There are a lot of biographies out there. Some are good, some are tedious, some are inaccurate. But most fit a standard patterns. A chronological examination of the life of the subject.
I have read some books that challenge this pattern, starting with the fascinating Quest for Corvo, written by A.J.A. Symons in the 1930s. It’s the biographer of a (now) little known English author, the man who called himself Baron Corvo, but it’s not a straight chronological biography. Yes, it tells Corvo’s story, but more than that it tells the tale of how Symons went about developing the information required to write the biography of the author. And quite a quest it was. And there were others.
But Robert A. Rosenstone’s King of Odessa was a first for me. The subject of the book is Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel. And the book is termed a novel. But I am not sure that is correct.
Babel was born in Odessa in 1894, and made his name after the 1917 revolution with his short stories of Odessa and of the Russian Civil War. He was one of the most well known Russian author of his day.
Of course, his day was not a pleasant one, and in 1940, he was arrested, tortured, accused of being a Trotsky-ite, tried and murdered. He was only 46.
While Babel lived in Moscow, he yearned for his home town of Odessa and was able to spend about six months there in 1936. He went there for the weather, for treatment for his asthma, for quiet time to write, and to spend some time with film director Sergei Eisenstein working on what became an unsuccessful social realism short (Bezhin Meadow, the story of a young boy whose kulak father was cheating his collective farm, and who informed on him, leading his father to kill him – if you can believe that).
What Babel did day to day during these months is not really known, but Rosenstone (who teaches as Cal Tech of all places) imagines that he wrote a memoir, and this book is that memoir.
There is a lot of biographical information in Rosenstone/Babel’s writing – his early life, his relationship with his mother and sister living in Brussels and his wife and daughter living in Paris, as well as his affairs with Yevgenia Yezhova (who had the misfortune of marrying Nikolai Yezhov, who became chair of the NKVD (which turned into the KGB) and with Nina Pirozhkova, a Moscow subway civil engineer with whom he had a child and lived as common law spouses. You learn of his relationship with a number of well known Russian intellectuals, his relationship with his Jewish upbringing, and his friendship and working relationship with Eisenstein. There is a tremendous amount in this book that is biographic and presumably accurate.
But this is a “fake memoir”, so it is filled with some not quite factual additions, largely with the introduction of Nadja Kamenskaya, an actress from Kazakhstan, with whom Babel has still another affair, and one which threatens his relationships with his other women, and who is (surprise, surprise) quite a femme fatale, playing a number of roles all at once in the hope of furthering her stagnant career, whose agenda does not come clear until late in the script. But even if this memoir was not “fake”, if in fact it had been written by Babel himself, who knows, Nadja might have been included. For Babel always made it clear that he was a story teller, that his tales were always tweaked here and there, that fiction and reality could be mixed.
A year or two ago, I read a biography of another Soviet era Jewish writer, Ilya Ehrenburg, Tangled Loyalties by Joshua Rubenstein. A fine biography it is, and a story of another intriguing author, this one a man who lived through the Stalinist purges, and was allowed to travel outside of the USSR. It was a straight, detailed book, and I remember a fair amount about what it said about Ehrenburg. But my guess is, from reading Rosenstone’s make believe memoir, I am going to remember just as much about Babel. And this is why I question this book as a novel. For me, it’s a biography (with a little stuff thrown in, just to make it interesting, and a bit intriguing).