Last month I wrote about the frequent appearances of Soviet-Jewish writer Isaac Babel in novels and plays. I can now add short stories to the healthy post-mortem canon. This time, writer Nathan Englander gives Babel his due in the story “The Reader” in his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.
In “The Reader,” a character known as Author embarks on a wearying cross-country book tour for a new book getting sparse attention. In fact, at stop after stop, only one reader – the same elderly man – appears to demand a performance by Author.
At one point, Author flashes back to an early experience as an audience himself of an Isaac Babel classic:
Author hears what he hears as a fellow reader, and Author remembers.It was “The Story of My Dovecote.” It was Babel, read to him by his mother. She’d sat by the side of his childhood bed and read that story to Author in Russian. This was back in the days when the language whispered at his bedside still held meaning in Author’s ears. And look at him now, a lifetime later and he can still see the whole story as if he himself had lived it. For Author, it has remained as vivid as it was upon its first telling, while the Russian was – all of it – gone.
This and seven other stories in the collection for the most part highlight sharp ethical issues against a Jewish background. The stories are in Israel and the U.S., involving Orthodox and secular Jews. Some, such as “The Reader,” take on some Isaac Bashevis Singer-style fable qualities. They are mostly approachable and direct.
And if one of them pays homage to Isaac Babel, all the better.