Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Singer wrote his stories in Yiddish and then watched over their translation into English. The Yiddish language is basically German, with many Hebrew words, as well as vocabulary picked up from Polish and Russian during its thousand-year history. It is therefore rich in diction and imagery that grew out of the Jews’ long existence in Eastern Europe.

“The Gentleman from Cracow” opens with an exposition of the legends surrounding Frampol’s history. The community house contains a parchment that chronicles Frampol’s story, but the first page is missing. It is not clear at first that the story that follows is recounted in the pages of the old history, but the conclusion reveals that “the story, signed by trustworthy witnesses, can be read in the parchment chronicle.” “The Gentleman from Cracow,” then, is cast in a very old narrative framework: the fictitious manuscript.

The story is notable for the wealth of supernatural imagery that it presents. Part 4 opens with a gorgeous pathetic fallacy in which the setting sun stares angrily at the doings in the marketplace. The order of the natural universe has been violated by the villagers’ wantonness. “Like rivers of burning sulphur, fiery clouds streamed across the heavens, assuming the shapes of elephants, lions, snakes, and monsters. They seemed to be waging a battle in the sky, devouring one another, spitting, breathing fire.” This poetic evocation of God’s wrath is followed by a vivid description of the behavior of the satiated humans and animals and of a weird glowing light that appears in the sky as an apparent omen.

Singer’s direct style is a graceful medium for depicting his world of folklore, superstition, and the commonplace village life of Eastern European Jews before World War II. He is the foremost expounder of a way of life that has for the most part passed away, but that he knows intimately and re-creates compulsively.