In this, his ninth collection of short stories, Isaac Bashevis Singer, perhaps the only living Yiddish writer to attract widespread critical and popular recognition, once again seduces readers into his fantastic realm of old-world Jewish mysticism. In the short author’s note that prefaces the book, Singer laments the fact that modern civilization despises the old and worships the new, for he asserts that he belongs to an “old tribe,” one which affirms that literature “thrives best on ancient faith, timeless hopes, and illusions.” If there is a unifying theme that connects these beautifully mysterious evocations of a primitive view of reality, it is the one that Singer himself asserts in these opening notes—that is, that God and Providence are at the very essence of literature and that what we call causality is “nothing but a mask on the face of destiny.” The stories are dominated by the basic paradox of man’s existence: that whereas he has free choice, he is “also being led by a mysterious hand.”
Nevertheless, although the underlying metaphysical structure of these stories seems to spring from Jewish folklore and medieval superstition, the actual physical events take place in the modern world. Thus, the magic of the stories is that they combine the irrational world of medieval mysticism with the rational world of modern man. Most of them emphasize the fact that they are stories; indeed, they are driven by an impulse that goes back to the beginnings of narrative itself—that something strange and unusual has happened, something which violates the expectations of everyday life.
The most-repeated structural device in the tales is the story-within-a-story. Someone comes to the narrator with a tale to tell; this primary narrator is a writer who works on a Yiddish newspaper and thus hears many bizzare stories from readers who come to him, or else he is a member of the Yiddish Writers’ Club in Warsaw and thus hears stories from other writers. In many cases, the narrator is closely identified with Singer himself. The introduction to the inner “told-story” in “The Bond” is typical: “Such a thing is only possible in life, not fiction. It is just too ridiculous to be believed.” The writer-narrator takes pleasure, he says, in hearing the many strange stories his readers come to tell him, stories that they often assure him will be shocking and that depict such things that the heart does not trust to the mouth. In addition to these means of receiving stories, the other primary devices Singer uses here are the introduction of an old woman storyteller named Yentl and the establishing of a folktale tone to recount allegorical or moralistic stories of the distant past.
The primary emotional theme of the stories is obsession, just as the primary metaphysical theme is the mystery of destiny out of man’s control. The obsession theme is best expressed by Aunt Yentl, who says, “You get something in your head and you cannot drive it away. It keeps on boring day and night like the gnat in the brain of the cursed Titus.” As is typical of Singer’s previous stories, the obsession is often a sexual one in which, to cite the confession of Morris Pintchover in “Advice,” love is a sickness. In this typical tale of obsession, Pintchover relates how he permitted his wife’s lover to live with him and his wife until she ran away with the man. In keeping with the metaphysical theme of occult destiny, Pintchover wonders if this decision was based on free choice or whether, as Benedict de Spinoza says, all is determined. A year or so later, Pintchover is living with the widow of the man for whom his wife left him, because she is the only one left who has witnessed his great love for his wife.
A similar “sickness of love” story is “One Day of Happiness,” in which the unattractive virgin Fela writes a letter to a famous poet-general confessing that he is her hero, the ruler of her soul. When she receives a telegram from him inviting her to visit, she steals her mother’s gold chain to buy new clothes, high heels, and a corset. After she arrives at the poet’s apartment, he rapes her and calls her a Jewish whore. Bleeding heavily, she drags her way home and slashes her wrists. In the midst of her family’s terrified discovery of her attempted suicide, a young man (whom she takes to be the Angel of Death) comes to the door; it is, however, a messenger bringing flowers from the poet-general.
In “The Bond,” a writer tells of a woman whose insanely jealous love for him was an obsession. On the way to give a lecture, he slaps her in view of a woman who is obviously furious about it. When this second woman discovers that the man who slapped the woman on the train is the respected writer whose lecture she is to introduce, she becomes hysterical. As a result, he feels forced to slap her also. Later, at the lecture, both his lover and the second woman cheer and applaud his presentation; the second woman thereafter keeps in contact with him. He suggests that the slap created a...
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