IN HIS STORY "A Day in Coney Island," Isaac Bashevis Singer writes: "Though the editor of a Yiddish paper published a sketch of mine from time to time in the Sunday edition, he told me frankly that no one gave a hoot about demons, dybbuks and imps of two hundred years ago." A few pages later, a friend remarks to the narrator: "I think myself that you have talent, but you choose themes no one cares about and nobody believes in. There are no demons. There is no God."
Like many of his stories this one is autobiographical, an ironic and self-mocking comment on Singer's work--and a reminder that he has always been faithful, ebulliently and courageously, to his old-fashioned, unfashionable situations and themes. As the four dozen stories in this quite essential collection make plain, Singer has gone his own way ever since he discovered, many decades ago, that he had been called to be a writer. The folk tales that were good enough for him in his native Poland are still good enough for him now that he is an American; he still writes in, and is translated from, the Yiddish that he learned as a boy; he still concentrates on the great themes that first came to him through folk stories, fairy tales and religious rituals. He is a resolute traditionalist who believes, as he writes in a prefatory note to this volume, that "literature can very well describe the absurd, but it should never become absurd itself."
Central to Singer's work are five words with which he ends one of his earlier stories: "One should always be joyous." Against all the brutal evidence to the contrary that history has provided, most especially the extermination of six million of Singer's fellow Jews, he celebrates the sheer joy of living, without embarrassment or self-consciousness. His stories are filled with wonder, gratitude, humor, irony and a wry eroticism that manages to exalt the pleasures of the flesh and the soul at the same time. Consider the 82- year-old widower Harry Bendiner, to whom "each day is a gift," when he meets Ethel Brokeles:
"Two hours went by, but he hardly noticed. Ethel Brokeles crossed her legs, and Harry cast glances at her round knees. She had switched to a Polish-accented Yiddish. She exuded the intimate air of a relative. Something within Harry exulted. It could be nothing else but that heaven had acceded to his secret desires. Only now, as he listened to her, did he realize how lonely he had been all these years, how oppressed by the fact that he seldom exchanged a word with anyone. Even having her for a neighbor was better than nothing. He grew youthful in her presence, and loquacious. He told her about his three wives, the tragedies that had befallen his children. He even mentioned that, following the death of his first wife, he had had a sweetheart."
Everywhere, Singer finds this "cosmic yearning," this desire for love, for physical and spiritual contact. As it does to Harry Bendiner, love often comes to Singer's people as an utter surprise, a completely unexpected gift that liberates them and awakens them to their place in the vast, mysterious scheme of things. As it comes to Dr. Fischelson, in "The Spinoza of Market Street," it is "a miracle," which Singer describes as follows:
"In the higher sphere, apparently, little notice was taken of the fact that a certain Dr. Fischelson had in his declining days married someone called Black Dobbe. Seen from above even the Great War was nothing but a temporary play of the modes. The myriads of fixed stars continued to travel their destined courses in unbounded space. The comets, planets, satellites, asteroids kept circling these shining centers. Worlds were born and died in cosmic upheavals. In the chaos of nebulae, primeval matter was being formed. Now and again a star tore loose, and swept across the sky, leaving behind it a fiery streak. It was the month of August when there are showers of meteors. Yes, the divine substance was extended and had neither beginning nor end; it was absolute, indivisible, eternal, without duration, infinite in its attributes. Its waves and bubbles danced in the universal cauldron, seething with change, following the unbroken chain of causes and effects, and he, Dr. Fischelson, with his unavoidable fate, was part of this. The doctor closed his eyelids and allowed the breeze to cool the sweat on his forehead and stir the hair of his beard. He breathed deeply of the midnight air, supported his shaky hands on the windowsill and murmured, 'Divine Spinoza, forgive me. I have become a fool.' "
He has exchanged the life of reason, that is, for the life of the heart. To be a fool, in the world of Isaac Singer, is to be blessed with innocence, love and trust. The title character in "Gimpel the Fool" says: ". . . I resolved that I would always believe what I was told. What's the good of not believing? Today it's your wife you don't believe; tomorrow it's God himself you won't take stock in." To maintain this belief takes great strength, for all around us are the "evil spirits," sent to tempt us "from the path of righteousness and to fill (our) spirit with melancholy," enticing us with the fatal snares of "lust, pride and avarice."
This view of the world is deeply rooted in folklore and religion. Singer, who believes that "the zeal for messages has made many writers forget that storytelling is the raison d'.etre of artistic prose," brings us stories from the old country told without adornment or embellishment. His narratives are as straightforward (yet thick with mystery) as those of the traditional fairy tale, often ending on a note than can be--and presumably is intended to be--construed as a moral: "When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived." Or: "It is a general rule that when the grain of truth cannot be found, men will swallow great helpings of falsehood. Truth itself is often concealed in such a way that the harder you look for it, the harder it is to find."
Singer's world is at once universal and minute. The settings of his stories vary widely, from Miami Beach to Brazil to Tel Aviv to New York and Coney Island. Yet invariably, over and again, they return to Poland, whether it be the hamlets of Frampol and Lashnik and Old-Stikov or the cities of Cracow and Lublin and Warsaw. Two people meet in New York or Miami, and in minutes they discover that they were born in Polish villages only miles apart, or that their fathers were schoolmates, or that they are cousins. In Singer's world, everything connects:
"Can there be a greater wonder, Herman thought. Here stands a mouse, a daughter of a mouse, a granddaughter of mice, a product of millions, billions of mice who once lived, suffered, reproduced, and are now gone forever, but have left an heir, apparently the last of her line. Here she stands, nourishing herself with food. What does she think about all day in her hole? She must think about something. She does have a mind, a nervous system. She is just as much a part of God's creation as the planets, the stars, the distant galaxies."
Every living being has dignity and value; nothing is small enough to escape the eye of God. Above all else in Singer's world there is "the immortality of the soul." To him everything that lives is precious, and is granted eternal life:
"He often sat all night writing, napping between letters. Occasionally he would take an old letter from the desk drawer and read it through a magnifying glass. Yes, the dead were still with us. They came to advise their relatives on business, debts, the healing of the sick; they comforted the discouraged, made suggestions concerning trips, jobs, love, marriage. Some left bouquets of flowers on bedspreads, and apported articles from distant places. Some revealed themselves only to intimate ones at the moment of death, others returned years after they had passed away. If this were all true, Herman thought, then his relatives, too, were surely living. He sat praying for them to appear to him. The spirit cannot be burned, gassed, hanged, shot. Six million souls must exist somewhere."
Certainly they do in these stories, the best of which have their own timelessness. The Collected Stories, like the life that Singer so exuberantly celebrates, are themselves a gift--one to be treasured for years to come.