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

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Epiphany and its opposite in two Isaac Babel stories

Two of Isaac Babel's "autobiographical" stories make a good pair; they seem to refelect each other, in a sense. Di Grasso is an account of his time in Odessa at a teenager working as a theater "tout," that is, he worked with a local thug selling scalped tickets to the local theater/opera house at whatever prie the market would bear. At one point, the theater had a few chintzy flops and the touts just about went broke. Then a new troup - Di Grasso et al. - of Sicilian actors came to town; at first unpromising - the gang leader amusingly says something like: Boys, this is not merchandise. (Sounding like my grandfather, not like a thug.) But the Sicilians killed and prices went up. At end of story, young Babel looks on his town and sees the beauty for the first time - as with many great early 20th-century stories this one ends in the flood of emotions that accompany an epiphany. Guy de Maupassant is a stronger and more complex story: now Babel is in his 20s, in St. Pete  (I think, maybe it's still Odessa) and living as a bohemian, devoted to art, picking up odd jobs editing and reviewing here and there, in great poverty. He's offered a job as a clerk in a factory and turns it down, heroically. Eventually a wealthy family - Jews converted to Xtianity, the father making money selling supplies to the army, so you can imagine the corruption - hires him - the sexy and kind of dopey wife is crazy about the works of GDM and wants Babel's help translating. He takes her version home and sees that it is flat and horrible and uninspired; he rewrites, and she is completely taken w him. They continue to meet - they work on one story about a carriage driver who tries to have an affair with his wealthy employer. One night, Babel and the sexy woman have a lot to drink while working and Babel comes on to her - she teases hm, he moves toward her, then clumsily knocks down a shelf of books - a very Woody Allen-like moment. He heads home, drunk and exhilarated. Later begins reading a bio of GDM and learns the de Maupassant had a miserable life, tried suicide several times, went insane and behaved like an animal (and worse) and died institutionalized at 42. So - this is like an anti-epiphany, a moment of horror and disillusion rather than inspiration and exultation: Babel has these romantic notions of the artist's life, and his patron holds her favorite writer on a pedestal and flirts and dreams and imagines a life like the lives and loves he depicts so beautifully - but Babel at the end sees the suffering and torment in the life of the writer and the vast divide between life and works.

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