The Ghostly Voices of Shtetl Dwellers

potok, Chaim

BOOKS The Ghostly Voices of Shtetl Dwellers The Death of Methusaleh and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer Farrar Straus Giroux, 198a 244 pp, $17 95 Reviewed by Chaim Potok From the fertile...

...Man has no more freedom than a bedbug," he laments...
...Sabbath in Gehenna," a tour-de-force version of Hades, has a decidedly contemporary slant...
...It gets a turn, and then it spins on by itself until it drops...
...My theory is, nothing can be explained,'1'' says a bewildered Max Blendever to the young writer as they sit in a Warsaw cafe...
...We are neck deep in Singer's world—and what a zestful, anxiety-ridden, lecherous, sensual, hot-blooded and ultimately profoundly sobering world it is...
...man caught up in demonic forces both within and beyond himself, and trying somehow to come to terms with it all— that's Singer's universal territory as a writer...
...But humankind trying to live in a world that seems bent on wreaking havoc upon our dreams...
...Have a Torah inscribed that no one would read...
...Sentences are set down like building blocks, facts are bluntly presented, atmosphere is immediately established, characters are quickly described—all in a kind of Fauvist fashion, sharply, abruptly, bright color next to bright color...
...Here once again we have the voices of the vanished shtetl...
...no tortuous search for the mot juste...
...BOOKS The Ghostly Voices of Shtetl Dwellers The Death of Methusaleh and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer Farrar Straus Giroux, 198a 244 pp, $17 95 Reviewed by Chaim Potok From the fertile and febrile imagination of Isaac Bashevis Singer comes yet another collection of his short stories, twenty in number this time, a veritable cornucopia of tales—and this only three years after his previous collection...
...When man chooses virtue, he strengthens all the spheres...
...In "The Impresario," a strange man who calls himself a "devoted reader" suddenly appears at the aged writer's door and tells a bizarre tale about his passion for a Polish singer named Manya who "sang lascivious songs in a Yiddish theater to which Galician refugees came...
...no italicized ramblings...
...I liked much better Thomas Mann's Budden-brooks and Romain Rolland's Colas Breugnon, works full of the zest for life...
...Danziger...
...The Jew from Babylon," about a miracle worker who succumbs to the dark forces he often calls upon for aid, is vintage Singer...
...You couldn't even give money to charity these days...
...the story is a sort of Singer version of Browning's "My Last Duchess," simultaneously artful and poignant...
...Earlier he had contemplated the misery of his suddenly tiresome existence...
...They bored me...
...Stories are spun in a thousand-and-one-night fashion about a genius at chess and mathematics who is brought to ruin by his talent...
...the vanished Polish shtetl and its inhabitants, which Singer treats as if you could cross the ocean and pay it a visit...
...Many of the stories pulse with humor...
...No high mandarin style...
...He sees God at times as "a universal murderer, a cosmic Genghis Khan or Napoleon—eternal, infinite, omnipotent...
...A sin, on the other hand, evokes gloom in all the worlds...
...Singer finds only one: the gift of free will...
...For whatever purpose you gave, the money was eaten up by secretaries, fundraisers, and politicians...
...His most recent work is the novel Davita's Harp (Knopf, 1985...
...Man would manage somehow to crawl upon the surface of the earth, forward and backward, until God's covenant with him ended forever and man's name in the book of life was erased forever...
...On a smooth table, it'll spin longer," says the other...
...A single moment, a single glance—and lives are forever altered...
...There developed in Singer a profound resentment against both man and God...
...To the man who is trying to talk him into the hotel deal he says, "A man is like a Hanukkah dreidl...
...We are given a capsule history of the biblical events that follow—births, deaths, Noah and the Flood, the rainbow covenant—and these words, with which the book comes to an end: "It became clear to Him [i.e., God] that all punishment was in vain, since flesh and corruption were the same from the very beginning and always will remain the scum of creation, the very opposite of God's wisdom, mercy, and splendor...
...This is an admirable volume...
...In his autobiographical work, Love and Hate, Singer describes with warmth and irony the Polish Jewish world into which he was born...
...This is the unique world that Singer explores in his fiction—with a modernist's wit and irony and, at the same time, with a gentle sympathy that is never marred by the kitsch of sentimentality...
...There aren't any smooth tables," says Mr...
...The cause of his bewilderment, told in "Gifts," is his late wife's propensity for gift-giving to stranger and acquaintance alike...
...And yet, at other times, "It was even possible that one could phone Him directly with a request through the medium of prayer but with no guarantee whatsoever of an answer...
...about a merchant who burns down his business and a maid who knows nothing of keeping house...
...and the various New-World habitations and wanderings of older versions of .that writer...
...This is the stuff of the tales told through the ghostly voices of shtetl dwellers, a device frequently used by Singer to lend authenticity to his fictions...
...To this somewhat folksy dualism Singer ultimately added a fervent dedication to the act of writing and to his vision of the nature of literature...
...She is stolen from him by a notorious impresario...
...Chaim Potok is the author of many award-winning novels, among them The Chosen (Knopf, 1969) and The Promise (Knopf, 1969...
...Some degree of familiarity with the author's early life will help us to understand better the thrust and substance of many of these stories...
...man pushed and shoved by mysterious and uncontrollable passions...
...And the inexplicable change that sometimes comes upon a human being and transforms a person familiar to us into someone we no longer know—that's the subject of "Disguised," one of the most moving and intriguing tales in this collection, whose ending I will not give away...
...The stories in this new collection, paradigms of the Singer world, aren't so much a venture into new territories as they are a playful augmentation of territories previously explored and conquered by Singer...
...And the title story is one of Singer's most remarkable feats of writing...
...The range in these stories is wide, from sober tales like "The Gaze," in which a man tells of his inability to recover from the loss of a woman he once loved, to "The Missing Line," a hilarious story about the mysterious disappearance of a line of type from a newspaper article, and its bewildering appearance in another article in a competing newspaper...
...the bedeviling passions and general mayhem that befall a young writer in the Old World...
...In "The Hotel," Israel Danziger, a successful and energetic entrepreneur forced into a Florida retirement by ill health, considers buying into a hotel no matter what his wife and doctor might say...
...Singer employs no modernist chronological stops and starts or games with words and time...
...Old Methusaleh, on the verge of death, is hauled off by the female demon Naamah to a final orgiastic adventure in the land of darkness, after which he dies...
...he writes no lengthy interior monologues...
...The doctors had warned him . . . But what was he to do...
...Now in his 80s, Singer's wizardly way with the fictive word shows no signs of diminishment...
...The coolly rational explanation offered at the end of the story serves as a buoyant shock to our expectation that Singer would resolve the mystery by an appeal to the whimsical workings of busy demons...
...His is a story-telling gift consummately to be applauded...
...about old women who know how to exorcise malevolent spirits and old rabbis trying to fend off pagan superstitions...
...God had granted the sons of Adam an abundance of self-love, the precarious gift of reason, as well as the illusions of time and space, but no sense of purpose or justice...
...And, "Pleasure itself is a form of suffering...
...It was He who had provided the savage beasts with claws and fangs, it was He who made man a bloodthirsty creature ready to do violence at every step...
...God had His kingdom, and Satan, or Asmodeus, had his own...
...I was a child, but I had the same view of the world that I have today—one huge slaughterhouse, one enormous hell...
...The tenuousness of Jewish life in town and village—pervasive poverty, blatant and often violent anti-Semitism, sudden illness and death, a history of insecurity and slaughter beginning with the ten-year-long Ukrainian uprising against the Poles and Jews in the 17th century that destroyed about one-third of Polish Jewry and reduced its institutional life to near chaos—all of this helped spawn rich and rampant folk superstitions and an obsessive preoccupation with the forces of destruction unleashed upon man by seemingly invisible demonic creatures that lurked everywhere, waiting to bring misfortune upon helpless human beings...
...the Yiddish Writers' Club and the cafes inhabited by a young writer in pre-World War II Warsaw...
...Most of the volumes dealt with sacred and arcane matters, but among them were some that "devoted much space to the powers of evil—demons, devils, imps, hobgoblins, as well as to magic...
...A dour picture indeed, but one redeemed from lamentable, self-pitying gloom by Singer's ability to beguile the reader and spin out the tapestry of the story with inimitable grace and wit...
...the odd visitors who come to call upon the aging writer as he attempts to go about his business in the New World...
...Build a synagogue where no one comes to pray...
...Aged shtetl ladies while away languorous Sabbath afternoons by recounting old tales about the vagaries of humankind, demons and God...
...it reads as if it was written in a feverish, near hallucinatory state...
...Polish Jewry generated a vast array of commentaries on the classic literature of kabbalah, many of them often focused on a curious aspect of Jewish thought— a notion of the sitra achra, the Other Side, the dark kingdom of evil created by God for reasons unknown to humankind, the kingdom from which emanate the destructive forces that beset us all-in his autobiography, Singer tells us that his father, who was a judge in a Jewish court and a rabbi, had many kabbalistic works in his personal library, and though these works were off-limits to the young Singer, he would sneak them off the shelves...
...As for God: "I personally was fully prepared to crown Him with all kinds of possible attributes except benevolence and compassion...
...The sudden twists and turns that life unexpectedly takes is the subject of "A Peephole in the Gate," in which a young man witnesses the girl he is soon to marry passionately kissing her janitor...
...His way with words, his style—straightforward, clear, eschewing the rococo arabesques of some contemporary writers, a skilled journeyman's style—is his defense against the madness of the world...
...Concerning The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Jean Christopke by Romain Rolland, both of which he translated into Yiddish, Singer writes, "These were works for critics, not readers...
...His specific territory, the particular world that he mines, consists of unique elements drawn directly from the world he knows best...
...Give away money to a kibbutz and help the atheists live in free love...
...the threatening power of women and the disarray that love and sex bring into one's life...
...Are there then no redeeming features to this world...
...no convoluted probings into the depths of the human psyche...

Vol. 14 • January 1989 • No. 1


 
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