The vivid world of Isaac Bashevis Singer has always fascinated me. He creates characters and places, and a world which is its own. This story has the quality of a fable but not in a facile way. Singer tells the story of a man in the village taken to be a fool partly because he marries a woman who has had several partners and continues to deceive him. But at her death there is a kind of reconciliation and acceptance by him of what it means to be foolish to oneself and to the eyes of the world. I love the fact that Singer carried this story along with others, through his time in the US. These stories derive from the specificity of his background and yet they speak directly with their clearly rendered characters, sense of community, human weaknesses and foibles on display. There is a real humanity and breadth of understanding in his work. Sometimes, stories based on folk tales can feel contrived, but his never do. They are based in the physical reality of life in all its primal ways and instincts.
Collected in Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories, FSG, 1957. Currently available in the Collected Stories, Penguin, 2020
Isaac Bashevis Singer writes intricate short stories, densely populated by languages (Yiddish, Polish, German and English), New York intellectuals, Holocaust survivors, demons, and ghosts. In ‘The Séance’, the aging Dr Kalisher, who has researched the system “according to which all things from the smallest grain of sand to the Godhead himself are Union” finds himself reduced to weekly spiritual séances, automatic paintings and vegetarian suppers with the “painted bulldog” Mrs. Kopitzky, who channels the spirit of Bhaghavar Krishna. Dr. Kalishner, who is suffering from a prostate complaint, and lives in a bug-ridden room, knows the séances are a joke. But ‘The Séance’ is a story about faith, what we need to believe in, and a particularly human, and hairy type of hope. Universal Rebirth.
From The Séance and Other Stories. First published in Yiddish in 1964. First English publication 1968, FSG/Penguin
Even though he left Poland for the US in 1935, the close-knit, myth-haunted life of the Jewish shtetl fired Singer’s imagination for the rest of his career. As did the Yiddish language of his youth, with its inalienable cargo of memories, which he never abandoned. ‘Gimpel the Fool’ – its fame, and Singer’s, accelerated by Saul Bellow’s translation – tells of a pitiable village shlemiel. The cuckold baker Gimpel serves as an archetype of hapless gullibility as his adored wife bears children to one lover after another. Yet the fool becomes a saint as well. Singer grants him transcendence as he looks forward to reward in another life, “without complication, without ridicule, without deception”.
First published 1957; in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2011