THE IMAGE and Other Stories. By Isaac Bashevis Singer. Farrar Straus Giroux. 310 pp. $17.95.
"I HAVE an unbelievable story for you," a tiny old woman who might have stepped out of a Grimm fairy tale announces near the beginning of an Isaac Singer short story called "The Secret."
Nearly every one of the 22 tales in this wonderful new collection could start out in a similar way. The Image and Other Stories abounds in reports of virgins fearful they are about to give birth, drunkards whose corpses swell up like barrels, people whose blood turns to water and ghosts of every kind imaginable. Singer's characters have visions in which stars tear loose from their constellations and go blazing across the sky. Saints and dead family members appear out of the blue to counsel them. So does the dreaded Evil One with his formidable erudition and specious worldly arguments.
At the drop of a hat, men and women in Singer's stories pick up stakes and strike out on foot from Poland to the Holy Land. Yet they are just as apt to run off with hide dealers and writers and itinerant bear trainers, for they are as full of human failings as virtues. Many are obssessed by greed, by the compulsion to tell and retell their incredible tales, by love. Especially by love. "Literature is the story of love and fate," Singer says in his introduction. His stories bear him out.
In "The Secret," the ancient fairy-tale crone (she even has a small wrinkled face and gleaming black eyes) goes to the writer of an advice column in a Yiddish newspaper and tells him an amazing love story. As a young woman in Poland, she was married off to a much older man, a tailor. Soon afterward, she fell in love with her husband's 13-year-old apprentice. "This Motke was clever and had golden hands. He grasped everything quickly, and my husband praised him to heaven. What did he look like? He was dark with black eyes, clever, with a sense of humor like none other in the world . . . He was ready to sow his wild oats."
Inevitably, the apprentice and the neglected young bride seduce each other. She becomes pregnant and has a lovely and intelligent daughter. The apprentice drops out of sight only to reappear years later in America -- as the suitor of his own daughter. There is no good solution, Singer implies, when love and fate combine to produce such a dilemma. For once the columnist has no advice; and the old woman wryly admits that even God probably wouldn't know what to do in this case.
Where love is involved, there are rarely solutions to the problems of Singer's characters. In a story called "Strong as Death Is Love," a bereaved nobleman digs up the corpse of his beloved wife and sleeps with the skeleton. What to do with him? No one in Poland seems to know. "The Divorce" shows how a wise rabbi fails in his attempts to keep a mismatched couple from separating. In an extraordinarily powerful story with the ironical title "One Day of Happiness," an unattractive and impoverished Warsaw girl writes a love letter to a famous general and poet. Miraculously, he arranges an assignation, then rapes her with primitive savagery.
Not surprisingly in a collection of this length, some of the stories are markedly better than others. A few are little more than fascinating anecdotes. Several, including "One Day of Happiness," lose some of their impact by continuing beyond what I consider their artistic climax. And as a general rule, the stories set in Poland's past are stronger than those in contemporary America.
Three of the Polish stories seem to me to be as good as any in Singer's eight previous collections. In the title story, the image of a jilted and somewhat crazed woman's former lover persists in appearing in the bridal bed between her and her young husband. Once again, there seems to be no way to deal with such a dreadful manifestation of thwarted love and despair. The bride's life is ruined because of it.
"A Nest Egg for Paradise" relates the story of a devout Jewish husband, Reb Mendel, who is seduced by his sister-in-law. Grief-stricken because he believes he's lost his chance for bliss in a life to come, he consults a renowned scholar. To Reb Mendel's astonishment, the wise teacher congratulates him on his sin, brushes aside his confession without listening to it, and tells him he can now start living in the present.
"The Pocket Remembered" has a similar theme. An upright, pious man, Reb Amram, travels to Leipzig during fair time. No sooner does he arrive than the Evil One lures him out into the riotous festival. "Night fell. There was such a crush of people in the streets that Reb Amram could barely squeeze his way through. Music shrieked from taverns. The sounds of fiddles, trumpets, whistles could be heard as drummers drummed, hands clapped, feet stamped. The shouting of drunken males was mixed with salacious female laughter." In the heart of the city's tenderloin district, Reb Amram meets a rarity: a Jewish prostitute, a wily little woman with fiery red hair and green eyes. Just as he's about to succumb to her, his dead father admonishes him in a vision, and Reb Amram rushes blindly through the teeming streets into a dark, vast forest. To reveal what happens next would be a shame, except to say that "The Pocket Remembered" is as good a story as I've read in years.
What explains the remarkable ability of Isaac Bashevis Singer to continue turning out such astounding stories long after the age when most fiction writers go stale or settle comfortably down to compose their memoirs? I think the answer lies mainly in the fact that like that other Nobel-prize winner who dearly loved the marvelous, William Faulkner, Singer has stayed close to his roots throughout his career. His world is and always has been the world of shoemakers and tripe sellers and petty thieves in the bustling marketplaces and courtyards of eastern European cities; star-crossed lovers in tiny remote villages, with a pair of prying eyes and a wagging tongue at every keyhole; poor scholars and poets and refugees in smoky literary cafeterias from Warsaw to New York City.
It is a marvelous world, both literally and figuratively, with room for the devils, demons and dybbuks for which Singer is famous. But most of his stories are no more about dybbuks than Hamlet is a play about ghosts. What ultimately concerns this great storyteller is not so much the supernatural as the irreducible complexities of human nature.
"A dybbuk talks, screams, howls, wails, and therefore he can be exorcised," a Singer character says at the conclusion of "The Image." "Melancholy is silent, and therein lies its uncanny power."