There are two Isaac Babels: Lionel Trilling’s Babel and Cynthia Ozick’s Babel. The critic’s and the novelist’s two interpretations of the great Russian-Jewish writer–who rode with and wrote about the Cossacks, and who was murdered by Stalin in 1940, in gratitude for Babel’s allegiance to the Revolution–are also two different versions of American Jewishness.
If you’re the type of person given to lamenting the deterioration of serious reading and writing, here’s one way you can lift your spirits: Read Trilling’s famous introduction to the 1955 English translation of Babel’s Red Cavalry, a collection of short stories inspired by Babel’s experiences with the Cossacks. Trilling’s offering has got to be one of the most obtuse literary essays ever written. It would never have made it into print today.
Of course, Trilling had a prodigious and unique literary mind. Essays like “Reality in America” and “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” make you recall that there was a time when literary critics didn’t just review books; they rubbed their intellect against society until the sparks flew. Sincerity and Authenticity, Trilling’s masterpiece, is a brilliant intellectual synthesis and an outpouring of original ideas. But maybe that book is so memorable because it was animated by Trilling’s own problem with authenticity.
In his short and impressionistic, but essential, biography of Isaac Babel–the only one we have–Jerome Charyn writes appreciatively about Trilling’s essay on Red Cavalry, and he never tries to refute or correct it. What interests Charyn is the way Trilling used Babel to try to escape from the burden of being Lionel Trilling. Such psychological delving fits nicely into Savage Shorthand, which is an attempt to excavate Babel from his own concealing nature, from the secretive times he lived in and from the enigmatic circumstances of his death. Charyn is a wonderful novelist, and his brief speculations about Trilling’s buried motives is a deft leitmotif in his almost novelistic account of Babel’s life.
As Charyn observes, Trilling’s whole career seems to have been one long flight from Jewishness into his impersonation of an Oxford don–“an Anglo-Saxon golem,” as Charyn mordantly puts it. Charyn refers to Trilling’s well-known regret over not being able to make a career as a novelist, and to his struggle with depression. He alludes to Trilling’s avowals, in his now-published journals, of timidity, sexual repression and despair. In Charyn’s view, Trilling displaced his longing to be a creative man of action–a novelist rather than an intellectual–onto Babel.
There is indeed something to the idea that Trilling was projecting onto Babel vicarious fantasies of macho artistic freedom. According to Trilling, the Cossacks enthralled the Odessa-born writer, who first made his name with wonderful stories about that Black Sea city’s Jewish gangsters. Babel, Trilling wrote, admired “the boldness, the passionateness, the simplicity and directness–and the grace” of the soldiers in the so-called Red Cavalry. Not only that, but Trilling astonishingly argued that “in the stories of the Red Cavalry Babel submits the ethos of the intellectual to the criticism of the Cossack ethos [and] intends a criticism of [Babel’s own] ethos not merely as an intellectual but as a Jew.”