Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Homage for Isaac Babel” is one of several deceptively simple Lessing stories. Lessing describes a little slice of life, a few hours of some people’s interaction. On the surface, the story appears simple, even slight—what could be simpler, or less significant, than being with a thirteen-year-old for half a day? However, in Lessing’s hands, the little slice of life becomes the vehicle for the exploration of important issues.

Lessing conveys her messages and explores her themes by way of uninflected and nonjudgmental description. She writes almost as a reporter might, describing what she sees and what she hears Catherine saying. She does not vary the tone of her prose in order to convey her ideas, nor does she judge her characters or attach labels to them. Rather, she uses description and dialogue to depict characters and to give the reader information to use in forming a conclusion.

From time to time, Lessing uses little flashes of humor to provide telling illuminations of her characters. For example, she remarks that Philip “has pure stern tastes in everything from food to music” precisely because he is fifteen. These little touches of humor, however, do not come at the expense of her characters; she treats them with respect.

Finally, Lessing draws her pictures of the characters by juxtaposing incongruous sentiments or comments to produce the effect she wants. For example, on the train returning to London, Catherine begins the conversation by remarking on a girl—a potential rival for Philip’s attention—who had said hello to him in the garden: “They must be great friends. I wish my mother would let me have a dress like that, it’s not fair.” Catherine then shifts away from jealousy, covetousness, and petulance to Babel, asking adult questions about his literary reputation. Another example is that of Catherine’s thank-you letter, which begins with high sentiments about capital punishment and literary style but ends with girlish concern over whether Philip will come to her party.