Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Isaac Babel’s short story “Di Grasso,” the narrator is a fourteen-year-old boy employed by an Odessa theatrical booking firm. Unfortunately, his immediate supervisor, Nick Schwartz, is very tight with his purse-strings. The narrator has pawned his father’s gold watch to Schwartz in return for a loan of money, and even though the boy has repaid the loan, Schwartz won’t return the watch. Worse, he cannot bring himself to spend money on booking well-known acts, and this makes it very difficult for our narrator to interest theatergoers in seeing performers no one has heard of.
One year, the narrator reports, Nick passes over several well-known opera stars and chooses “Sicilian tragedian Di Grasso.” Di Grasso arrives with an entire troupe of performers and several plays all ready to enact. Since no one has ever heard of him, there were less than fifty people in the theater on opening night. The narrator himself has become a fairly good judge of acting, and he is contemptuous of what he sees in the first act: it is “a Sicilian folk drama, a tale as commonplace as the change from night to day and vice versa.” The leading lady is atrocious: she “giggled in all the wrong places and fell silent when she shouldn’t have.” Di Grasso himself plays the part of her shepherd lover, and from what the narrator can tell from Act I, this promises to be a very insipid part.
However, in Act III, the situation changes entirely. The shepherd, predictably, has a rival for the affections of the maiden, and at the play’s climax the shepherd Di Grasso works himself into such a dramatic lather that he leaps through the air across the stage, bites through the throat of his rival, and sucks out the blood like an animal. The audience is stunned; the reviewers rush out of the theater to write glowing reviews; and in the morning “the Odessa News informed the few people who had been at the theater that they had seen the most remarkable actor of the century.”
For the remainder of Di Grasso’s engagement in Odessa, the theater is sold out every night. Di Grasso, the man of the hour, is idolized throughout the city. Following his last Odessa performance as the shepherd “swung aloft by an incomprehensible power,” Schwartz’s wife walks out into the street with her husband and the narrator. She is not an attractive woman; she has “fishlike eyes,” “obese shoulders,” and “mannish” feet, but she has cried at the performance like a young girl. She knows her husband will never behave as passionately on her behalf as Di Grasso did with the shepherdess; but he ought to be able to do one thing. She tells Nick that “may I not die a beautiful death if you don’t give the boy back his watch!” She has not lived a beautiful life, and it is unlikely in any case that she will die a beautiful death—certainly not one worthy of the passion she has just seen in the theater. But Nick, shamed, gives the narrator his watch back.
The little group parts at Pushkin Street and the narrator stands “clutching the watch, alone.” In Babel’s final sentence, he looks up at the magnificent beauty of the street, the “Municipal Building soaring up into the heights, the gaslit foliage of the boulevard, Pushkin’s bronze head touched by the dim gleam of the moon; [and I] saw for the first time the things surrounding me as they really were: frozen in silence and ineffably beautiful.” Sometimes, Babel shows, truth is even better than fiction.
These stories can be found in Babel’s collection Red Cavalry, available from Amazon here.
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