I imagine the World to Come as a place where Jewish artists hang out with friends, ply their crafts and keep tabs on what’s going down in this imperfect place. Anne Frank and Sholem Aleichem take quiet satisfaction in the ongoing respect and study of their works; high school theater departments worldwide would go dark without “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Freed from his royal responsibilities, David Ha-Melech gets back in touch with his musical side, collaborating with George and Ira Gershwin on their latest celestial all-singing, all-dancing production. Photographer Robert Capa (born Endre Ernő Friedmann in Hungary) wheels around the universe with camera in hand, daring to capture images of the cherubim with their fiery, ever-turning sword – why not?
The busiest citizen in Olam Ha-Ba has to be Russian writer Isaac Babel, executed by Joseph Stalin in 1940 and yet still going strong based on the power of his writings – Red Cavalry, Odessa Tales, the plays Sunset and Maria, and collected letters. What really keeps Babel on the go these days is the surge of Babelonia, that is, his special guest appearances in literary works that celebrate his social connections, raffish lifestyle and wry personality. Meanwhile, somewhere hotter, Stalin’s getting his just punishment, which I hope involves him seeing that his victims are getting the best revenge by living well in the World to Come. The man never gets to rest! Truly, one can say of Babel that he’s hot, he’s cool and he’s dead.
Last weekend I saw the play “Isaac Babel and the Gangster King,” at the KGB Bar’s Kraine Theater at 160 E. 4th Street in New York. The play involved Babel and friends Maxim Gorky, Leonid Utesov, Evgenia Yezhov and Bronka Poskrebyshev getting together to practice a musical based on Babel’s stories of Benya Krik, Odessa’s Gangster King, for Stalin and his lackeys. So the performance was a play within a play, in a mix of musical styles and references to Babel’s stories, with a strong dose of the woes of Jews before the Russian Revolution. Students of Soviet history in the purge years would understand the references and the characters’ grim fates. Actor-singer Utesov, born Lazar Iosifovich Vaysbeyn in Odessa in 1895, was the only one to not be murdered, commit suicide or die under mysterious circumstances.
The Babel here, played by playwright Denis Woychuk on an emergency basis after lead Stephen Vincent Brennan was hospitalized, is a big, colorful character, but too often on the sidelines. Babel had more visibility outside the play-within-the-play, which had more content on his relationship with Evgenia (Feigenburg) Yezhov, his on-and-off lover who married NKVD chief Nicolai Yezhov, the Bloody Dwarf, whose presence haunts the production. Evgenia would poison herself in November 1938, dragging down Babel and other lovers.
Babel appears in much sharper focus, with his gossipy, journalistic personality on full display, in the riveting novels The Holy Thief and The Darkening Field by William Ryan. He plays a supporting role intertwined with the investigations of Captain Alexei Korolev of Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia. Korolev is an honest man, a secret Russian Orthodox believer, who plunges into police work in a time when the greatest criminals are the USSR’s leaders. Despite this, he does what he can, and Babel pops up to guide him, especially in The Darkening Field, which is the title of a movie being shot in Ukraine with Babel’s involvement. In fact, Babel had worked on a now-lost movie in Ukraine called Bezhin Meadow, directed by Sergei Eisenstein but repressed and then the only surviving copy was destroyed during World War II. The book captures Babel’s style and interests, as in this exchange during the investigation of a dubious suicide during the making of The Darkening Field:
“What do you make of her?” Korolev asked, walking down the steps that led toward the garden. “Not many female detectives—but she seems bright.”
“I wouldn’t play cards with her, put it that way. A good Odessa girl, bright as a button and pretty as a picture, but tough as a miner’s boot for all that.” . . . .
“Well,” [Korolev] said as they took a path toward the lake, “as long as she gets the job done.”
“Indeed.” Babel looked over his shoulder to see if they could be overheard. “And do you mind me asking what that job is?”
Ryan has other books underway and I’ll be first in line to read them. I hope he can squeeze in some more Babel appearances before the writer’s arrest in 1939.
But . . . what if Babel escaped the claws of the NKVD?
Andy Merrifield pondered that possibility in an essay in the Brooklyn Rail in 2003, titled “The World of Secret Affinities: Remembering Isaac Babel and Walter Benjamin,” pairing Babel with German philosopher Benjamin, who committed suicide on the Spanish-French border in September 1940. Merrifield wrote,
These deaths were truly tragic. Such relatively young men, so much left to do, their big brains destroyed by totalitarianism. Poignancy jars more than sixty years on, because we could almost imagine what might have been. We could perhaps visualize a happy ending, a lovely scene, in which Babel and Benjamin actually made it to daylight, are alive and safe, now old men in New York, enriching the city’s Jewish liberal culture. . . . As for Babel, he was tormented by the idea of remaking himself as an émigré. He resisted the temptation in the 1930s, convinced that a writer “mutilates himself and his work by leaving his native country.” And yet, might he have always held out? Might Babel have fled as the rot set in the ’40s and ’50s? His first wife and daughter had already settled in Paris; his mother and sister in Brussels. Might Babel himself have emigrated, first to Europe, later on to the United States, maybe to New York?
Merrifield drew on the men’s writings to compile a conversation between them, as they stroll New York and part on Central Park West.
Some writers go all in. Beyond biography, beyond literature, beyond treating Babel as a character, they make the leap to become Babel’s new voice. Robert Rosenstone took that approach in King of Odessa: A Novel of Isaac Babel. Rosenstone, a professor of history at the California Institute of Technology who has also written a biography of John Reed, imagines a trip Babel made to his home town of Odessa and a novel that resulted from the trip. After a brief introduction about the miraculously discovered missing manuscript, the imaginary novel begins,
If this were an American story, it would begin with a dame. But that word hardly applies to the female who knocks on my door and barges into the room. A dame has long, silky hair that covers one eye. A dame is dressed in something low cut, slinky, and suggestive. The only thing suggested by the drab, olive suit of this stocky woman with a face like a potato field after a rainstorm is an institution where doors have to be locked day and night. But who am I to complain about looks?
What would Babel make of all this? I think he’d revel in it. From everything I’ve read, he loved living, adventure, creativity, women. The steady flow of Babelonia speaks to his ongoing appeal and the way he continues that most Jewish form of life after death, forever alive in our memories and actions. Somewhere in Olam Ha-Ba, Isaak Emmanuilovich must be chortling, “Pretty good for a bald Jewish guy from Odessa!”