Issac Bashevis Singer
Translated from the Yiddish by various translators
NY: Avon Books, 1970. (First published in 1953)
191 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2006

Straight out this is a superior book. Brilliant, funny, dark, sensitive to a culture no longer much alive, filled with sociological gems, marvelously constructed and told. Yep, I sort of liked it. This is a series of 10 short stories, all set in Poland at the turn of the 19th/20th century. The people of the stories live in smaller towns and villages in the Jewish pale and most are, if not Hasidic, quite close to it. Yet the author and narrator is either a person who has great acquaintance with the occult and darker side of Jewish theology, or even a dark spirit of the occult itself.

In most of the stories we find someone who takes his or her Judaism seriously and the culture which it has spawned, but who messes in some way with the esoteric, darker arts. This gets them into trouble, but also brings them to the edge of being more modern free thinkers. The outcomes of the people are often ambiguous. They may well suffer human set backs in terms of wealth, health and social standing, but seem to gain a great deal in independence and freedom. Their “eternal” lives are generally left in abeyance.

The narrator, often a simple person living in relatively remote villages is still learned. Spinoza figures in the title and Schopenhauer, Kant and Hume figure in other stories. The author clearly seems to expect his audience to be able to handle these references without difficulty.

One of the stories not only uses the occult but is clearly set in otherworldly views. This is Shiddah and Kuziba, two spirits who live in the depths of earth, in darkness and fear humans and the sun, obviously the ironic reversal of classic tales of the world of darkness and demons which humans widely fear. But the humans do come in Shiddah and Kuziba’s world, drilling down into the earth to disrupt the peace and safety of the mother and child.

The story “A Piece of Advice” seems a bit out of place. It is a rather pleasant sermon on the view that acts, not intentions or feelings are what matter in the moral life.

The stories generally embrace a notion of fate or destiny. In “In the Poor House” we read:

“Well, everything is destined. Everything is written for us above to the last breath. As my grandmother used to say: Nobody is mightier than the Almighty.
“Who writes it all, God?
“Not you.
“Where does He get so much paper?”

Always the irony and comic twist… it plays throughout most stories.

I was especially attracted to three features:

  1. The revealing of many common views and superstitions. One that I found very special was about evil in the world: The narrator of this story (and others) is Satan himself.
    I am the Primeval Snake, the Evil One, Satan. The cabala refers to me as Samuel and the Jews sometimes call me merely, “that one.”

    It is well-known that I love to arrange strange marriages, delighting in such mismatings as an old man with a young girl, an unattractive widow with a youth in his prime, a cripple with a great beauty, a cantor with a deaf woman, a mute with a braggart. Let me tell you about one such “interesting” union I contrived in Kreshev, which is a town on the river San, that enabled me to be properly abusive and gave me the opportunity to perform one of those little stunts that forces the forsaking of both this world and the next between the saying of a “yes” and a “no.”
  2. Singer uses “the evil one” and some sort of dark powerful fate to explain the preponderance of hardship in the world. While couched fully within the religious views of the conservative Polish Jews of this period, there is a more universal pessimism about the human condition. Nonetheless, despite the harsh pessimism, it is treated with a lightness and even humor. Sort of: “Well, this is the human condition, it isn’t very hopeful but we can at least acknowledge it and even laugh at it.”

    Throughout all the stories this subtle quiet laughing at the whole process is present, And while not exactly mocking, Singer is still making gentle fun at the seriousness with which the Jewish communities take their myths and theology.

    I was especially amused by the story “The Man Who Came Back” about some people who die, but yet come back to life.
    ”Oh, it’s forbidden, When the times comes for a man to die, he should die. Besides, one who has been called back is not like other men. He wanders about, as the saying goes, between worlds; he is here, and yet he isn’t here; he would be better off in a grave. Still, the man breathes and eats. He can even live with his wife. Only one thing, he casts no shadow. They say there was a man once in Lublin who had been called back. He sat all day in the prayer house and never said a word, for twelve years; he did not even recite the Psalms. When he died at last, all that was left of him was a sack of bones. He had been rotting all those years and his flesh had turned to dust. Not much was left to bury.”
  3. Finally there were the mind-boggling details of everyday life. Singer is writing about life in rural Poland around the end of the 19th century, yet it often sounds like Medieval times. I never doubted in the slightest the accuracy of his descriptions, but remained rather astonished at the low level of existence at which the people (barely) survived.

Along the way are various throw away lines that amuse and instruct:

The stories are funny, touching, instructive and deeply insightful to the human condition.

I recommend this book of stories to all.

Bob Corbett


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