Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One of the most interesting aspects of “Di Grasso” is the author’s tone, particularly his attitude toward his subject. Throughout the story, the narrator seems affectionately and playfully condescending toward the characters he describes. For example, the reader learns that the Italian actors are bad not from any direct statement by the author(or by Schwarz, who cannot necessarily be trusted when he says “This stuff stinks”), but from such observations as “the shepherd twisted his head this way and that like a startled bird,” or he kept “dashing off somewhere, his pants flapping.” In general, Babel uses what the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky called “defamiliarization”(ostranenie) to induce one to see the play as a profane work, though in a humorous light. That one is suddenly asked to see the terrible actor Di Grasso as a genuinely passionate hero is a welcome surprise, even if one realizes also that this perception is rather more symbolic than real. Babel describes the play much as Leo Tolstoy describes grand opera in War and Peace (1865-1869).

Babel employs colorful and exotic imagery to depict not only the Italian actors but also the Jews of the bustling seaport of Odessa. Giovanni onstage seems to have been transported to his native land: “Beneath the Sicilian sun the pleats in his waistcoat gleamed.” After reporting the success of the play and making his homage to passion, the narrator notes...

(The entire section is 453 words.)