A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories
“I heard a great deal,” Gimpel says in I. B. Singer’s story “Gimpel the Fool,”
I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more 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 next year. What difference can it make?
Gimpel has come to the end of a deceived, credulous, cuckolded life, and Singer, one hopes, is still some way from the end of a wry, attentive, unsurprised writing career. Yet Gimpel’s understanding seems clearly to anticipate Singer’s own: “No matter how unusual an event may seem, my astonishment never lasts more than an instant”; “I remembered Spinoza’s saying that there are no falsehoods, there are only distorted truths.” Singer himself is not necessarily speaking in these sentences from his new collection of twenty-four stories. The speaker is a first-person narrator who has merely borrowed Singer’s profession, reputation, memory, and jokes. But I’m not sure that such critical caginess is really called for here. If there are no lies, Singer’s narrator is Singer. In metaphor at least, Singer is this patient, lively, hapless collector of old tales and legends, this quiet fellow in the corner of the cafeteria, regularly nailed by ancient, landlocked Jewish mariners, anxious to unload the story of their troubled days.
Singer makes discreet fun of himself in these pages, keeps suggesting he is chiefly famous for a quaint fiction of dybbuks and demons. It is true that there are dybbuks and demons aplenty in Singer’s fiction, many of them with speaking roles as narrators, and it is true that Singer affects to believe in them all, to be engaged, in his own manner, in “psychical research.” But his practice is to incorporate the supernatural, rather than to insist on it or to exploit it.
The characteristic note is struck as early as Satan in Goray, a novel first published in Yiddish in 1935, the year Singer came to America. Cabalists are said to extract wine from walls, to heal the sick, to revive the dead. An unlettered girl is suddenly able to speak Targum Aramaic; the pages of her book, when she reads, turn of their own accord; objects fly to her fingers when she summons them. Singer records all this with an entire and admirable lack of disbelief, but makes perfectly clear that such goings-on bode no good. Singer’s unholy creatures are not mere miscellaneous ghosts and ghouls but the authorized agents of evil: Lilith, Sammael, Ketev Mriri, prince of the Devils; Satan himself and his executives.
The point is not whether such figures exist or not, whether they are to be taken metaphorically or not. The point is the moral condition which invites such superstitions, metaphors, or plain realities into our minds and our lives. In this century, Singer …