Concision and Repetition in Babel's Collected Stories
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Concision and Repetition in Babel’s Collected Stories
With laconic power, Isaac Babel tells short stories that are at once cold and full of exultation. This effect arises as much from his prose style as from the wrenching content of his narratives.
In this paper, I will explore several techniques that compress his prose to the lapidary and one that is more expansive and cuts against his impulse to concision.
One of Babel’s most striking tools for reducing his text to essentials is the simile (and more rarely the metaphor), a tactic that allows him to juxtapose images that complicate the text in a short space. He also has a knack for rendering psychological states in terms so compressed that they seem irreducible; for instance, at the…show more content… In “The Journey,” with a few swift words, he paints a desolate landscape of dead horses in eschatological terms: “[Nevsky Prospect] was marked off by the carcasses of horses as by so many milestones. With their legs in the air the horses supported a sky that had fallen low.” Babel has lowered the sky to the hooves of the inverted horses, forcing the reader to crouch lower still.
§2 Psychological States
Babel frequently compresses his prose when rendering psychological states, lending them an urgency and power. Rather than linger on these moments to which he could devote much more page weight, he picks his words carefully, forcing the reader to slow and mull the emotions and thought which are given such emphasis by his lapidary style.
Sometimes Babel engages purely with the emotion. For instance, the narrator of “Guy de Maupassant” gives this account of his reaction to a book: “My heart was constricted. I was brushed by a foreboding of truth.” The constriction is not further elucidated, yet the moment is clearly a queer mix of exaltation and fear that emerges not just from the book he has read, but also from his thwarted sexual advance to Raisa and an implicit quickening of his writer’s impulse.
More often, though, Babel tackles emotion indirectly, giving us a character’s mental state through the diction and syntax of a description or an action. In “The Sun of Italy,” the narrator tells us: “The naked brilliance of the