Isaac Bashevis Singer relished the short story; he believed that it offered, much more than the novel, the possibility of perfection. His stories, however, seldom reveal signs of a painstaking artisan conscious of form; rather, they flow naturally, even mindlessly, without any sense of manipulation. Indeed, Singer’s art grows out of a thriving tradition of oral storytelling that had been fermenting through Eastern Europe for centuries.
Like many authors, Singer writes about the places and lives he knows. He sets most of his stories in pre-World War II Poland, in the small villages (Shtetlach) or the urban ghettoes of his childhood and youth. In his stories, these places are the Polish cities of Warsaw and Kraków, or semifictional towns such as Goray and Frampol; they appear over and over again with recurring motifs and character types, until most of Singer’s tales seem to happen in the same prototypical settings.
Given the specificity of Singer’s cultural milieu, the individual’s relationship to his or her community becomes important, whether that relationship focuses on the collective attitude toward unusual characters and behavior or the individual’s dislocation from family, community, and nation. Singer spent most of his life with such dislocation; it is not surprising that many of his characters are in some sort of exile. That exile can involve a new country, a new language, a new culture, or a new identity. Later in his career, Singer set stories among the expatriate Yiddish communities of New York or Israel and dealt explicitly with issues faced by an aging writer in exile.
As de facto chronicler of twentieth century Jewish experience, Singer chooses to leave untouched its central event: the Holocaust and the slaughter of six million European Jews under Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Believing that a simple storyteller could never tell such an incomprehensible and horrific story, he rather evokes it through the richness with which he portrays the culture that it eradicated and the scattered pathos that it left in its wake. Like the Jewish people as a whole, Singer’s characters struggle with identity in a changing world, they confront incomprehensible horrors and either surrender or survive. The individual in his community and his world is ultimately the individual in his universe, often alone with the supernatural powers that govern it.
Singer borrows from and embellishes on the wide array of Jewish mysticism and demonology to personify such powers and their involvement in the human condition. Sometimes the result is explicitly mythological; sometimes it explores the depths of possibility in very real circumstances. Whatever the form, Singer never hesitates to explore life and death, sin and redemption, good and evil, and heaven and hell in broad, literal terms. For him, imagination is paramount, and there are never any limits to what is possible. Much of the charm in his stories comes from the striking juxtaposition of the astoundingly cosmic with the laughably trivial, the apocalyptic with the quotidian, the macabre with the sentimental.
Nowhere is this approach more successful than in Singer’s treatment of human sexuality. He never takes for granted the difficulties that sex engenders or the social rules and taboos that it confronts; at the same time, however, he consistently attributes to it its role as a driving force, and a truly beautiful one, in human affairs. His characters—be they rabbis, devils, simpletons, maidens, or whores—are all of flesh and blood, and they act accordingly. Singer portrays violence, rape, and hatred as unflinchingly as he portrays the deepest romantic love or most spiritual piety, never with judgment or disapproval, always striving to plumb the depths of the human heart.
“Two Corpses Go Dancing”
One of Singer’s early stories shows the playfulness with which he treats death, demons, and infidelity. “Two Corpses Go Dancing,” first published in The Jewish Daily Forward in 1943, is told from the point of view of the so-called Evil One, a device Singer also employs in such stories as “The Destruction of Kreshev” and “The Unseen.” In “Two Corpses Go Dancing,” the Evil One amuses himself by reinvigorating the corpse of a forgotten pauper named Itche-Godl, who “had been a corpse even when alive.” Itche-Godl returns to his home, only to find his widow remarried to a more substantial man. His two appearances at her door inspire terror, but, believing himself to be alive, Itche-Godl cannot understand her behavior.
He soon encounters Finkle Rappaport, a widow who had gone to Vienna with a serious illness a year before and had long been believed dead but had recently reappeared in Warsaw. Finkle and Itche-Godl soon become betrothed; the couple’s mysterious romance and macabre appearance astonish those around them. After the wedding, they retire to their wedding chamber only to find themselves transformed into corpses again and to realize that their return to life was only an illusion.
In “Two Corpses Go Dancing,” Singer avoids all pretense of realism and rather depicts a surreal universe where no assumptions are valid. The physical and spiritual worlds are interwoven: Corpses are visible to the outside world but lack self-knowledge; they possess desire but are ultimately incapable of consummating it; they have superhuman powers but are essentially powerless.
“Taibele and Her Demon”
A story that similarly plays on the border between the real and spiritual realms but does not in the end sacrifice literal plausibility is “Taibele and Her Demon.” Taibele is an abandoned wife in the shtetl of Frampol. Forbidden to remarry until her husband is proven dead, she is sentenced to a life of solitude. The village prankster Alchonon one day overhears Taibele’s fascination with a story of a woman seduced by a demon, and he devises a scheme to take advantage of her credulity. One night he appears naked in her bedroom claiming to be the demon Hurmizah. He testifies that her husband is dead, charms her with tales of the demon world, and is welcomed into her bed. Though at first fearful and ashamed, Taibele gradually becomes dependent on Hurmizah’s biweekly visits.
Winter comes, however, and with it the inescapable truth of Alchonon’s humanity. His naked body cannot tolerate the cold during his nocturnal visits; he is taken ill and stops coming to see Taibele. She despairs at Hurmizah’s absence and takes it as a pronouncement on her. Then one day, she sees a modest funeral procession on the snowy village street. When she realizes that it is the idler Alchonon, whom she often mocked at the well, she feels a deep sympathy and accompanies him to the grave. She lives the rest of her life alone and carries her secret to the grave.
The power of this story lies in the irony of Taibele’s passion for the demon Hurmizah. Here, the surreal world exists only in the minds of the characters: So long as people believe in demons, their existence is real enough. Singer is suggesting the unseen and unknown connections that can be forged between individuals when the imagination is free. At the same time, the love that results is not without its price. For Alchonon, that price is untimely death; for Taibele, it is the burden of sin, mystery, and desertion.
“Gimpel the Fool”
One of Singer’s most celebrated stories, “Gimpel the Fool,” also locates the individual’s happiness in his or her power to believe. This, however, is a lighthearted tale where the willingness to let go of belief, to distrust one’s senses and logic, defines the shape...
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