THE COMPLETE WORKS OF ISAAC BABEL
In a story entitled "Guy de Maupassant," Babel wrote: "When a phrase is born, it is both good and bad at the same time. The secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernible. One's fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice." Though he is discussing translation here, Babel might be describing his own approach to prose. The Russian writer was a prodigy, becoming famous upon the publication of his story collection The Red Cavalry, a landmark in modernism written when he was in his 20s. This new translation of his complete work, making available in English short stories that have been scattered in different collections, will be an essential book for anyone who cares about the art of the story. It gathers together not only the writer's fiction but his journalism and his plays; Cynthia Ozick contributes an introduction and editor Nathalie Babel, Babel's daughter, writes a preface. Those who have read Babel will want to turn first to the stories written between 1925 and 1938, which have been the hardest to find. They include such masterpieces as "Story of My Dovecote" and "My First Fee," the latter a typical combination of imagery à la Chagall and brutally honest observations of the wounds caused by war and revolution. Babel's career, tragically, was cut short by Stalin, who had him arrested, tortured and shot in 1940. In the work he left behind, he is witness to the electric polarity between the 20th century's utopianism and its startling capacity for atrocity. Few writers possess Babel's level of genius and temerity, and this first complete collection should acquaint more readers with his unjustly neglected work. (Nov.)
Forecast:This will be the Babel book for years to come, and should spark debate about Babel's place in the canon. If it attracts the same kind of interest as Richard Howard's 1998 retranslation of The Charterhouse of Parma, popular sales might take off; in any case, it will be a backlist fixture.