It would be hard to be alive, and a lover of fiction, and not be acquainted with Issac Bashevis Singer's unique and narrow corner of the novel and the short story. A Nobel Prize winner, he is an American citizen who writes in Yiddish and is extraordinarily prolific.
The 18 stories in this newest collection are divided in subject-matter between his memories of Polish ghetto life, inextricably entwined with his fertile imagination, and stories in whi ch he, elderly Jewish novelist, appears as listener, recorder, and then teller of the tale. In this persona, he is now exploring American-Jewish life, proving how expandable is his talent. To my mind these more modern (in subject-matter) stories are the most interesting in the book.
Singer's staple subjects, in the 15 books preceding this one, have always reminded me of the paintings of Marc Citagall. His characters float above the ghetto landscape, simple, almost one-dimensional people. In "Elka and Meir," for example, Meir's wife is described in this way: "For one thing, Beilka didn't become pregnant. For another she spat blood. For a third, he [Meir] could never get used to her pronunciation . . . She lost her looks as well." In "The Boy Knows the Truth," we have all we need to know, for the purposes of the fable to come, about Rabbi Gabriel Klintower, and clearly, all there is to know: "Rabbi Gabriel had a sensual body. His blood boiled in his veins. In the middle of his prayers impure thoughts assailed him like locusts . . . The Rabbi bit his nails down to the quick. With his fists he beat his head. He tore at his sidelocks and called himself outcast, betrayer of God."
His characters are the stuff of fairy tales, fables, myths. They move rapidly through their lives, sketched into even more sketchy settings, but all of it, somehow, emerges remarkably graphic and vivid. They come to their deaths, or resolutions, quickly, in a few pages. The stories in which they are caught are parables of human behavior, flavored by the eccentricities, the strict intricacies, of orthodox Jewish law. Two men live together all their lives, as woman and man; an obsessed rabbi builds a cage in which to capture a dybbuk; an Hasidic boy falls in love with a woman without arms and legs: a man who think he is dying divorces his beloved wife in order to free her to marry after his death, only to be cured and find he cannot marry her again because she is a divorced woman.
Singer is not a religious man but instead a writer suffused with a deep love for his people. From him we learn that human love takes curious, perverse and unexpected turns and forms, that the traditional community of love and law, of family and people, in which the Jew has lived, gave sustenance and meaning to his survival. And incidentally we discover what superb use the talented son of such ghetto life has been able to make of his special information.
Then there are the modern stories: one about the life of a despairing rich old man in Miami Beach, another about an elderly Jewish professor living in Florida who visits his old home, New York, and loses his manuscript, his bankbook and his orientation, in the icy city streets: a number of stories about the novelist-as-narrator and traveler to Tel Aviv and Spain, on trains and buses, and in foreign hotels and cities. In these tales the well-known Yiddish writer is recognized. ("He is devoted reader of yours," the narrator is told again and again) and so becomes the recipient of the stories of despairing and unfulfilled lives, a lonely, odd, lost, isolated and loveless aging people. Some are told to him by persons he knew many years ago in Warsaw; others are the histories of survivors of "the camps" now living is Israel, in Europe in the United States. Lacking the exotic detail of the ghetto stories. They nonetheless move us with "the love for the old and the middle-aged" which Singer tells us in his prefatory note is a recurring theme for him in his recent fiction. It is not often happy: the middle-aged traveler in "The Bus" realizes that "Every encounter between a man and a woman leads to sin, disappointment, humiliation."
And in the same story, a Swiss banker asks the Jewish novelist: "Are there interesting writers in Yiddish or Hebrew?" He replies: "Interesting writers are rare among all people." Rare, yes, but not impossible to find. Issac Bashevis Singer is one.