Review of The
Collected Stories Of Isaac Bashevis Singer
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/12/06
Isaac Bashevis Singer is not a good short story writer. Isaac Bashevis Singer is not a bad short story writer. Isaac Bashevis Singer is not a mediocre short story writer. He is all and none of these things because he is primarily not a short story writer, in the modern sense. Yes, a handful of his forty-seven tales in the Collected Stories are short stories, but most of them are really Polish and Jewish fables, and that entails a different reading approach than a short story. Fabular stories are void of real characterization and almost all realism, so you can stretch ideas like play dough and be more obscure.
The first tale in the book, and one of Singer’s best known, is Gimpel The Fool, about a cuckold who is content, in most ways, with his utter nihility, and whose life depends on his belief in his faithless wife, as if she were a symbol of God, himself. Read as a short story this has moments. But read as a fable it works much better. This is not to say that there are not schlemiels like Gimpel in real life, but much of the tale is filled with exaggeration, and many of the earliest tales are set in European villages that only heighten the Grimm Brothers like feel to the tales. Many end in real or de facto morals, that summarize the tale, hagiographize the main character and a Greek chorus feel pervades much of the work, as the speaker of the fable is also speaking to an anterior watcher other than the reader.
As the tales go on we get more and more tales that deal with America, the Holocaust, and New World concerns that clash with Old World values. And, like most fables, they succumb to a formula, and get fairly predictable, which limits their range of appeal, even if crisply written, which most are not. Singer can dote on detail, and there is an undeniable tinge of ethnicity to the tales that lends a hermeticism akin to much of what Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her shorter fiction. There is not much intellectual depth behind the many rubrics, but rather a strong core of primal emotion for religion, tribe, village or custom. In a sense, most Singer stories are the same stories with a different name or place attached to it, and therefore very few of the many stories really stand out in relief from each other. It is no wonder that he was so revered by the Joseph Campbells of the world. In a sense, he is also the antithesis of the Postmodern dreck of the David Foster Wallaces and Dave Eggerses of the world. Most of the stories end with a death, and the recollections of the living about that person we have briefly come to know. Here is the end of A Crown Of Feathers:
One thing remained a riddle. In her last hours Akhsa had ripped open the pillow that the rabbi’s wife had sent her. The woman who washed her body found bits of down between her fingers. How could a dying woman have the strength to do this? And what had she been searching for? No matter how much the townspeople pondered and how many explanations they tried to find, they never discovered the truth.
Because if there is such a thing as truth it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers.
The preceding part of the story is not needed, for this is an archetypal Singer end. Some may be as good, in terms of the actual phrasing of things, and others not, but the situation presented is used as a template over and again through the book, with tweaks here and there.
Only a few stories toward the end veer from the fable and archetypal endings described. The best of them, The Reencounter, combines the fabular elements with a New World sensibility. Dr. Max Greitzer attends the funeral of a lover he knew years ago. When he gets there, he encounters her and discovers that he has also died. Yet, he is not moved by that fact, nor the loss of things. As he gets farther away from his moment of death he is not serenaded by angels, and does not see a light in a distance. The end of the tale is one of the best in the book:
Max Greitzer took her astral arm and they began to rise without purpose, without a destination. As they might have done from an airplane, they looked down at the earth and saw cities, rivers, fields, lakes- everything but human beings.
‘Did you say something?’ Liza asked.
And Max Greitzer answered, ‘Of all my disenchantments, immortality is the greatest.’
Perhaps this collection is skewed toward the fabular, but I would have preferred seeing less fables and more real short stories. That’s because Singer’s fables are too tied to tribulation rather than the deeper experiences. In a sense, he can seem PC, even though he wrote decades before that plague. That said, his fables seem that way only on a surface level, because there is no reveling in the pain, as there is in PC writing, merely a recognition of it, usually as an unchanging condition, or punition for some perceived sin against the cosmos. Singer abjures the rationale behind PC with such statements as, ‘A good writer is basically a story-teller, not a scholar or a redeemer of mankind.’ I wonder, though, of his 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature, given at a time when recognition of the Holocaust, and the political influence of that lobby were at its zenith, being merely a token, as was the Nobel given to Singer’s poetic equivalent- Czeslaw Milosz. Singer unfortunately, is a writer with a foot on the dock of fables and the other on a modern short story boat leaving that dock. He can do well enough in either, but misses greatness in both- he is no Hans Christian Andersen, and he is definitely a writer that needs to be read piecemeal. Repetition breeds contempt, so a few stories, then a few days off, is the best prescription for dealing with this 610 page tome. His stories confront ideas directly, and subtlety is not a strength. Yet, on the flip side, these tales are thankfully devoid of the solipsistic stylizations of PoMo writing, and the cutesy self-consciousness of PC Elitists like Jhumpa Lahiri- there is no overindulgence in describing spices, as example. Yet, he does tend to go on too long with many of the machinations of the plot. Things that could be expressed in a phrase or sentence often get paragraphs that add nothing to the tale, for Singer is not a Walt Whitman of prose, whose ramblings that seemed to bloat a poem were often the meat disguised as fat. This is because I believe that the tales truly are meant to be read aloud, not on the page. There is a cadence to a Singer tale that is very oratory, not mnemonic. This also lessens the argument against the obvious- that most of his characters are caricatures, not drawn from real life. In a fable, and when read aloud, a character can get away with more because the audience hearing the story is more drawn to the high moments, than left to ponder the lows on the page.
Among other stories of varying note that are worth perusal are The Spinoza of Market Street, set in pre-war Warsaw; Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, which became Barbra Streisand’s camp film epic; The Destruction of Kreshev; The Manuscript, which chronicles the 1939 invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; A Tale Of Two Sisters; Three Encounters; The Letter Writer; and Moon And Madness. The collection is very hit and miss, but even the misses have a moment or two worth reading. In a sense, like Zora Neale Hurston, Singer is probably more valuable as a Polish and Jewish cultural artifact than an artist, per se, but he’s still valuable.
Here’s an example that proves that claim- Singer at his cultural and
sociological best, from The Spinoza Of Market Street:
When Dr. Fischelson tired of observing the sky, his glance dropped to Market Street below. He could see a long strip extending from Yanash’s market to Iron Street with the gas lamps lining it merged into a string of fiery dots. Smoke was issuing from the chimneys on the black, tin roofs; the bakers were heating their ovens, and here and there sparks mingled with the black smoke. The street never looked so noisy and crowded as on a summer evening. Thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, and fences loafed in the square which looked from above like a pretzel covered with poppy seeds. The young men laughed coarsely and the girls shrieked. A peddler with a keg of lemonade on his back pierced the general din with his intermittent cries. A watermelon vendor shouted in a savage voice, and the long knife which he used for cutting the fruit dripped with the blood-like juice. Now and again the street became even more agitated. Fire engines, their heavy wheels clanging, sped by; they were drawn by sturdy black horses which had to be tightly curbed to prevent them from running wild. Next came an ambulance, its siren screaming. Then some thugs had a fight among themselves and the police had to be called. A passer-by was robbed and ran about shouting for help. Some wagons loaded with firewood sought to get through into the courtyards where the bakeries were located but the horses could not lift the wheels over the steep curbs and the drivers berated the animals and lashed them with their whips. Sparks rose from the clanging hoofs. It was now long after seven, which was the prescribed closing time for stores, but actually business had only begun. Customers were led in stealthily through back doors. The Russian policemen on the street, having been paid off, noticed nothing of this. Merchants continued to hawk their wares, each seeking to out shout the others.
This is very plain prose, but it is not the cutesy sort that PC Elitists employ. The details really immerse you in a lost time and place. I give a guarded recommendation to this book, yet know my personal affection and understanding of many of the writer’s idiosyncrasies bias me toward it, for I know that there is a difference between liking something and its objective excellence, but while this book contains no really great short stories, there’s also probably no such thing as a really bad myth.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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