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BOOK REVIEW

More Stories From My Father’s Court

Concentrated, Curdled Life of a Nobel Laureate

By Jane Maduram

Staff Writer

Written by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Translated by Curt Leviant

Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

$22.00

The stories of Isaac Bachevis Singer read like the curdled concentrate of life. His autobiographical tales are bluntly hammered together and often fragmented, but they carry a heft and power rarely seen in literature. From the father who works himself to death to the rabbi that rebels against God, Singer treats his characters with respect and dignity.

Few explanations are made; for the most part, Singer refuses to interpret or psychoanalyze the situations that he encounters, and therein lies his strength -- the people that he meets speak for themselves.

More Stories from My Father’s Court is a retelling of Singer’s childhood in Krochmalna Street, Warsaw. As a rabbi’s son, Singer was an observer to the multiple worlds that intersected in his father’s study at the dawn of the century -- his childhood, the traditional Jewish community, and pre-World War Poland. And while the worlds he knew have long since disappeared, the voices that Singer calls up seem as current as those encountered today. Much of this cross-generational appeal rests on the universality of relationships - father to child, wife to husband, worshipper to God. Nonetheless, it is Singer’s skill as a writer that brings those relationships to life.

As the narrator, Singer is the single unifying factor in this collection of short stories, and his unobtrusive but pervasive eye for detail is what brings unity to the book. Like many small children, Singer eavesdropped on his father’s conversations, and each story is beautifully told from a child’s view. Stolen information is supplemented with non-verbal cues, gossip, and speculation as to the oddities of grownups. The rabbi’s court was the center for religious discussion, marriages, divorces, and law settlements among other things, and so there is plenty to watch.

Singer’s acute knowledge of people and communities plays out in spectacular writing. When a disgruntled wife accuses her husband, Singer writes, “She didn’t yell and didn’t cry but hissed like a goose, spat like a snake. She put a finger to her throat signaling how high the water had risen.”

When he sees a rich, pious Jew who steals, he writes, “I began to lose my respect for these people who speak beautifully, smoke expensive cigars, make expensive weddings for their daughters, and travel to spas. Secretly, they are thieves. They will end up as bats.”

The strong, descriptive tone of these stories comes from their origin in Singer’s column in the newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward, where they were published in Yiddish. The columns date from the 1950s, and Singer himself died a decade ago, but this new translation adds to the large number of stories, novels, memoirs, and children books that Singer published before his death. Singer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978; it is not difficult to see why.

In “A Chunk of Darkness,” one of the short stories within this book, Singer compresses the destruction of a man into a few short, eerie pages. From his carefree agreement to say Kaddish (a prayer said after death) for a bearded, warty hag to his death as a worn, feeble man, Singer details the mysterious hold the hag has on her Kaddish sayer.

In the final paragraph, Singer writes, “The old woman stood in the kitchen, black as coal, with a distorted face, a drooping mouth -- a chunk of darkness. She exuded a demonic power ... I was still a little boy at the time, but I clearly sensed that the old woman had in some secretive manner done in her Kaddish sayer. Like a spider she had enmeshed him in her web and destroyed him.”

While Singer’s mastery over language is evident, there are times when he stumbles. When he ventures into the rare interpretation of a sequence of events, he seems shaky, as when he talks about his own maturation into an adolescent. When discussing himself, his observations are less pointed, less subtle.

Still, the overall quality of Singer’s work triumphs over these minor mishaps. In his telling stories of the conflicts, coincidences, and clumsiness of life, Singer demonstrates that he has truly lived.