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 suggests, demons have been done out of their jobs because men have become demons themselves. From such a world it becomes possible to look back on the old, inhuman demons with something like nostalgia. The scene of their invasion was a clearer, firmer moral universe. They were infiltrators, they were exceptions, not the rule. Satan, after all, is God’s best proof. “If there is a Gehenna,” a character says in one of Singer’s earlier stories, “there is also a God.”
The reverse is true too, though. If there is a God there is a Gehenna; and if God can give signs Satan can give perfect forgeries of God’s signs. In the title story of the new collection, a beautiful, haughty, bewildered girl finds a crown of feathers in her pillow, “down and feathers entwined into a crown, with little ornaments and complex designs no worldly master could have duplicated. On the top of the crown was a tiny cross….” Satan’s work, an invitation to conversion. Later, after a broken and tortured life as a Christian and then as a repentant Jew, she begs for another sign, and finds another crown of feathers, this time with the four letters of God’s name braided into it.
Is this the real thing, or another, contradictory counterfeit? If it is the real thing, what does it mean? “The truth,” Satan has already told the girl, “is that there is no truth.” Is that the truth, or merely another satanic sophistry? The answer, Singer seems to imply, is that Christians and Jews should each stick with the truth they have. For if the belief that there are no lies leads to a rich and tolerant contemplation of human behavior, provides a sort of lightweight, shifting theology for writers and inquisitive agnostics, the belief that there is no truth leads to something altogether different: to chaos and despair.
Singer has always moved between the two beliefs. For Singer the writer there are no lies; for Singer the moralist, it cannot be that there is no truth. Again and again in his fiction Singer evokes the destruction of a community, the crumbling of a whole social edifice, because people, one way or another, have averted their faces from a truth they used to know. In the ruins of these structures, in the midst of these derelictions, a devout man prays, and however much Singer’s imaginative sympathies, as a writer, may go to rebellious, lapsed, and liberal Jews, the simple, stubborn question remains: if the sheep had not strayed from the safe, strict fold, how could they have perished? Or as a character in one of Singer’s new stories says, with a great deal less solemnity, “There is only one step from false teeth to a false brain.”
The question often comes out as ordinary, old-fashioned conservatism, sometimes parodied, sometimes not. But more often it comes out as a question. The fallen are not judged; paradise was a confined space anyway. Nevertheless the Fall has visibly taken place, the once single cloth of a unified social life has been torn into scattered strips. The demons themselves are a part of this old order, they were the intellectual equipment that went with being Jewish in those towns and villages in Singer’s Poland: Yanov, Shebrin, Turbin, Tishevitz, Krasnobród, Bilgoray, Kreshev, Lublin, Zamóć, Rejowiec. Poland itself in Singer’s writing is less a place than an elegy composed of names like those and their associations, the vanished home of a life no longer lived except in memory.
Singer’s unastonished interest in the modern world’s variety, in the profusion of its lies, saves him from simple nostalgia. His horror at its restlessness, its profound estrangement from the truth, drives him back into that grim, comic, dogged, bouncy Polish pastoral which accounts for so much of Yiddish literature. It is important, then, that more than half of Singer’s new stories leave stetl life behind and deal with émigrés. Singer is thus forced to find in isolated individuals what he formerly found in the re-created memories of small East European communities: an image of the ongoing Jewish enterprise, a mark of the indefatigable persistence of the past. At moments it seems as if he has found something of this in Israel. Israel in one story is said to have “resuscitated” an old and dilapidated cabalist who was fading away in New York. But then Israel turns out to have appeared to him in the person of a bearded, domineering wife who captured the scholar and took him off to Tel Aviv. The story ends with the old man back in his cafeteria on East Broadway, and then buried in Brooklyn—his return to America as inexplicable as his departure for Israel.
A character in another story describes Israel as haunted by prophets and ancient Biblical tribes, as teeming with saints and heroes. The narrator himself decides the sky there is “not just atmosphere but a heaven with angels, seraphim, God.” But all this in turn is merely illustrative accompaniment, sympathetic background music to a story about how the dead keep a hold on the living. Israel can help to sound the theme, that is; it is not itself the theme.
A painter dictates his memoirs from beyond the grave, continues to paint by means of the hands of a friend. An idealistic printer retains his noble illusions until he dies—and then bequeaths the same illusions to his daughter, brought up in another country. Old people, in story after story, passionately keep every scrap of their past, eagerly remember old wagers, old promises, old flames, old embarrassments. And in this context of desperate hoarding and preternatural continuity, the story of the woman who lost everything, including herself, becomes especially touching. She is the sad emblem of what all this is about.
All this perseverance is a partial perseverance—too many people died who might have persevered too. Jewish myths of survival are far older than Hitler, of course. “Jews build everything on their faith in survival,” a philosopher says in an earlier Singer story called “Caricature.” One of Singer’s very early works, published in 1933, tells of the trials and triumphs of a ninety-year-old grandfather who lives to be a hundred and has a new son of his own. A character in another story “had outlived everything: his wives, his enemies, his money, his property, his generation.” But these myths of survival now need to be asserted with a fresh, peculiar force, precisely because so many of the myths’ inheritors did not survive.
Some of the stories in this new book are very slight indeed, even perfunctory, but the volume as a whole shows a remarkable range of styles and tones, from farcical to macabre, through mocking and tender and earnest. Here are brief shots of New York and Israel:
The short day neared its end. The desolate park became a cemetery. The buildings on Central Park South towered like headstones. The sun was setting on Riverside Drive, and the water of the reservoir reflected a burning wick. The radiator near which I sat hissed and hummed: “Dust, dust, dust.”
In the paper before me I read about thefts, car accidents, border shootings. One page was full of obituaries. No, the Messiah hadn’t come yet. The Resurrection was not in sight. Orthopedic shoes were displayed in a shop across the way.
Singer understands as few writers understand the distances that can separate men from men, men from women, children from parents, children from grandparents. Distances: not quarrels or bitterness or fixations, but moral and cultural space. A pious old man in Warsaw, in the concluding story of this collection, is taken to the police station, after his revolutionary, atheist grandson has been killed in a riot against the czar. He prays on the way, and when asked what he is doing, gathers together the only Gentile words he knows, and says: “I am Jew. I pray God.” The words are the measure of his infinite isolation, and of the purity and severity of his faith. Even when he was a boy, Singer tells us, this man had “already realized that if one wanted to be a real Jew there was no time for anything else.”
Survival. The defensive myth of a long-persecuted people becomes an oblique apology to those who failed to survive, to those who got “lost.” Singer’s woman who loses herself is really terrified of losing her child, since she loses everything else. A mother in Elie Wiesel’s The Oath does lose a child in the camps, obeys an order to be separated from him and never sees him again. This the central, poignant moment in the book, the source of its anguish and its questions. “I don’t understand,” a boy says to his father. “God’s role in the camps—explain it to me.” And again: “You. And Mother. Both of you. How did you do it—how did you survive?”
The survivors by their very survival lose the right to speak directly of the dead, those millions who constitute, as Singer says, “a treasure of individuality that no literature dare try to bring back.” They can’t be resurrected, they can only be celebrated in the lives of others, in the resilience of the race. For Wiesel, who is not really a novelist, the issue becomes a problem in moral philosophy, to be explored in a fable. The Jews are the “people of memory,” have always felt that forgetting “constituted a crime against memory as well as against justice: whoever forgets becomes the executioner’s accomplice.” In every disaster there is one survivor, one person left to tell the tale: “one storyteller, one survivor, one witness to revive the past and resuscitate the murder, if not the murdered.”
Azriel, the protagonist of The Oath, is just such a survivor, caught symbolically between his father’s vocation as town chronicler, the very personification of Jewish history as testimony, and the legacy of his master Moshe, madman and martyr, who, in the days before a senseless, inevitable pogrom erased their town, demanded of his fellow Jews an oath of silence, a dramatic inversion of a whole tradition:
Oh yes, it has been going on for centuries. They kill us and we tell how; they plunder us and we describe how; they humiliate and oppress us, they expel us from society and history, and we say how. They forbid us a place in the sun, the right to laugh and sing or even cry, and we turn it into a story, a legend destined for men of good will…. Since someone would be left to tell of the ordeal, it meant that we had won in advance Since, in the end, someone would be left to describe our death, then death would be defeated; such was our deep, unshakable conviction. And yet now the time has come to put an end to it. Put an end to it once and for all. We have been mankind’s memory and heart too long…. Now we shall adopt a new way: silence…. Let us take the only possible decision: we shall testify no more.
Azriel, having kept his oath until his old age, now meets a young man from the other side of the German holocaust (“born after the holocaust, you have inherited the burden but not the mystery”), and in order to save him from suicide, breaks faith and tells the forbidden story. “Memory, insisted my father, everything is in memory. Silence, Moshe corrected him, everything is in silence.” Who was right? That, I take it, is for us to ponder. In any case the question matters more than the answer: Azriel has kept and not kept his oath.
Wiesel writes in French, and while a great deal of his fancy rhetoric clearly loses out in translation (“With no landscape of your own, all landscapes are yours. In your search for time, you conquer space”; “At the end of the word there is silence, at the end of silence there is the gaze”), I’m not sure a work of such intended urgency and seriousness should be fussing with silly rhetoric of this kind at all, whether it comes off in French or not.
As a novel, the book is very weak, full of sentimental character cliché—the Polish sadist, for example, who talks confidentially to his riding-crop, the poor orphan girl whose sadness lends her an ethereal beauty—and of narrative faux pas. A man kicks and beats Moshe the martyr, and we are then told, hardly to our surprise, that this man is a “sadistic brute, anti-Semitic in the extreme.” Azriel keeps assuring us that he will never break his vow and tell his story. Wiesel slyly hints that he will—“And yet, the old man will speak. He doesn’t know it now, but….” The old man may not know it, but we do, and have done since the first page of the book, and such failed authorial fun and games are very distressing.
I wish I could say that in spite of all this The Oath remains a powerful, disturbing work, a poor novel but a significant fable, but what is powerful and disturbing here is Wiesel’s subject: what he is after, not what he gets. Wiesel is a delicate and intelligent writer, but the tidy formality of his language keeps on letting him down, causes drastic falsifications of the questions he wants to ask. Everything is in memory, everything is in silence, the world divides into two symmetrical abstractions, a riddle for bookish schoolboys. Everything, as Singer knows, is in the tact and the quality of the memory or the silence. Or to return for an instant to a wrangle of my own which took place in these pages last year: we must not, cannot forget the past, yet there are cheap and extravagant forms of remembering which do us no good at all. Silence, for that matter, can also be eloquent, even voluble.
This side of survival, in Israel, survival means something else: the survival not of hallowed forms of life but of new hopes. Amos Oz’s Elsewhere, Perhaps is a novel set in a kibbutz on the northeast corner of Israel, a bright, tidy encampment flourishing under glowing mountains occupied by the enemy, constantly threatened by the Arabs from without, and by defection and failure of the will within. What can’t be said on the kibbutz is that this is a place like anywhere else, exposed to death and failure—more exposed to those things than many places. It is not like anywhere else, that is its purpose and its meaning: it can’t fail. So in order to talk truthfully about this place Oz has devised a skillfully, ironically deployed tone of edgy, defensive pompousness, something like the prim voice of the kibbutz itself on its best behavior.
The voice doesn’t lie to us—after violent death and slow disaffection have taken their toll, the kibbutz is still in good shape at the end of the book, and anyone who has laughed at the stilted optimism of its collective narrator will have been proven wrong—but it is a voice which must keep silent on too many subjects: on the real threat of all-out war, for example (the novel was published in Hebrew in 1966), on the strange pathologies brewing beneath the surfaces of earnest kibbutz life. The novel thus becomes a dialogue between what we hear in the voice and what we hear across it. In the voice we hear celebrations of labor, a defense of gossip as a means of moral reform, a wide tolerance for all kinds of social and psychological types, an invitation eloquently delivered in the book’s last paragraph, when the storm seems to be over, and divided people are together again:
The armchair in the corner is ringed with light. No one is sitting in it. Do not fill it with men and women who belong elsewhere. You must listen to the rain scratching at the windowpanes. You must look only at the people who are here, inside the warm room. You must see clearly. Remove every impediment. Absorb the different voices of the large family. Summon your strength. Perhaps close your eyes. And try to give this the name of love.
Across the voice, on the other hand, we heard the noises of the menacing Israeli night; the fear of death creeping up on men growing older; the loneliness of a man whose wife has left him and gone off to Germany with another man; the bewilderment of this man’s daughter, who is pregnant by the husband of her father’s new mistress, taken up after his wife’s desertion—the situation sounds intricate but its intricacy, almost entirely unadorned by psychological speculation, is its meaning.
Indeed, what we hear across the voice almost drowns the voice itself. The voice, as in so much modern fiction, becomes both mask and vehicle for what it cannot directly say, for the sorrow it is employed to deny, and I think here Oz has rigged his plot slightly in favor of his hopes. I don’t quite believe in all his reunions and exclusions—older couples back together again, the pregnant girl married off to her forgiving old boyfriend, the intruding, sinister old-style Jew banished back to Germany, the despairing poet dead before his despair became contagious.
Of course, my disbelief may be merely a sign of my own weariness of spirit, but there is, it seems to me, a curious complacency, in the end, about this accomplished novel by a talented and sensitive writer. As in so many nineteenth-century novels, all the fuss is canceled at the finish, readers are asked not to worry now as much as they were worrying only a few pages ago. The book evokes anguish only to make it go away when it looks as if it might do some damage. This is probably a fairly sensible policy in real life, although not as sensible as not evoking the anguish in the first place. In literature, however, it is a form of deception, a means of allowing both the writer and ourselves to believe we have studied the depths of the abyss when we have in reality taken only the smallest, safest peep at the abyss’s upper regions.