Thursday, November 25, 2021

'Our Duty to Build and Not to Destroy'

On Thanksgiving Eve in 1966, Emily Maxwell, the novelist’s wife, is in bed with a cold, resisting self-pity, awaiting the arrival of holiday guests: “So my mind is cheerfully full of adornments for the stuffing, of branch raisins & black grapes & crushed pineapple for the yams, but my nose is red, my hair is limp, and it’s too much trouble to blow my nose.” She briefs Eudora Welty on domestic happenings and writes: 

“I’ve also got a paperback of Short Friday & Other Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer—sadly, I sat next to him last year at the Institute luncheon, & hadn’t read anything of his. I love ‘Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.’ In ‘Alone’ he’s so funny about Miami in summer and the storm is so Jewish. ‘The moon emerged extraordinarily large and red; it hung in the sky like a geographers globe bearing a map not of this world. The night had an aura of miracle and cosmic change. A hope I had never forsaken awoke in me: was I destined to witness an upheaval of the solar system? Perhaps the moon was about to fall down. Perhaps the earth, tearing itself out of its orbit around the sun, would wander into new constellations.’”


As it happens, this week I read a couple of stories in Short Friday (1963), Singer’s third collection in English, though not “Alone.” Maxwell is right: "Alone" is a wonder, quintessential Singer and among the first of his stories he set in America after emigrating from Poland in 1935. “Alone” was published in Yiddish in 1960 and first appeared in English (translated by Joel Blocker) in Mademoiselle in 1962. Last Sunday would have been his 119th birthday.


“Alone” includes a sort of mock-apocalypse and a confrontation with a woman who may be a witch. In Singer, a storm is never just a storm and and a woman is more than a woman. Everything has significance and often defies human understanding. In the second sentence Singer’s narrator says, “[T]hough my wish came true, it was in such a topsy-turvy way that it appeared the Hidden Powers were trying to show me I didn’t understand my own needs.” Singer’s people are forever surrounded by mysteries, benign and otherwise. Mere appearance is superficial and often deceptive.


Early in the pandemic I ordered the three volumes of Singer’s stories published by the Library of America and reread them all. That’s what I remember best from the start of the lockdown. Earlier this year, Tablet published a prayer written by Singer in 1952, originally in Hebrew. The translation, including these lines, is by David Stromberg:


“Though we may not know the purpose of life, or why you sent us into this world to suffer, we understand that it is our duty to build and not to destroy, to comfort and not to torment, to bring joy rather than sorrow to your creatures.”


[You’ll find Emily Maxwell’s letter in What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (2011).]


Edward Bauer said...

Happy Thanksgiving Patrick! May we all work together to build, comfort, and bring joy. And my thanks to you for your continuing efforts on this great blog.

Thomas Parker said...

Singer, a wonderful writer who found the garments of strict realism a couple of sizes too small for him.