Sunday, February 26, 2012

Classics corner 139 / Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer / Review


No 126

Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer – review

These peculiar tales of life in eastern Europe showcase Isaac Bashevis Singer's genius for storytelling

Anthony Cummins
Sunday 26 February 2012 00.05 GMT

he Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991) filled his fiction with demons and imps rather than Zionists or antisemites: he felt writers could leave the real world to politicians and sociologists. Most of the four dozen or so tales in this book unfold in Jewish eastern Europe before Hitler and Stalin arrived. Among their protagonists are a cuckolded baker, a cross-dressing schoolgirl and Satan, a narrator several times over, whose dupes include a precocious scripture buff coaxed into Christianity. "If everything goes well," the devil wheedles, "they'll make you pope one day." The story ends in hell.

Singer, who won a Nobel prize in 1978, left Poland for New York before the second world war, and later pieces here draw more on Brooklyn literary life than old country folklore. While the supernatural element recedes, much peculiarity remains, and things get even funnier. A magazine asks a grumpy critic for an essay on Yiddish writers and, instead, receives one about horses, well past the deadline. The editor sees in his boss's eyes "something like the grief of a doctor when a patient comes to complain about a head cold and it turns out to be a malignant tumour".
Singer's gossipy, buttonholing style ("now listen to what happened") crackles with wit: one character learns early in life that "if one wanted to be a real Jew there was no time for anything else". Many of the best tales owe their appeal to inexplicable deeds. In "The Manuscript", a refugee crosses back into Nazi-held Warsaw to retrieve the draft novel her lover left behind. That alone would make a story, but when she returns only to find the author in bed with another woman, our shock leaves us entirely in sympathy with her impulsive response – and  in wonder at Singer's manipulative skill.

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