The Short Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer

Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Eating Animals, once said that what he loves the most about Isaac Bashevis Singer, is the vulnerability and bravery of his writing. Moreover, Singer can be described as an honest author, and he is also a deeply humane and compassionate writer.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s writing career began in his native Poland, but in his early 30s, he left his home country and emigrated to America. Singer arrived in New York in 1935, and the shock of the move and life in exile were changes he never got over. He had lost his country, and if his audience had been small in Poland (Singer wrote in Yiddish), it was even smaller in New York. However, the old country proved to be a rich source of inspiration. For decades, Singer returned to the pre-World War II life of the Eastern European Jews. In this world, imps, dybbuks, and demons are as real as the baker next door is, and the devil himself is frequently the teller of the tale. In “Zeidlus the Pope,” the Evil One manages to lure a brilliant Jewish scholar away from his faith, claiming that if Zeidlus embraces Christianity, he may one day become the pope. The story ends in hell.

When Singer eventually, especially in the 1960s, began writing about life in America, the irrational element remained intact. However, in the new land, the imps, dybbuks, and demons were often replaced by neurotic behavior, delusional, love-driven deeds, and existential confusion. The supernatural aspect and the closeness to Singer’s spiritual roots never went away though. In “The Cafeteria,” corpses walk on Broadway, and in “Alone,” a nameless visitor to Miami Beach, mysteriously evicted from his hotel, drifts aimlessly and imagines that he’s in the midst of a Biblical disaster, “I was like Noah – but in an empty ark.”

Singer is a master storyteller. He never hides behind false originality (which, according to the author, “often reveal nothing but a writer’s boring and selfish personality”), and his writing is precise, transparent, and straightforward. At the same time, Singer combines the everyday experience with philosophical and theological depths, and even if his stories may be filled with human confusion and conflicts, the eternal mysteries are always present – Singer writes about them with grace and understated awe. As here, in “The Letter Writer:” “The night had ended like a dream and was followed by an obscure reality, self-absorbed, sunk in the perpetual mystery of being.”

Taken together, the components of Singer’s short stories give them the weight of great novels.

WCPL can offer the following short story collections by Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories, and Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories; find and reserve these in our catalog.

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