Manufacturing Credibility: the Interplay of Deception, Delusion and Diegesis in Isaac Babel''s Autobiographical Fiction

Rebecca Stanton, Columbia University

The notion of autobiographical fiction -- of embedding lived experience in a fictional narrative -- is by no means a revolutionary one; indeed, it enjoys a strong tradition in Russian literature, encompassing works as varied -- and as celebrated -- as Tolstoj's Childhood--Boyhood--Youth to Solzhenicyn's Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Typically, such narratives do not present the reader with severe epistemological or generic difficulties; they simply invite him or her to participate in the ordinary readerly activity of "pretending" that the story is true, with the additional gratification of knowing that parts of it actually are so. The "autobiographical" stories of Isaac Babel' (by which term I intend to designate the sequence of childhood stories including "The Story of My Dovecote", "First Love," and others), however, pose a unique problem: though fictional, they "pretend" otherwise, identifying themselves, by means of various cues, as autobiography. By giving his first-person narrator/protagonist his own name -- Isaac Babel' -- as well as certain of his own particulars (age, appearance, location, etc.) Babel' invites the reader to place genuine confidence in the narrator, rather than the provisional credence mentioned above: he invokes, in fact, what Lejeune has called the "autobiographical pact," which both calls for and justifies complete faith in the veracity of the narrative.

Under the influence of the autobiographical pact, the events of the story undergo an interesting transformation; no longer a "harmless" fiction, they aquire the status of a lie -- a deliberate attempt by the author to mislead his readers. The success of this strategy may be observed at work in Lionel Trilling's famous Introduction to the 1955 edition of Babel''s collected stories in English translation, in which Trilling assumes that certain facts from the story "First Love" (in particular, the episode in which Babel''s father kneels in supplication before a mounted Cossack) to be true. Extra-textual information (extraneous, that is, to the stories themselves) about Babel''s life proves this to have been an embarrassing mistake (the episode was invented), but reference to extra-textual biographical data, especially in the case of a figure as enduringly enigmatic as Babel', is hardly a satisfying way to investigate such a problem! The natural readerly inclination is, rather, to seek out clues within the stories themselves that may shed light on their relationship to veracity on the one hand and to invention on the other; to find the ways in which they reveal themselves intratextually.

The search for such clues in "The Story of my Dovecote" immediately yields an abundance of instances in which the truth is distorted, distended, inverted or otherwise interfered with; it seems, on examination, that Babel' is intent upon establishing his own pedigree as a liar, for the Babel' men, it soon becomes clear, are both over-credulous and, in an assortment of ways, mendacious. Almost all the speech acts referred to in the story represent some kind of falsification. The series of fictions, falsehoods, fantasies and other untruthful utterances reaches a climax, of course, in the "lying stories" of narrator "Babel''s" great-uncle Shoyl, whose death later takes over from the dovecote as the main event of the story, belying its title (another "lie"!).

A closer inspection of the stories in the "autobiographical" or childhood sequence, however, reveals an interesting fact: Shoyl's stories are in fact cooroborated by "Babel''s" grandmother, in "Childhood. At Grandmother's" -- a story written (though not published) 15 years earlier -- and the Babel' women, in contradistinction to their men, are inclined neither to lie, nor to be excessively credulous. In fact, their peculiar clarity of vision is repeatedly emphasised in the childhood stories. Whereas previously the veracity of Shoyl's stories was in doubt, then, it is now their mendacity (and, by association, that of the narrator) that is under suspicion -- surely an odd state of affairs in a work of fiction!

By calling reliable witnesses to undermine the "liar's" pedigree he has taken such pains to establish, "Babel'" undermines his own unreliability, adding a new and subtle layer of confusion to the Cretan paradox with which he seems intent on presenting the reader. This paper proposes to examine in detail the successive tranformations (from "true" to "false" and vice versa) which autobiographical and story events, in Babel''s hands, undergo; and to consider some of the generic and epistemological implications of these transformations.