‘In the Basement,’ a Short Story by Isaac Babel

‘In the Basement,’ a Short Story by Isaac Babel


A new English translation for Purim.

Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné, ‘Samovar,’ 1919FINE ART IMAGES/HERITAGE IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

In my boyhood, I was prone to lying. This resulted from reading. My imagination was always inflamed. I read during lessons, on breaks, on the way home, at night—under the table, disguising myself behind a drooping table cloth. Over the book, I missed out on all the affairs of this world. I didn’t ditch lessons and run off to the seaport, or observe the start of the billiards game in the coffee houses of Greek Street, or go swimming at Langeron beach. I had no companions. Who would care to associate with such a person? …

Once, in the hands of our top student, Mark Borgman, I saw a book about about Spinoza. He’d just finished reading it and couldn’t resist telling the boys who surrounded him about the Spanish Inquisition. It was all educated mumble, what he was saying. There was no poetry in Borgman’s words. I couldn’t help butting in. I told those who were willing to listen about old Amsterdam, dusk over the ghetto, and also about the philosophers—the polishers of diamonds. I added much to what I’d read in books; I just couldn’t do without embellishment. My imagination enhanced the dramatic scenes, rearranged the endings, tied the beginnings into knots of mystery. In my imagination, Spinoza’s death, his free, lonely death, appeared as a battle. The synedrion tried to coerce the dying Spinoza into repenting, but he didn’t give in. I also managed to weave Rubens into this fabrication. I imagined that Rubens stood at the head of Spinoza’s bed and executed his death mask.

Mouths agape, my classmates listened to this fantastical tale. I told it with a great deal of feeling. The bell rang, and we reluctantly scattered to our classrooms. At the next break, Borgman came up to me, threaded his arm through mine, and we started strolling together. Very soon we discovered lots to talk about. Borgman didn’t embody the vile variety of the top student. To his powerful brain, the scholastic wisdom of what we were taught was but chicken scratch in the margins of the real book. He thirstily sought after that book. Twelve-year-old halfwits, we knew already that Borgman was cut out for a life of learning, an extraordinary life. He actually never studied, but only listened to the lessons. This sober and reserved boy became attached to me because of my knack for transposing all things in the world, even things so simple that they just couldn’t be made up.

That year we had finished sixth grade. My grade sheet was piled up with C-minuses. With all my gibberish I was so strange that the teachers, after some reflection, couldn’t find it in themselves to give me Ds. At the start of the summer, Borgman invited me to his villa. His father was the director of the Russian Bank for Foreign Trade. He was one of the people who were making Odessa into a Marseille or a Naples. With his vintage of a classic Odessan merchant, he belonged to the set of skeptical and courteous bon vivants. Borgman’s father avoided the use of the Russian language; he employed the rough-hewn, choppy language of the sea captains from Liverpool. When in April the Italian opera came to town, a dinner for the troupe was held at the Borgmans’ apartment. The bloated banker—this last of the grand Odessan merchants—got himself embroiled in a little affair of the heart with a chesty prima donna. She carried back memories that didn’t burden her conscience and a collar necklace that was chosen with taste yet didn’t cost too much.

The old man was engaged as the Argentinian consul and the president of the stock exchange committee. And I was now invited to visit his home. My aunt—her name was Bobka—had made sure our entire courtyard heard about it. She dressed me up the best she could. I took the steam tram to the 16th station of the Big Fountain. The villa stood atop a small red cliff by the shore. On the cliff there was also a cultivated garden with fuchsia and manicured balls of eastern arborvitae.

I came from a penniless and senseless family. The atmosphere of the Borgman villa affected me deeply. In the alleys, concealed by verdure, wicker armchairs showed white. The dinner table was covered in with flowers, the windows adorned with green shutters. A wooden colonnade, spacious and not too tall, stood in front of the house.

In the evening, the bank director arrived. After dinner he placed a wicker armchair by the edge of the cliff, facing the seething plain of the sea, put up his legs clad in white trousers, lit a cigar, and started reading The Manchester Guardian. The guests, Odessan ladies, played poker on the veranda. A samovar with ebony handles puffed in the corner of the table.

Card sharks and gourmands, untidy fashion plates and secret adulteresses with perfumed lingerie and pear-shaped bodies, these women flopped their black fans and bet five-ruble gold coins. Pushing through the fence of wild grapes, the sun clung to them. Its fiery nimbus was immense. Copper reflections weighed down the women’s black hair. Sparks of the sunset pierced their diamonds—the diamonds that were nestled everywhere: in the clefts of their outpouring breasts, in their touched-up ears, in their blueish, distended matronly fingers.

The evening came. A bat rustled by. The sea, turning blacker, rolled over the red cliff. My 12-year-old heart puffed up from the joy and lightness of other people’s wealth. Holding hands, my friend and I sauntered in a distant alley. Borgman told me he was going to be an aviation engineer. It was rumored that his father was to be sent to London as the envoy of the Russian Bank for Foreign Trade, and Mark would get an education in England.

In our house, the house of Aunt Bobka, no one talked about such things. I had nothing with which to repay Mark for all that unending splendor. It was then I told him, that even though things were very different in our house, both my grandfather Levi-Yitzchok and my uncle had circled the whole world and experienced thousands of adventures. I described those adventures in order. The sense of the impossible instantly deserted me, and I led Uncle Wolf through the Russo-Turkish War—all the way to Alexandria, to Egypt …

The night straightened the backs of poplars; the stars leaned heavily on bending branches. I spoke as I flailed my arms. The fingers of the future aviation engineer fluttered in my hand. With difficulty he awakened from the hallucinations, and then he promised to visit me the following Sunday. Having secured this promise, I took the little steam tram back home to Bobka.

For the whole week that followed I had visions of myself as a bank director. I transacted millions with Singapore and Port Said. I acquired a yacht and traveled in it all by myself. On Saturday it was time to awaken. The following day little Borgman was coming over for a visit. None of what I had told him ever existed. And that which existed was so much more wondrous than what I had made up, but at the age of 12 I had no idea what to do with the truth in this world. To our neighbors and local street urchins, Grandfather Levi-Yitzchok, a rabbi who had been expelled from his shtetl because he had forged the signature of Count Branicki on IOUs, was a madman. And I couldn’t stand Uncle Simon-Wolf for his shenanigans chock-full of pointless fire, screaming, and abuse. Only with Bobka could I get along. Bobka was very proud that the son of a bank director was friendly with me. She regarded this acquaintance as the start of a career and baked a strudel with jam and a poppy seed cake for our guest. The whole heart of our tribe, a heart so good at powering through times of struggle, lived in those desserts. We put away Grandfather—torn top hat and rags on swollen feet—at the house of our neighbors the Apelchots, and I begged him not to show his face until the guest had already left. Things also worked out with Simon-Wolf. In the company of his horse-trading pals he went to drink tea at The Bear. In this tavern they guzzled down vodka with tea, and one could expect Simon-Wolf to stay there for a while. Here I must add that the family I come from was unlike other Jewish families. We had drunks in our lineage, and also those who seduced the daughters of generals and then abandoned them before having reached the state border, and our own grandfather forged signatures and composed blackmail commissioned by abandoned wives.

All my efforts went into deflecting Simon-Wolf for the entire day. I gave him three rubles I had saved. To spend three rubles … this takes some time, and so Simon-Wolf wouldn’t be back until late, and the son of the bank director would never know that the tale about my uncle’s kindness and prowess was full of lies. To be very honest, if I only thought with my heart, it was actually all true and not a lie, yet at the first glance at the dirty and loud Simon-Wolf, one just couldn’t figure out this incomprehensible truth.

On Sunday morning Bobka put on her brown satin dress. Her fat, benevolent breasts were hanging all over the place. She put on a headscarf with black incised flowers, of the sort they wear to synagogue on Atonement Day and Rosh Hashanah. Bobka set the table with the cakes, jam, and pretzels and started waiting. We lived in the basement. Borgman raised his eyebrows as he traipsed on the corridor’s hunchbacked floor. In the entryway, there was a wooden tub with water. As soon as Borgman came in, I bombarded him with a display of all sorts of curious objects. There was an alarm clock Grandfather had made by hand, down to its last little screw. Attached to the alarm clock was a lamp; when the alarm clock counted off the half hour or the hour, the lamp light came on. I also demonstrated a little vat with blacking. The formula for the blacking was Levi-Yitzchok’s invention, and he didn’t reveal it to anybody. Later Borgman and I read a few pages from Grandfather’s manuscript. He wrote in Jewish, on yellow square sheets each the size of a geographical map. The manuscript was called A Man Without a Head. Described in it were all of Levi-Yitzchok’s neighbors from the 70 years of his life—first in Skver and Belaya Tserkov, then in Odessa. Coffin makers, cantors, Jewish drunks, women who cooked for bris ceremonies and fraudsters who performed the ritual circumcision—all of them were among Levi-Yitzchok’s heroes. They were cantankerous folks, tongue-tied, with bulbous noses, pimples on the crowns of their heads, and slanted behinds.

As we were reading, Bobka made her appearance in the brown dress. Padded on all sides with her fat, benevolent breasts, she sailed in with a samovar on the tray. I introduced them. Bobka said: “Nice to meet you,” extended her perspiring, immobile fingers and clicked both her heels. Everything was going well, exceptionally well. The Apelchots weren’t releasing Grandfather. One by one, I hauled out his treasures: grammars of all sorts of languages and 66 volumes of the Talmud. The vat of blacking, the miraculous alarm clock, and the mountain of Talmud dazzled Mark; one couldn’t have seen all of these things in any other home.

Each of us drank two glasses of tea with the strudel, and Bobka, nodding her head, disappeared. Overcome by an elation of spirit, I struck a pose and began to recite the stanzas I loved more than anything in the world. Anthony, bowing before Caesar’s corpse, addresses the people of Rome:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.

Thus Anthony begins his game. I lost my breath and pressed my arms to my chest.

Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man …

Before my eyes—amid the smoke of the universe—hovered the face of Brutus. It became whiter than chalk. Brooding, the people of Rome charged at me. I raised my arm—Borgman’s pliant eyes followed it—my clenched fist trembled … I raised my arm and saw in the window that Uncle Simon-Wolf was traversing the courtyard in the company of the trader Lekach. They were dragging a coat hanger made of deer antlers and a redwood trunk chest with padlocks that looked like lion heads. Bobka also saw them through the window. Forgetting all about our guest, she flew into the room and grabbed me with her shaking hands.

“O dear heart, he bought furniture again …”

Borgman, dressed in his neat school uniform, jumped up in his chair and bowed to Bobka in bewilderment.

They were noisily opening the door. The roar of jackboots and the rumble of the trunk chest resounded through the corridor. The voices of Simon-Wolf and red-headed Lekach drowned out everything. Both of them were merrily under the influence.

“Bobka,” screamed Simon-Wolf. “Try to guess how much I paid for these antlers?”

He screamed like a giant trumpet, and yet there was fragility in his voice. Drunk though he was, Simon-Wolf knew how much we hated red-headed Lekach, who incited him to all sorts of purchases and deluged us with needless, purposeless furniture.

Bobka was silent. Lekach squeaked something to Simon-Wolf. To mute his snakelike hissing, I now screamed in the words of Anthony:

But yesterday the word of Caesar might
Have stood against the world; now lies he there.
And none so poor to do him reverence.
O masters, if I were disposed to stir
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,
I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,
Who, you all know, are honourable men …

At this point we heard a thud. That was Bobka who fell, knocked off her feet by her husband. She probably made some kind of a bitter comment about the deer antlers. The daily performance began. Simon-Wolf’s copper voice was plugging up all the crevices of the universe.

“All of you here pull glue out of me,” my uncle thundered. “You pull glue out of me to stuff your dog mouths shut … Work has beat the soul out of me. I have nothing to work with, I have no hands, I have no legs … You’ve put a stone around my neck, a stone hangs on my neck …”

Cursing me and Bobka with Jewish curses, he promised us that our eyes would leak out, that still inside the maternal womb our children would start to rot and decompose, that we would be racing to bury one another and they would drag us by the hair into a pauper’s grave.

Little Borgman got up from his seat. He was pale and kept turning around. He couldn’t comprehend the twists and turns of the Jewish blasphemies, nor was he acquainted with the mat of the Russian obscenities, which Simon-Wolf wasn’t too squeamish to use. The son of the bank director mashed his little peaked cap. He kept doubling in my eyes, and I ventured to scream louder than all the evil in the world. My near-death despair and the carried-out murder of Caesar have merged into one. I was dead, and I screamed. Wheezing ascended from the very bottom of my being:

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle: I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
’Twas on a summer’s evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii:
Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d;
And as he pluck’d his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow’d it,
As rushing out of doors …

Yet nothing in the world could drown out Simon-Wolf. Sitting on the floor, Bobka kept whimpering and blowing out her nose. Behind the partition, unperturbed, Lekach kept moving the chest trunk. At this point, my madcap grandfather decided to come to my rescue. He released himself from the Apelchots, crawled up to the window and started sawing on the violin, perhaps so the passersby wouldn’t be able to hear Simon-Wolf’s swearing. Turning his gaze to the window that was cut out at the ground level, Borgman retreated in horror. My poor grandfather’s blue ossified mouth made grimaces. He was clad in a bent-up top hat, a black cotton mantle with shell buttons, and ragged cuff-off boots on his elephant feet. His tobacco-stained beard hung in shreds, fluttering in the wind. Mark was making his escape. “That’s nothing,” he muttered, breaking free, “nothing at all…” His neat little uniform and peaked cap with a folded-up brim flashed across the courtyard.

My anxiety subsided after Mark’s departure. I was waiting for the evening to come. After Grandfather, having filled an entire square sheet with the Jewish hooklets (he described the Apelchots, with whom he had spent the entire day), stretched out on his cot and fell asleep, I emerged into the corridor. The floor was earthen. I moved in the darkness, barefoot, in a long and patched-up night shirt. Through the chinks in the boards, cobblestones flickered with pointy flares of light. As usual, a wooden tub of water stood in the corner. I lowered myself into it. The water cut me in half. I submerged my head, choked, popped up. From the shelf above, a cat looked at me with sleepy eyes. The second time I was able to stay longer; the water squelched around me, my moans disappearing into it. I opened my eyes, and at the bottom of the tub I saw the sail of my long night shirt and my legs pressed tight to one another. Again I ran out of strength and popped up. Beside the tub stood my grandfather in a robe. His only tooth vibrated.

“Grandson mine,” he articulated his words with contempt and clarity. “I’m going to take castor oil, so I would have something to bring to your grave …”

I screamed with abandon and threw myself into the water. Grandfather’s feeble hand pulled me out. It was then I cried for the first time since the start of the day, and the world of tears was so immense and beautiful that everything except the tears disappeared from my eyes.

I came to already in bed, wrapped in blankets. Grandfather paced the room and whistled. Fat Bobka warmed my hands on her chest.

“How he trembles, our little fool,” Bobka said. “And where does the child find the strength to tremble so? …”

Grandfather tugged on his beard, whistled and continued shuffling. Behind the wall, Simon-Wolf snored, exhaling up a torment. After fighting his fill during the day, he never woke up during the night.


Translated from the Russian by Maxim D. Shrayer.

Maxim D. Shrayer is an author and a professor at Boston College. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Of Politics and Pandemics. Shrayer’s new memoir, Immigrant Baggage, is forthcoming in April 2023. Follow him on Twitter @MaximDShrayer.

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