First published in 1973 in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of short stories, A Crown of Feathers, “Lost” develops a mysterious tale of demonic possession, one in which the rational conflicts with the irrational and the immutable laws of nature seem to crumble before unknown and unknowable supernatural forces. The story is characteristic of Singer’s body of work, taking the reader into the religious and cultural heritage of European Jews. His fiction, however, surpasses ethnic distinctions as it explores profound questions about truth and the nature of reality itself.
In his New York Times book review of A Crown of Feathers, critic Alfred Kazin observed two major influences that informed Singer’s writing and created its remarkable literary complexity: the author’s Jewish heritage and his secular education. Kazin described Singer as “a rarity among Jewish novelists,” one who was “necessarily secularized” but who had been steeped in “the mystical Jewish theology” of his father, grandfathers, and uncles—rabbis all. According to Kazin, “The world to Isaac Bashevis Singer still represents the mind of God,” and his characters merely “pass through” as “part of a mysterious creation.” Their “notable temporariness,” Kazin asserts, “may express their flight through the mind of God.”
The ideas of a mystical world hidden beneath the appearance of reality, and the temporary nature of human lives as they pass through it, lie at the heart of “Lost.” The story is a frame tale, and its structure is unusual in that Singer himself narrates the short story as if its fantastic events had been told to him by an elderly Jewish immigrant, Sam Opal, who unexpectedly appears in his office in New York City late one Friday afternoon. Singer as narrator and Sam Opal (born Shmuel Opalovsky in “the old country”) are the only characters in “Lost,” but the story Sam relates to Singer includes his wife, Anna, and their daughter, Natasha. Anna’s former fiancé, Vladimir Machtei, plays an important role in Sam’s story, although the old man had never met Vladimir, and his very existence becomes increasingly doubtful.
When Sam Opal, an elderly Russian Jew wearing a long black coat, appears in Singer’s office, he presents a striking figure with his stooped back, white goatee, and tired eyes. Singer mistakes him for a recent immigrant but soon learns that Sam, at eighty-three, has lived in America for more than sixty years. Sam is nearing the end of his life but is still haunted by certain events from the distant past and wants to share his story with Singer; he wants Singer to help explain the unexplainable. When the old man begins to speak of demons and hidden, mysterious powers, Singer is drawn into his tale.
As Shmuel Opalovsky, Opal had emigrated from Russia as a young man to avoid serving in the Czar’s army. On board the German ship that carried him to America, he met a beautiful, refined Jewish girl, Anna Davidovna Barzel. She was immigrating to America to meet her fiancé, Vladimir Machtei. Traveling alone, Anna made Sam’s acquaintance, and the two became shipboard friends. When Anna appeared late at breakfast one morning, Sam realized from her appearance and manner that “something terrible had happened to her.” He later found her leaning far over the ship’s rail and feared she was about to take her own life. Sam begged her to tell him what had happened and to let him help her.
In desperation, Anna told Sam that on her journey she carried all her money and a small notebook with Vladimir Machtei’s address in a small pouch worn around her neck. The evening before, she discovered the money and notebook were gone, and in the pouch she found only her ticket stub and other unimportant papers she always kept in a valise. Anna was positive her money and notebook had been in the pouch the previous morning, and she knew she had not replaced them with the worthless contents she found in their place. Hearing her story, Sam was reasonably skeptical; he suggested “lightly” that perhaps she had become involved with some young man on the ship who had stolen her belongings. Hurt and insulted, Anna refused to speak to Sam again during the voyage, and he avoided her.
Upon arriving in New York City, Sam saw Anna again while she was attempting unsuccessfully to leave the ship and enter the country. She had no money, her fiancé had not come to meet her, and she could not communicate with the customs agents because she did not speak English. Sam saw this as an opportunity to make amends, so he helped Anna clear customs. Once in the city, he provided her lodging at a hotel, and together they searched for her fiancé; however, no trace of Vladimir Machtei could be found. Sam believed for a while that Machtei had never existed, but the letters Anna had received from him and letters she subsequently received from his aunt in Russia convinced Sam that...
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