Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel

Jerome Charyn, Author . Random $24.95 (213p) ISBN 978-0-679-64306-7

This portrait of Babel by the prolific Charyn (The Green Lantern, etc.) is confounding for reasons he himself elaborates on: it's difficult to know much for certain about the life of the great Russian Jewish short-story writer (1894–1940), whom Charyn emphasizes was a self-mythologizer. Charyn begins the book by seeming to appropriate Babel's qualities for himself by describing how an editor said Charyn's first book called Babel's writings to mind. Ellipses at the end of paragraphs to indicate uncertainty in the narrative underscore the lack of hard facts; using the word "some" as a modifier, as in "Mandelstam would die in some transit camp," has the effect of lessening the horror being described. Babel's death at Stalin's hand remains legendary for the reported sighting of the writer that followed his murder, but Charyn gets so caught up in such myths that he forgets to give us the man. "Even as he bares himself, it's hard to figure Babel out," Charyn notes. So perhaps one would do best to read Babel himself; his collected works have been reissued by Norton. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (On sale Oct. 18)

Reviewed on: 07/25/2005
Release date: 10/01/2005
Open Ebook - 99 pages - 978-0-307-43179-0
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