November 6, 2003
Noir Fiction Fills in the Babel Blanks
"King of Odessa" by Robert Rosenstone (Northwestern, $24.95).
In an impressive effort of literary boldness, historian Robert Rosenstone fills in some of the blanks in Issac Babel's life and work in a first novel, "King of Odessa." He writes as though he has recovered a lost Babel manuscript, imagining what one of Babel's final years might have been like. Other than a few postcards sent to his family, no records remain of the summer and autumn of 1936, when Babel, then 42, returned to Odessa, the city of his birth.
Stretching the lines between fact and fiction, Rosenstone narrates the story in Babel's voice, writes several letters sent to Babel in the voices of the women in his life, and also pens a final story about his character, Benya Krik, the clever Jewish mobster of Odessa who's something of a Robin Hood -- and referred to in Babel's stories as "the King."
"Yiddish noir" is how Rosenstone describes the novel's style to me. Rosenstone, who has taught modern European and American history at California Institute of Technology, is also the author of "Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed," which was the basis for the Academy-award winning film, "Reds."
With irreverent humor, textured descriptions and sensitive attention to detail, Rosenstone imaginatively constructs Babel's world. Some of Babel's childhood recollections in the novel are based on his short stories. The young Babel, indifferent to the violin lessons his father insisted that he take, would prop a book on his music stand when he was supposed to be practicing. He would read while simply making noise with the violin, which was indistinguishable from music to his tone-deaf father in a nearby room. Some days, he would leave the violin in his closet and fill the case with a bathing suit and towel and head right past his teacher's home to the beach. There, he befriends an athletic guy who teaches him to swim and also tells him that his early writing has a spark of genius.
In 1936, Babel goes to Odessa for a rest and to work on a film with Sergei Einsenstein, and also as part of a mission he undertakes with the secret police to help a condemned prisoner escape. Although he hasn't published anything in a while, in Odessa he is celebrated; Babel is treated as though he invented the city and its characters in his stories. His romantic affairs are complicated, with a wife and daughter in Paris and two other women, too. Rosenstone invents an additional woman, an actress, whom he meets in Odessa, who might be an agent of the state. It's not clear whether it's his own escape that he's trying to arrange, although Babel ultimately turns down an opportunity to leave.
"I fell in love with Babel some years ago," Rosenstone said, "particularly with the whole world of Jewish Odessa." The author, who spent about eight years doing research -- as much as on any historical biography he has written -- added that he was also interested in the trajectory of Babel's life, from being an international star with "Red Cavalry," a collection of stories that came out in the 1920s, to falling out of favor and not being able to publish.
"I'm fascinated with how people went on with life in the new world they thought they had built, when it was closing in on them. And with the tensions between the hopes, the realities, the despair of life," he said.
Rosenstone, whose earlier five books are works of history or biography including a memoir about his grandfather, "The Man Who Swam Into History," describes "King of Odessa" as fictional biography.
"You can't write a biography of Isaac Babel," he said, pointing out that when Babel was arrested, all of his papers were taken, and the materials still not have emerged even as Soviet files have been opened. In addition, Babel was known for being secretive.
"I think its a good introduction to a bit of lost history," he said. Although he's never been in Odessa, Rosenstone makes the city come alive as a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. From the 1880s to the 1920s, that city was the second largest Jewish community, after Warsaw, under the rule of czarist Russia. Rosenstone studied 19th century travel books, photo collections, memoirs that mentioned Babel, literature about the period and "everything I could get my hands on about Babel and Odessa and Odessa Jews, about the literary scene between the revolution and his death." The book jacket is a souvenir postcard from Odessa, circa 1897.
Since the novel was published, Rosenstone has heard from Nathalie Babel, the writer's daughter, who is the editor of a recently published one-volume "The Complete Works of Isaac Babel," with new translations from the Russian. She wasn't pleased that Rosenstone had taken on this project, and Rosenstone explains that she has a particular view of her father as almost a saintly figure.
Rosenstone thinks of the work as "a kind of homage to Babel." He's also pleased to be spreading an appreciation of the Russian master to the American reading public. At several bookstore readings, people have left with copies of Babel's books.
Robert Rosenstone is speaking Nov. 19 at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8644.