- The Image, and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Cape, 310 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 224 02357 8
There is no doubt about the achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer. He is one of the foremost storytellers of our time. His output has been prolific and now, in his 82nd year, comes a collection of a further 22 stories. Gathered from twenty years of magazine publication, translated from the Yiddish sometimes by the author himself, sometimes by or in collaboration with others, they nonetheless have a consistency of tone. It would be hard indeed to speculate which come from the mid-Sixties, which from the mid-Eighties. The same personality runs through all of them, that same love of storytelling.
It is tempting to write ‘genial’ of the personality, but that would be to disregard the sometimes rebarbative note that reveals itself. Beneath the unpretentious, effortless-seeming surface of these stories is a firm, calculated attitude of mind. The ‘Author’s Note’ makes it clear that there is a combative, even embattled stance from which these so natural, so accessible stories issue.
In the years I have been writing I have heard many discouraging words about my themes and language. I was told that Jewishness and Yiddish were dying, the short story was out of vogue and about to disappear from the literary market. Some critics decided that the art of telling stories with a beginning, middle and end – as Aristotle demanded – was archaic, a primitive form of fiction. I heard similar degrading opinions about the value of folklore in the literature of our times. I was living in a civilisation which despised the old and worshipped the young. But somehow I never took these dire threats seriously. I belong to an old tribe and I knew that literature thrives best on ancient faith, timeless hopes, and illusions.
Singer has always stood out against the lures of Modernism. The strength of his stories is the strength gathered from a return to the living sources of storytelling – the storytelling that still goes on when people talk to each other. A frequent framing situation here is of someone meeting or phoning the writer and then launching into a narrative. ‘Advice’ opens: ‘In the years when I worked at a Yiddish newspaper in New York, giving advice, I heard many bizarre stories.’ Sometimes this is presented as something to be resisted. ‘I often receive telephone calls from readers who assure me that they have a true story that would shock me. Usually I get rid of such propositions with any kind of excuse.’ Though the point is never spelled out, it is clear that Singer, the Rabbi’s son who trained at the Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw but became a secular writer for the Yiddish press, is re-enacting the listening, advice-giving role of his father. Many of the stories come from episodes overheard when a child. ‘The Divorce’ begins:
Many divorce cases were handled in my father’s court. The court was nothing more than our living-room, where my father kept his religious books and the ark for the Torah scrolls. As the rabbi’s son, I never missed an opportunity to listen in on the petitioners who came for a divorce. Why should a man and a wife, often parents of children, suddenly decide to become strangers? I seldom got a satisfactory answer.
And then there are the stories of times long past that Aunt Yentl tells, stories that draw on the infinite resources of oral history and that merge into the world of the folk tale.
My Aunt Yentl and her cronies were talking about love, and Aunt Yentl was saying, ‘There is such a thing as love. There is. It even existed in former times. People think that it’s new. It is not true. Love is even mentioned in the Bible.’
For all the opening polemic against the Modernism which is without narrative, against that lack of beginning, middle and end, Singer’s conservatism is not a blind refusal. He is not in this a reactionary. The self-referential nature of Modernism, art aware of and concerned with its own processes, is not absent from his work. There are frequent stories about stories, stories about writers. The Warsaw Yiddish Writers’ club is a frequent setting or departure point in this as in earlier works. Indeed the themes revolve as much around the behaviour and contradictions of writers as around Jewishness. In reaction to that awful authorial confidence of the great 19th-century writers who proclaimed a knowledge of everything, a vast social comprehensiveness, these stories consistently attest their personal authenticity, the directly vouched-for. If not what happened to the narrator, they are what happened to people the narrator has known, or the stories told to the narrator by people he has met. In his memoir Love and Exile Singer stressed the importance of suspense.
I yearned for some of the suspense found in the works of Balzac, Victor Hugo, Tolstoi, Dostoevski, Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas and Strindberg. Yiddish and Hebrew literature both suffered from a lack of suspense. Everything in them centred around some yeshivah student who had gone astray, sought worldly knowledge, then suffered the consequences at the yeshivah or at his in-laws’. But I had already grasped that suspense was the essence of both life and art.