At His Side: The Last Years of Issac Babel

A. N. Pirozhkova, Author, Robert L. Busch, Translator, Anne Frydman, Translator
A. N. Pirozhkova, Author, Robert L. Busch, Translator, Anne Frydman, Translator Steerforth Press $22 (0p) ISBN 978-1-883642-37-2
Reviewed on: 12/29/1997
Release date: 01/01/1998
The Soviet Union was singularly successful in murdering its intelligentsia. Isaac Babel (1894-1940), one of the great Russian writers of the century, disappeared into the gulag in 1939 and was executed in 1940. Pirozhkova met him in 1932 and became his second ""wife"" (Babel never divorced his first wife, who had moved abroad) while she was an engineer-designer on the Moscow subway system. She lived with him until the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) arrested him. Comparisons inevitably come to mind with the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam (Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned), wife of poet Osip Mandelstam, who was also exterminated by Stalin. Yet Mrs. Mandelstam was intimately acquainted with her husband's work and preserved much of it for posterity, in some cases by memorizing it, whereas Babel ordered Pirozhkova not to read his drafts or engage him in literary conversations, and she obeyed. One wishes she'd contravened his orders. Pirozhkova's observations are often less than edifying about Babel the author: ""Babel spent a great deal of time writing, and he finished many works."" Still, her memoir is an invaluable guide to the writer's day-to-day existence, and says a lot about his relations with other Soviet and Western writers. Paley's poetic foreword reveals Babel the writer for American readers. (Dec.)
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