savage Shorthand bursts the confines of straight biography to become a meditation on the pleasures, torments, and meanings of Babel’s art. Even in childhood, Babel seemed destined to leave a mark. But it was only when his mentor, Maxim Gorky, ordered him to go out into the world of revolutionary Russia that Babel found his true voice and subject. His tales of the bandit king Benya Krik and the brutal raids of the Red Cavalry electrified Moscow. Overnight, Babel was a celebrity, with throngs of admirers and a train of lovers.
But with the rise of Stalin, Babel became a living ghost. Charyn brilliantly evokes the paranoid shadowland of the first wave of Stalin’s terror, when agents of the Cheka snuffed out artists like candle flames. Charyn’s chilling account of the circumstances of Babel’s death–hidden and lied about for decades by Stalin’s agents–finally sets the record straight.
For Jerome Charyn, Babel is the writer who epitomizes the vibrancy, violence, and tragedy of literature in the twentieth century. In Savage Shorthand, Charyn has turned his own lifelong obsession with Babel into a dazzling and original literary work.
“I often approach writing on Isaac Babel, my father, with a certain apprehension–especially when biography is concerned. Jerome Charyn’s book is a most welcome surprise. It is both clear-sighted and eloquent. In his text, we encounter the same kind of audacity and compassion we find in my father’s work.”
“D. H. Lawrence’s essays on American classics, Charles Olson on Melville in Call Me Ishmael: To these definitive writers’ studies of the writers who haunt and fascinate them we must add Jerome Charyn’s Savage Shorthand. Charyn writes as a citizen of that Russian suburb the Jewish East Bronx of the 1940s and 1950s–scene of so much of his tough, moving fiction–and he discovers Babel to be his neighbor, and nearly his kin. Written with passion and precision, gutsy and learned at once, this Shorthand casts a long, broad shadow.”
–Frederick Busch, author of The Night Inspector
“Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel is a tour de force. In full pursuit of his modern Russian master, Jerome Charyn has summoned all his gifts as a reader, literary critic, memoirist, and historical sleuth to brave the rigors of the Red Terror and grasp his elusive idol’s ghost. In the process he has produced an arresting novel of his own, nightmarish in its portrayal of political intrigue and horror, yet as irrepressible as Babel’s lively crier, Benya Krik. A memorable achievement.”
–Robert Fagles, Princeton University
“How many of us have been stunned, challenged, changed by Babel’s stories–all this now somehow called up by Charyn’s absolutely radiant book.”
–Joseph McElroy, author of Actress in the House
“As a longtime admirer of Jerome Charyn’s writing, I expected something quirky and exceptional from his study of Isaac Babel. But this book, centered on the mystery of the great Russian writer’s life, heads with passion into territory beyond Babel’s tragedy. Having just finished the book, I think it something very like a masterpiece. I believe I’ll wake up tomorrow with the same opinion.”
–Herbert Gold, author of Fathers and A Girl of Forty
“Jerome Charyn’s journey through Babel’s stories–and through Babel’s extraordinary life–is as tender and astonishing as it is tough-minded and memorable. For anyone who believes in the redemptive power of the imagination, even in the darkest, most brutal times, this book is essential.”
–Jay Neugeboren, author of Imagining Robert
“It took a novelist of Jerome Charyn’s stature to penetrate the layers of mythology surrounding this magnificent artist–much of it created by Babel’s murderers, much more by Babel himself. A truly absorbing, fascinating book–I don’t know of anyone else who could have written it.”
–Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn