The OF Blog: Isaac Bashevis Singer, When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw & Other Stories

Monday, September 03, 2012

Isaac Bashevis Singer, When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw & Other Stories

In a village somewhere in the Ukraine there lived a poor man called Todie.  Todie had a wife, Shaindel, and seven children, but he could never earn enough to feed them properly.  He tried many trades and failed in all of them.  It was said of Todie that if he decided to deal in candles the sun would never set.  He was nicknamed Shrewd Todie because whenever he managed to make some money, it was always by trickery.

Isaac Bashevis Singer is one of the more important Yiddish-American writers of the 20th century.  His English-language short stories, many of which relate to his youth growing up in Poland, have been widely anthologized and after his death, most were collected in a three-volume Library of America edition.  Yet Singer's stories span a wide spectrum, as his earlier Yiddish-language stories, such as those collected in When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw & Other Stories, often mixed narrative approaches that today we might label as "Young Adult" with sharp stories that played upon power relationships found within Yiddish villages of his youth.

There are eight stories found within this particular edition that I read.  The first story, "Shrewd Todie & Lyzer the Miser," contains an element that perhaps is familiar to many readers:  the poor yet resourceful peasant and the rich yet silly/stupid landowner.  Such a template promises much even when readers might be familiar with the basic concept of the lowly gaining something at the expense of the higher classes.  Singer certainly provides this as Todie's manipulation of the miser Lyzer through the use of "multiplying" silver objects is in turns predictable (we know something deceitful will happen) and amusing (the mechanism by which the deceit is pulled off is truly a delight to read, with anticipation building for the eventual payoff).

The second story, "Tsirtsur & Peziza," is a bit harder to parse, as it isn't until late in the story that the fullness of this relationship between an imp and a cricket is revealed.  Yet Singer's carefully crafted tale makes the narrative feel "alive," as the sights and sounds of the oncoming harsh winter are described and the value of friendship among dissimilar creatures is revealed.  Some of the other tales, such as "Rabbi Leib & the Witch Cunegunde" become a real (as well as metaphorical) battle between good and evil, with the earnestness of the former managing to stave off the deceits of the latter.  This summary does little justice to the story, as what makes it a delight to read is Singer's ability to ratchet up the tension through his use of asides to create those little pauses in the action that allow the reader to consider the direness of the situation, as the forces of evil are being mustered against the virtuous rabbi.

Other tales, such as "The Elders of Chelm & Genendel's Key" and the titular "When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw," are more light-hearted, as they focus on the ridiculousness of those who see themselves as the leading lights of a society.  It is in these tales where Singer truly shines, as he depicts artfully characters such as Shlemiel, who experiences all sorts of bad luck whenever he tries to ply his trade outside of his native village of Chelm, or in the fable "Utzel & His Daughter Poverty," where through the use of almost grotesque imagery (as Utzel stops working, his daughter Poverty grows fatter and larger) to make the point about the value of honest work.

In each of these tales, Singer displays a storyteller's talent for getting the reader to hang on virtually every paragraph.  He develops the scenarios carefully in advance of sometimes-explosive conclusions.  The stories' diverse messages stick in the reader's mind long after the final word is read.  The characters, whether they be trickster, virtuous soul, or simpleton, feel alive, as if we grew up with them and could point them out to passing strangers as though they were our own companions.  There is not a single weak story in this collection, only those that shine just a tiny bit more than the others.  When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw & Other Stories is a collection that I certainly will want to re-read multiple times in the years to come.  Highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

Singer lived in Poland not Ukraine. Just the detail.

Larry Nolen said...

I'll correct it, although in my defense, several of the stories are set in the Ukraine.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Love this book. Have had the edition with the cover your blog shows since I was...three? maybe younger. These stories are part of my character as a human, and I certainly believe they influence, positively, my ability to teach well. Singer is a hero. His pointed but loving admonitions, and his talent for evoking wonderment...well, golly. It is just nice to see someone else on the internet who likes this book, too. <3 thank you! -marged

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