The Collected Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Collected Stories

This was my first time reading anything by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer is a much celebrated writer, having among other things won a Nobel Prize for literature. He was very prolific and wrote in many forms, but what he wrote the most and what he is best known for is short stories. He wrote in Yiddish, and from what I understand he was far and away the most famous and most highly regarded such writer during the time that Yiddish was becoming a “dead” language (in the sense of one that no one speaks in ordinary life any more, like Latin).

There are 47 stories in The Collected Stories. The bulk of them are about the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe, are written vaguely in the style of fables or folklore, and often have supernatural elements. Some are more modern stories set in America, though these too typically have Jewish protagonists, often writers or people involved in the arts, like Singer.

So it feels like he’s writing from his own experience. He lived in Poland and western Russia before emigrating to the United States in his 30s. He knew what it was like to live in the Jewish community of a small town in that part of the world, and he knew the kind of legends and stories that people in such towns told. Then he hit it big as a writer and intellectual in America, and so he had that experience to draw on for his stories about that social and cultural milieu.

I’m not sure quite what to make of these stories. I have mixed reactions to them.

In some ways I enjoyed them and found them to be well-crafted. They nearly always held my interest. They have wit and intriguing characters, and Singer is an engaging storyteller. It’s certainly not a book I had to force myself to read.

Though I typically enjoyed the stories, few if any made a deep impression on me or struck me as the kind of stories I’d remember very long. Many of them ran together in my mind since they had so much in common—whimsical tales of simple Jewish folk in Eastern Europe roughly a century ago, beset by demons or ghosts of some kind. Each has its own little twists, but after a time the stories started feeling repetitious to me.

One of the main impressions I got from the stories is that they are written in a simple fable-like style, yet rarely did they have some clear moral or point to them, at least that I could discern. It feels like you’re reading stories that use humor and folk tale style supernatural interventions to teach a straightforward lesson, but that’s not what they are, at least as far as I can tell. I suspect they’re at least as ambiguous, subtle and morally complex as stories that don’t read like fables.

I just know I consistently got to the end of a story—where I’d been paying attention the whole way and felt like I was easily following what was going on—and I was at a loss as to what one was supposed to take from it. It’s as if the outcomes are random (though I’m sure at a deeper level they’re not). Characters might be selfish or selfless, be wise or simple-minded, be humble or proud, succumb to temptation or resist it, remain true to their Jewish faith or not, etc., and sometimes things go well for them and sometimes they come to grief.

One story I had some prior familiarity with was Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, since I had seen, and liked, the Barbra Streisand movie Yentl. I liked the story too, but compared to the movie, the story is dark and has supernatural elements. Plus the protagonist Yentl is far from the unambiguously sympathetic, good-natured heroine that the movie depicts.

I have read plenty of books in my life where my reaction was basically that I didn’t like them because I was too often lost and couldn’t even figure out what was going on (that describes the collection of Thomas Mann short stories I wrote about recently, for instance), but that’s not the case here. I mostly enjoyed this book and I rarely was confused just in terms of the surface-level plot—who was who, what was happening, etc.

However, The Collected Stories lost me in a different way. I “got” the stories in the superficial sense, but mostly did not “get” them in the sense of understanding what points, what lessons, what values the author was trying to convey. It’s the kind of book that I would have much preferred to read with other people, and then to have a discussion about each story after we completed it. I just know there’s far more here than I was able to appreciate.

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