Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories”

This is the first of three volumes of Singer’s collected tales entiled Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories: Gimpel the Fool to the Letter Writer.  Altogether, these three volumes reprint 184 stories organized by the original 12 collections of his work published in English.  I will try for one of these collections a day.

The stories in this 1957 collection (they were all written in Yiddish earlier-I will give the publication dates of the translated collections) are all set in Polish Jewish communities around the time that Singer lived in his home country of Poland, before 1935.  These communities are religious, often isolated, and bound by tradition.  Customs, beliefs, the pressure of finding wives for sons, paying dowries, inheritance, child-birth, death, and kaddish set the tempo for life.  These are not idyllic communities.  Conflicts between brothers and neighbors complicate the cycles of life-negotiating divorce and settling inheritance conflicts.  Rabbis intervene in the problems of daily life, suggesting a strong religious component.  The state is distant from these communities as is the nearest Gentile villages.  The Russian Empire is a distant presence that exists only in the background.  These communities are always under the shadow of threat.  At times this is the “Austrian occupation” during the First World War.  In one stories, the German invasion of the Second World War is paramount.  For most stories the threat is not foreign empires but a host of malevolent entities, drawn from Jewish folklore.  Demons, re-animations of Lilith, and dybbuk exist on the margins of this world and at times consume it, always threaten it, and never fully leave.  Individuals can occasionally overcome them.  Indeed, choice plays a strong role.  All the victims of these demons make choices after being tempted.  In a few stories the primary narrator is one of these malevolent forces.  In this way, these stories are not unlike the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, where New England small towns are confronted with distant evils.

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Singer is now remembered as one of the great American writers of the 20th century.  He was one of the few to write in Yiddish and the only Noble Prize winner to write almost entirely in Yiddish.  Through translations Singer oversaw, he ensured his work had a broader audience.  This is my first encounter with him, but with this first short story collection I find that the settings are drawn from his memories of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

The first story in the collection “Gimpel the Fool” takes as its narrator a real believer, someone who repeatably finds himself humiliated by his neighbors.  Some of these humiliations are minor jokes.  Others are life-changing and when he marries a woman with a bastard son (who she calls her brother) and pays her a dowry.  Over the course of their marriage, she has more children with other men.  Interestingly, the narrator is conscious that is he constantly being made a fool by his neighbors.  Gimpel is never able to save face while alive.  He victory comes in refusing to play the game of his tormenters.  When a demon comes to tempt him to urinate in the village’s bread, be refuses too.  He instead leaves the community and wanders the earth.  “I understood that there were really no lies.  Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night.  It happens to one if it doesn’t happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not this year.  What difference can it make?”  (18)  And his wife does appear in his dreams were she provides the comfort she did not in life.  He concludes: “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world.”

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This is a key that allows us to look at the other stories.  The malevolent forces are the Lacanian “Real,” while the village, its rabbis, religious rituals, and institutions are simply reality.  Mark Fisher defined “the Real” in Capitalist Realism.  “the Real is what any ‘reality’ much suppress; indeed, reality constitutes itself through just this repression.  The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality.” (Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 18)  In this sense, the debates over dowries, inheritances, competition for marriageable brides, close readings of religious and philosophical texts, rituals, and work – all the elements that populate these stories are the “reality” covering up this brutal, malevolent, dangerous, and destructive reality.  It is notable that this “Real” in Singer’s stories suggest moral failings.  Gimpel’s desire to revenge, for instance.  Other stories emphasize earthly desire, narcissism, and sex as the means by which the destructive “Real” enters the community.  (Note:  I just did a Google search and found a handful of academic essays that attempt a Lacanian reading of Singer.)

In “The Gentleman from Cracow”, the town of Frampol is plagued with a drought, only to be saved by a rich Jew.  He starts with famine relief, but later starts promoting a hedonist life.  His generosity peaks when he offers to marry one woman at a banquet.  He turns this into a mass coupling, where every man is paired randomly with one woman – the rich man providing the dowry for each couple.  He chooses (by lot) a local thief and whore as his bride.  At this point the banquet breaks out into a demonic orgy.  The “man” reveals himself as a demon, his bride as Lilith.  The town is only saved by the efforts of “old Rabbi Ozer.”  However, the fires that spread during the night burned all the children. The fearful realization for the reader is that it is not clear when the town’s receipt of charity turned into excessive sin.

In “The Wife Killer,” a rich man goes through three wives, earning the titular name.  He became a living demon, avoided by the town, living alone with his wealth.  He lives almost long enough to become legend and even outlives his money, which turned to dust.

“The Mirror” tells the story of a mirror demon whose job it is to seduce humans to enter the demonic realm, where he will be tormented.  Her sin is apparently narcissism as she is brought in through a mirror, in front of which she admires her naked body.  The mirror imp has been doing this for centuries.  “In the vale of shadow which is known as the world everything is subject to change.  But for us time stands still!  Adam remains naked, Eve lustful, still in the act of being seduced by the serpent.  Cain kills Abel, the flea lies with the elephant, the flood falls from heaven, the Jews knead clay in Egype, Job scratches at his sore-covered body. . . This fun has been going on for a thousand years, but the black gang does not weary of it.  Each devil does hit bit; each imp makes his pun.  They pull and tear and bite and pinch.” (66-67)

More earthy external threats are described in “The Little Shoemakers.”  Here the Austrians, the Germans, and even America pose a threat to a family of cobblers.  The alure of the U.S.A. breaks up the generations.  The family can only be restored by the patriarch facing this threat and also emigrating to America.

In “The Unseen”, another demon narrator details his crimes.  In this story he uses the sexuality of a maid Shifra Zirel to break up a marriage.

In almost all of these tales, the external forces are representatives of sin.  I have no doubt that Singer sees there forces as objectively evil.  But notice that they seem to target some of the very institutions that anarchists question: the family, inherited wealth, and religious law.  One way we can go at these stories is to side with the demons.  Often it is not hard to sympathize with the demon’s position.  We watch with gratification as Grimpel almost gets his revenge on the village by serving them break tainted with his urine.  The Gentleman from Cracow did provide an alternative to scarcity and deprivation.

But I have another 173 tales of Singer’s to read over the next two weeks and I chose not to rush myself.  These tales are new and endlessly pleasurable.

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3 responses to “Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories”

    • Thanks. I am glad you enjoyed it. I have two more Library of America volumes of Singer to work on, after I finish my current project on Philip K. Dick. I am glad a fan appreciates my idiosyncratic readings.

  1. Pingback: One Year Anniversary | Neither Kings nor Americans

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