Monday, June 27, 2011

The Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer

This is the review that started it all.
Date originally posted: April 29, 2010
Source of Book: Originally borrowed from the library. I eventually purchased a hardback set of I.B.S.'s stories.

This collection contains 47 short stories, about 1/3 of the total written.

I read this book because my wife Amanda was familiar with the author and collection, and checked it out from the library for me. As it turned out, I had read a couple of them before, probably during High School.

Singer was a Polish born Jew who wrote primarily in Yiddish, although he was fluent in several other languages. Many of these stories were translated into English by Singer himself.

Those who know my literary tastes will not be surprised that I am fascinated by the short story form. I feel that it forces the author to distil his thinking into a compact, efficient space; jettisoning the unnecessary, while focusing on the essential.

Singer shows influence from Maupassant, among others, both in the descriptive details, and the pessimistic outlook he brings to many of the stories.

The stories can be roughly assigned to four categories:

1. Naturalistic stories of Jewish life in Poland. These resemble Fiddler on the Roof in many ways, although the subject matter is grittier as a general rule.
2. Stories of the supernatural, as seen through the lens of the Kabbalah and other Jewish myths. Dybbuks, visions, and miracles are mixed with realistic details, somewhat in the style of Magical Realism.
3. Stories of Jewish life in the United States. I couldn’t help but think that this is how O Henry would have written if he were a cantankerous old Jewish man. The hustle and bustle of the city, the tenements, the poverty. It is all there. Now add apartments piled to the ceiling with books and papers, a general dislike for contact with the outside world, an isolation (by language and culture) from greater society leading to an ever shrinking community of old men who speak Yiddish and discuss the Talmud.
4. “Autobiographical” stories. These are written from a first person perspective, using pseudonyms for the secondary characters. It is impossible to tell whether these are really true to Singer’s life, or merely told from the perspective of someone like him. In any case, these are fascinating studies of love lost, or perhaps never really found. It is never stated when exactly these were written, but the perspective is that of an old man, who has lost much of his potency, desire, which has been replaced by indecision and occasionally even apathy.

As a general rule, Singer does an excellent job of drawing you into the world of his stories, making you care about his characters, even when they seem of a different world. He resists the temptation to get preachy (although his characters sometimes do preach), and allows the reader either to draw his own conclusions, or wonder if there is a real solution at all.
He also writes well in all four of the categories above. The differences between stories are so great that you could easily assume that they were written by different authors. Yet each one draws you in.

I also appreciated that there were very few weak stories in this collection, and very little repeating of scenarios or plot devices. The collection was well selected and arranged so that you did not feel that you were getting bogged down.

I would recommend this book for those who enjoy short stories, realistic (and yet often fantastic) characters, and those who are looking for something a bit off the beaten path.

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