(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

As the novel begins, Yasha Mazur, a magician “religious and heretical, good and evil, false and sincere,” has just returned from a series of performances in the country; he has come home to spend the holidays with his wife, Esther. One evening while he is out walking, he has a vision of Emilia Chrabotzky, his mistress in Warsaw. The next morning, Pentecost, Yasha sleeps late, and when Esther returns from synagogue, he takes her to bed.

The holiday over, Yasha readies his horses and wagon and leaves for Warsaw. On the way, he stops outside Piask to pick up Magda Zbarski, his assistant and mistress. Because Yasha supports their family, Elzbieta Zbarski, Magda’s mother, obliges him to stay with them overnight. Passing through Piask the next day, Yasha visits Zeftel Lekach, another of his mistresses, who begs him to take her to Warsaw with him. A central idea of the book underlies Yasha’s numerous and complicated affairs: By seeing many women and being a different Yasha to each of them, he hopes to forestall the inevitable responsibilities that accompany a choice—but the complexities of his promiscuity become too great.

Once in Warsaw, he drops Magda off in the apartment he maintains there and visits Emilia. Significantly, although exuding confidence in himself and his skills everywhere else, Yasha loses confidence whenever he visits Emilia. During the visit, her daughter Halina enters, and Yasha begins to recognize increasing feelings...

(The entire section is 524 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

At his home in Lublin, Yasha Mazur, a magician, gets out of bed and eats the breakfast that his wife, Esther, prepared. Again, he assures her that he has never been unfaithful, even on long trips such as that from which he had just returned. However, while he sits in a tavern drinking beer and discussing women, his thoughts turn to the woman with whom he is presently in love, Emilia Chrabotzky, who wants him to convert to Catholicism, marry her, and move to Italy. Yasha cannot get Emilia out of his mind, but he is reluctant to leave his childless wife, who has made Yasha the center of her life. Moreover, though, unlike his wife, he is careless in religious matters, Yasha is hesitant about rejecting his faith and his people.

Again, Yasha sets off on his travels. Near Piask, he spends the night with the unattractive Magda; her mother, Elzbieta Zbarski, who treats Yasha like a son-in-law; and Magda’s unsavory brother, Bolek, who hates Yasha. The next day, Yasha goes to Piask to visit yet another mistress, Zeftel Lekach, whose husband had disappeared after his escape from prison. Yasha spends the evening with a gang of thieves, his longtime friends, who are awed by his skills, especially his ability to pick locks, and once again urge him to join them and make a fortune.

While Yasha and Magda are on their way to Warsaw, a storm breaks, and they take refuge in a prayer house. Yasha again worries about abandoning his religion. In Warsaw, however, he has to deal with a more urgent matter: his performance schedule. As usual, he learns that he will be working for very low wages. Perhaps, he thinks, Emilia is right in thinking that he should go abroad.

When he sees the beautiful Emilia, Yasha cannot resist agreeing to her terms. He says he will become a Catholic, marry her, and take her to Italy, along with her consumptive daughter Halina and her servant, Yadwiga. Privately, however, he wonders where he will find the money. At a play with Emilia, Yasha becomes so depressed that he considers repenting, but the impulse passes. When Emilia again refuses to allow him into her bed, he becomes even more despondent.

Back at his own apartment, Yasha enjoys being coddled by Magda. Just as he sits down to dinner, however, Zeftel turns up at his door. Although Magda is furious, Yasha leaves to accompany Zeftel to the house where she is staying, fearing that the white slaver who had taken her in would take advantage of her. When he gets...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)