Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Gimpel the Fool, by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Gimpel the Fool: And Other StoriesMy rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was able to read only the first two stories of this collection before I lost my copy. But a few months past and I found another, cheaper and in better condition. Naturally, I took it for a sign -- how could I not?

In the world of this book everything is a sign, and things still have magic to them. It's a beautiful simple world, Eastern Europe like most of us have never seen -- a lost world, a farming world, and, what's more, a Jewish world. This book, it speaks of a time when Yiddish thrived as a language of literature as well as daily life, and the Jews who spoke it... well, they lived. Today we live in a world where some Jews regard Yiddish as unclean, corrupt. What a shame! Today, the world in these stories has greatly shrunk and we may someday lose it all together. Well, at least we have the stories... some crystallized remnant of that dead world, a testament to how beautiful it was.

In a sense, the eleven stories in this collection are fairy tales -- but not the kind Disney pushed out, nor even those written down by the Brothers Grimm. In the world of these stories, even while towns and cities are industrializing, demons walk the countryside -- they are all around you, ready to cause mischief. In this world happy endings are merely those that are not sad. Happiness here comes from leading a simple and virtuous life within the narrow confines of The Law. You may get tricked by a demon; you may be forced to spend an eternity or more in The Place No One Wants to Go. But, all in all, it is a place in which a person can live or even thrive.

Now, as I say, there are eleven stories in Gimpel the Fool but let's just look at some of my favorites:

"Gimpel the Fool" starts it off, and is probably the most high profile story in the collection -- also, the only one translated by Saul Bellow -- and it sets the tone too. It retells a story at least as old as Judaism itself: the "fool" who is mocked and tricked by all around him, but who is really more wise and virtuous than them all. The story was dampened a bit in my eyes, however, because of my then-recent reading of "Ivan the Fool" by Tolstoy, a story similar in title, style, subject, and mood.

"The Gentleman from Cracow" tells of the same poor little Jewish village seen throughout -- or it might as well be -- and the great prosperity and success that comes to the village when a rich man from Cracow decides to live there. Of course, things are rarely what they seem, especially when rich men are involved; men who really aren't men at all. In a climactic scene only a Jew -- or perhaps also a masochistic Christian -- could think up, a party the man throws to choose a wife amongst the town girls dissolves into a fiery lake ringed by cackling demons.

A few of these stories -- "The Mirror," about a woman who is in the habit of watching herself, naked, in a mirror; "The Unseen," about a married man who lusts after his servant; and "From the Diary of One Not Born," about a woman who is tricked into public disgrace by a doppelgänger husband -- are told from the perspective of a demon. And what does a demon do but try to trick mortals into a fiery doom? These three stories are ones of sin -- vanity, in the case of the first; lust in the second; and sheer bad luck in the third. The little devils seem to drop down on anyone and ruin their lives for no good reason. A harsh fate indeed, but I suppose temptation can strike us all -- it is the truly virtuous, then, who successfully resist.

The stories of the virtuous of this collection are "The Old Man," "Joy," and "The Little Shoemakers." The eponymous "Old Man" walks across a country torn apart by WW2 to reach his native town. And in "Joy"... well, I do not remember "Joy." (I could reread it, but why? with a sentence like that?) And "The Little Shoemakers"? That's my favorite of the entire collection: about the latest in a very long line of small-town shoemakers, who is greatly befuddled by losing his seven sons to the call of the New World. But never mind: he finds his way to them again, escorted out of war-torn Europe by their new-found money to find himself on the shore of a lake, around which the seven prosperous brothers have built a house each, a thriving family each. Curtain falls on seven brothers dutifully helping their father in the little hut they made for him on their property, mending shoes the old-fashioned way, and singing that old song they used to sing when they were boys.

Maybe you don't like this kind of story. Maybe it has no place in the modern world, amid touch screens, feminism, toned down Christianity -- but I love it. Suffice to say, in a business-like tone, "It appeals to my sensibilities" -- though we all know there is much more to it than that.

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