- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 23, 2004


By Isaac Bashevis Singer

Library of America. 3

Volumes. $35 each:

Gimpel the Fool to The Letter Writer. 789 pages.

A Friend of Kafka to Passions. 856 pages.

One Night in Brazil to The Death of Methuselah. 899 pages.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Album

Edited by Ilan Stavans

Library of America, tk, 128 pages, illus.


A devout young Jew finds his commitment to a spiritual life disturbed by the insistent tug of the flesh. A successful writer is distracted from practicing his hard-won art by the claims of people who profess their admiration andclamor to tell him their stories. Immigrant Americans learn that the Europe they left behind has followed them into their new lives. Emissaries from other worlds wreak both mischief and havoc on people who think they’re living in the here and now.

Of such dichotomy and conflict is the fiction of Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-91) made. And now its greatest glory — more than 200 short stories, originally written in Yiddish and published in such newspapers and journals as the Jewish Daily Forward, translated

into English by various hands (including its author’s own) — is made available in comprehensive form, in the Library of America’s formidable definitive edition.

Edited by Ilan Stavans and packed into three large volumes, the edition is the centerpiece of a program, conceived to honor Singer’s centennial year, of exhibits, public readings, and panel discussions, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“The Collected Stories” is accompanied by the simultaneous publication of “Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Album,” which contains a brief, generously illustrated biography and tributary essays from such later contemporaries as Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Francine Prose.

Singer, who was born in Poland and emigrated to the United States (where he spent the rest of his life) in 1935, has been a vibrant force in our fiction since 1953, when his signature story “Gimpel the Fool” was noticed by critic Irving Howe and subsequently published in Partisan Review in an Englishtranslation by Saul Bellow.

Countless translations followed — of his seemingly innumerable vigorous, plainspoken stories, and of the many novels (of which, however, several have not been translated), which are perhaps still somewhat underrated. These latter include his lavish family chronicles (“The Family Moskat,” “The Manor,” “The Estate”), stories drawn from Jewish tradition and history (“Satan in Goray,”

“The Magician of Lublin,” “The Slave”), and darker, more ironic portrayals of the immigrant experience (“Enemies, A Love Story,” “Shadows on the Hudson”).

But the stories on the whole — especially when Singer is at his matchless best — constitute a more significant achievement. Many of the greatest of them appear in the first of these three volumes, which assembles the contents of the three landmark collections “Gimpel the Fool” (1957), ” “The Spinoza of Market Street” (1961), and “Short Friday” (1964), and a fourth, “The Seance” (1968) that’s almost their equal.

Many of the classic early stories are suffused with a beguiling, dramatically arresting folklore-inflected supernaturalism. This emphasis, combined with Singer’s masterly style — forthright, swiftly paced deployments of brisk, lucid declarative sentences — produced a fiction made out of things arcane and venerable that seemed, at a time when literary minimalism was asserting itself, refreshingly new.

Imps and demons rear their heads in eerie delineations of a vain woman tempted into exclusive self-love (“The Mirror”), a faithful husband tricked into adulterous betrayal (“The Unseen”), a studious young woman whose intellectual preoccupations threaten to lead her astray from her faith (“A Crown of Feathers”), and a resourceful imp whose mischief making earns high praise from his master Satan (“From the Diary of One Not Born”).

Demonic possession is the theme of one of Singer’s most brilliantly developed and wrenching stories, “The Dead Fiddler.” And the Evil One appears himself — as narrator in the story of a doomed modern Sodom (“The Destruction of Kreshev”), and as the disguised antagonist who all but destroys a village diverted from its abiding religious faith (“The Gentleman from Cracow”).

The ultimate expression of faith victorious over temptation is of course the aforementioned “Gimpel the Fool,” in which a nave baker grows in spiritual strength while refusing, despite the evidence of his senses, to believe ill of his faithless wife. This is a very nearly ultimate expression of how mysterious “reality” is, and of the revivifying power of simple goodness.

Thematically similar stories not much inferior to “Gimpel” feature an elderly woman who stubbornly embodies the revered ideals of piety and charity (“Guests on a Winter Night”), a Job-like rabbi whose temporary apostasy is redeemed by a life-affirming deathbed epiphany (“Joy”), a devout couple who reap the benefits of their tireless responsibility and fidelity both in this world and in the next (“Short Friday”), and a skeptical physician who is purified through sacrifice and dedication to others (the magnificent “A Wedding in Brownsville”).

And there’s so much more. The pain of displacement from one’s culture and traditions wounds a young writer with a deeply conflicted respect for the older author who mentors him (“A Friend of Kafka”), another writer who’s convinced that his traditional stories will find no American readers (“A Day in Coney Island”), and, in one of Singer’s most openly autobiographical stories, an eminent writer’s awkward reunion with the son he had left behind in Poland and has not seen for 20 years.

Diaspora and Holocaust loom memorably in the allegorical story of a family of cobblers who courageously survive two world wars (“The Little Shoemakers”), the tale of a patriarchal Abraham-like rabbi’s progress through suffering to survival through unlikely fatherhood (“The Old Man”), and — this reader’s choice as Singer’s finest story — the harrowing, paradoxically uplifting depiction of a reclusive Holocaust survivor recalled to life by a lonely elderly woman’s selfless love for him (“The Letter Writer”).

Singer worked numerous variations on this latter story’s core idea throughout his career — stunningly, in the tale of a dessicated scholar who forsakes his commitment to reason by irrationally falling into love (“The Spinoza of Market Street”) and that of a prudish doctor whose rejection of love destroys him (“The Shadow of a Crib”); less successfully in a succession of late stories about embittered retirees awaiting death in Miami Beach (such as “Alone,” “The Key,” and “Old Love”).

The stories Singer kept turning out in his seventies in fact frequently repeat themselves. There’s little in the contents of the later collections that’s of particular merit. “The Image,” “Burial at Sea,” “The Bus,” and “The Divorce” are well worth reading, as are two of the 13 uncollected stories: a surprisingly convincing love story (“Heshele and Hanele, or the Power of a Dream”) and a grimly ironic account of a betrayed husband’s enduring revenge (“The Painting”).

But every reader will want to choose his own favorites. All praise to the Library of America for providing this richly deserved homage to a writer whom we can be proud and grateful to honor as an American master.

Bruce Allen writes regularly about new and classic fiction for the Boston Globe, Kirkus Reviews, The Sewanee Review, and several other publications. He lives in Kittery, Maine.

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