From Publishers Weekly
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.
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The Complete Works of Isaac Babel (2001), replete with commentary by Cynthia Ozick and Babel's daughter, Nathalie, enables readers to experience the full power of this intrepid Russian Jewish writer's revolutionary writings. Now Charyn, a versatile and prolific writer intensely interested in the Soviet regime, the subject of his last novel, The Green Lantern (2004), presents a vigorous response to Babel's indelible work, especially his bold stories about the Odessa gangster-king Benya Krik and the now-classic Red Cavalry, along with a meticulous inquiry into Babel's life. Bringing unusual energy and tough lyricism to the art of interpretation, Charyn explicates Babel's "savage shorthand," his way of writing about the surreal horrors of war, linking his work to that of Hemingway and photographer Diane Arbus. He also exposes the many contradictions embedded in the mythos that surrounds Babel, most generated by Babel himself for good reasons, and discloses the bitter truth about Babel's long-concealed murder by Stalin's henchmen. Not unlike Janet Malcolm's Reading Chekhov (2001), this is a zestful and revelatory appreciation of a great and courageous writer. Donna Seaman
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