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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Portrait of the artist: Babel's In the Basement

Tried some time ago to read some Isaac Babel stories, the ones in a military setting if I remember correctly, and couldn't really see what made them so special - seemed to pale compared w/ Chekhov, but who doesn't? - but last night read from European short stories collection his shot piece In the Basement and was really impressed, a nearly perfect story in my opinion. Yet another in the genre of "portrait of the artist as a young man," and it may call to mind for some Mann's Tonio Kroger, as it's about a fledgling artist who befriends the class star (although there are real differences between these two stories as well - there's a class issue in Babel's but not in Mann's, in which both boys are from wealthy bourgeois families). In the Basement, a first-person narration, the narrator (unnamed?) says he was a lousy student because he was such a dreamer, always making things up to entertain himself and others. He becomes friendly with the boy who's the best student in the class, and the boy invites him to the family summer house (Odessa). This is an eye-opener for the narrator, first time he's ever seen such abundance and the lives of this wealthy social class. Boy gets invited back to narrator's house in turn - and the narrator's family makes all sorts of efforts to stow away the family eccentrics and crazies - sending grandpa off to some neighbors' and giving the crazy uncle $ to spend at a pub, etc. Friend comes over - and narrator realizes the tawdriness of his family dwelling (a basement apartment, with a dirt floor in the corridor). Inevitably, some of the crazies gravitate back toward home. When friend leaves, narrator douses himself in the water-barrel (I assume in contains drinking water?); family pulls him out and comforts him. OK, so what we see is of course that the narrator has richness of a different sort - the odd members and sorry conditions of his family provide him with a richness of material that he will carry throughout his life (in Babel's case a tragically short life); his "baptism" in the barrel is a kind of purgatory, and he is rescued or even "resurrected" by his family: they save him in ways he cannot at that age articulate or comprehend. The artist will never fit in - that's the theme of Mann's story more than this one - nor should he.

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