Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s definition of a short story as “a story about an unusual occurrence” was Babel’s favorite. Comparing his prose to Leo Tolstoy’s, Babel said that whereas Tolstoy described what happened to him minute by minute, he, Babel, was trying to depict the most interesting five minutes in twenty-four hours and put it all on several pages to make it as compact as possible. Therefore he had to choose words that were significant, simple, and beautiful. All of his life, Babel fought against adjectives. He mentioned that if he ever wrote an autobiography, it would be called “The Story of an Adjective.” According to Konstantin Paustovsky, his six-page story “Lyubka the Cossack” (1924) was rewritten twenty-two times, totaling about two hundred pages.

“In the Basement” is told in a more relaxed manner than Babel’s other stories and sometimes reminds the reader of a comedy of manners. Still it is pithy and full of colorful epithets and remarkable metaphors, such as “I was an untruthful little boy,” “My twelve-year-old heart swelled with the joy and lightness of other people’s wealth,” “Night towered in the poplars, stars lay heavy on the bowed leaves,” “I had nothing to give in return for all this measureless magnificence.” Babel also uses satire to enliven the story.

The element of contrast plays an important part in the story. The description of the poverty and strangeness of the narrator’s family, living in the basement, and the depiction of the lifestyle of the wealthy Borgmans, illustrates that. The grotesque and the romantic, the tragic and the comic, are very close. The boy’s fantastic tales about his relatives’ adventures and about the death of Spinoza are romantically heightened. His attempt to commit suicide is both tragic and comic, and represents the resolution of the conflict.

Babel portrays his characters so vividly and his visual images are so powerful, it is hard not to mention his cinematic technique. It is also important to remember the relationship of his art with painting, both with the old masters and with the new, especially Marc Chagall. It is as if the characters from the story jump right from Chagall’s paintings. Babel’s art is indeed expressionist. Therefore he is using the “untruthful little boy” (instead of, for example, Mark Borgman) to portray the world and to express his ideas on the art of writing.