Because this brief work is a sophisticated commentary on the nature of art as well as “just a story,” it is all the more interesting for the reader to know that it is the last work Isaac Babel published in his lifetime, before he fell victim to Stalinist justice. Although the exact circumstances of Babel’s arrest in 1939 are not known, it is believed that he was charged with espionage, a patently contrived accusation; he was executed in 1941. The Jewish author, whose collections of stories were often reprinted during his lifetime, was “rehabilitated” after the death of Joseph Stalin—and his stories were reprinted again.
“Di Grasso” ostensibly focuses its attention on the Jewish theatrical world of prewar Odessa (about 1908), where one learns that the narrator as a boy of fourteen has recently “come under the sway” of the “tricky” ticket scalper Nick Schwarz and his “enormous silky handle bars.” Without looking further into the relationship between the boy and the older man who is his “boss,” the narrator instead describes (entertainingly) almost the entire action of a very bad play being newly performed by a traveling troupe of Italian actors. In this play, a “city slicker” named Giovanni temporarily lures the daughter of a rich peasant away from her betrothed—a poor shepherd played by the Sicilian actor Di Grasso. Di Grasso pleads with the girl to pray to the Virgin Mary—a huge, garish, wooden statue of whom is on the stage—but to no avail. In the last act, when Giovanni has become insufferably arrogant, Di Grasso suddenly soars across the stage, plunges downward onto Giovanni, bites through his throat, and sucks out the gushing blood—as the curtain falls.
Recognizing a hit when he sees one, Schwarz rushes to the box office, where he will wait all night, first in line to buy at dawn as many tickets as he can afford, for resale. The narrator shortly remarks that everyone in Theater Lane has been made happy by the new hit—except himself.
Now an entirely new story line develops. It seems that the lad has taken his father’s watch without permission and pawned it to Schwarz—who eventually grows very fond of the big gold turnip. Even after the boy pays off the pledge, Schwarz refuses to give back the watch. The boy is in continual despair, imagining his father’s wrath. He suggests that Schwarz and his father have the same character.
Then one night Schwarz and his wife, along with the boy, attend the final performance of the Italian troupe, with Di Grasso playing the shepherd “who is swung aloft by an incomprehensible power.” Schwarz’s wife, a fat and sentimental woman with “fish-like eyes,” is overwhelmed by Di Grasso’s great leap of love. She laments her own loveless life and berates her husband as they walk home from the theater with the boy trailing behind. The boy sobs openly, thinking of his father and the watch. Madam Schwarz hears the sobs and angrily forces her husband to return the watch, which he does, but not without giving the lad a vicious pinch.
The Schwarzes walk on, reach the corner, and disappear. The boy is left alone to experience ultimate happiness; he sees the world at night “frozen in silence and ineffably beautiful.”
At an elementary level of meaning, this story reveals the hidden relationships that may exist between apparently unconnected things and events. The Italian play, with its fantastic Sicilian actor, acts powerfully on the unloved wife of the swindler Nick Schwarz—and the boy and his watch are saved.
The story becomes more interesting when the reader sees that it is precisely the power of art that is significant, rather than merely “a play.” Finally, it is not art in general that is at issue but art of great passion. Here, bad art is “transformed” by a passionate actor. Commenting on Di Grasso’s acting, the narrator insists that the Sicilian, “with every word and gesture,” confirms that there is “more justice in outbursts of noble passion than in all the joyless rules that run the world.”
Such an explicit statement, not all that common in Babel, must be taken seriously. One wonders if “joyless rules” might refer to the Soviet Union of the bleak 1930’s, and if Nick Schwarz, with his handlebar mustaches, is not intended to be seen as a pitiless Stalin figure. In any case, however, such political overtones are not the central focus of the work.
Passion in life, as in art, is a recurring motif in Babel’s writings. Often it is accompanied by violence, as in the present work—which depicts not only the murderous leap of Di Grasso but also the descent of the curtain “full of menace” and the “vicious pinch” exacted by Schwarz. If life is lived fully and passionately, some violence is inevitable.
As art influences or works itself into life (here moving Schwarz’s wife to take pity on the boy), so may life be transformed into art. Thus the boy, dizzy with happiness, sees the ordinary world of the city transformed into ineffable beauty. Here reality, art, and transcendent beauty merge in a remarkable vision. The boy’s epiphany has the character of a future writer’s first glimpse of the world beyond everyday reality (or of the way reality really is if one looks at it right).