Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
Over 600 pages of them, and not one of those pages is boring. Though the locale of some stories is pre-Hitler Europe, to read them is to enter a Grimm-like forest where supernatural beings lurk. Did Singer believe in the malignant powers he writes about? All that can be said with certainty is that they fascinated him. Not only do demons and Satan exist, they sometimes narrate a story. These forces intervene in human lives; men and women struggle in their grasp or submit willingly to their bidding. Working from this premise, Singer’s characters confront good and evil, question the existence of god, try to fathom the meaning of life. No beliefs are respected and no answers are provided (least of all by a Jewish religion that’s depicted as a morass of superstition). The pieces that take place in the present (in which Singer plays a role, either an active one or as a listener to a tale told to him by someone else) are less exotic, though they too have an element of other-worldliness. Satan may not appear in New York, but peculiar people and odd occurrences abound. Not all stories fit the mold I’ve described; some stay grounded in reality. Nor was every story to my liking. But always evident is Singer’s intense absorption in human nature and behavior. Because so many of his characters are ruled by aberrant passions, this book gives off a sense of wildness. As an author Singer possessed a unique power, perhaps given to him by one of his demons: the power to compel the reader to enter the dark and tangled forest. *

The Women at the Pump - Knut Hamsun (Norwegian)
“People from the big city have no conception of the scale of things in a small town. They think they can come and take their stand in the marketplace and smile their superior smile; they think they can laugh at the houses and the paving – how often they feel that way!” Thus this book begins. Though the omniscient narrator’s familiar, jaunty tone is sustained throughout, the residents of a fishing village get a thorough examination, and few come out unscathed. This is a comic novel only in the sense that human failings are treated in a bantering way. Of the doctor made resentful by his lack of success: “Nor did he ever attain anything respectable in the line of malice, he had started too late; as an elderly castaway he attained only to a sour dissatisfaction, to bitterness, rancor, petty vindictiveness, slander.” Hamsun uses the village as a microcosm; his universal subject is life. He perceives it to be hard; only the rare individual isn’t twisted or damaged in some way. He respects a man who’s brave, resilient and simple, who confronts life as it is and doesn’t examine it nor whine about it. I use the word “man” because this is a masculine novel; women matter, but the minds Hamsun enters are those of males. As for a plot, many years roll by, things happen in the village, small and momentous, to people of both high and low station; these events are topics of gossip for the women who meet at the pump. In the closing chapters Hamsun seems at a loss as to how to wind things up, and the book loses its momentum. Still, this is another considerable accomplishment from the Norwegian master.

Love - Elizabeth von Arnim
The title, in its simplicity, is misleading; this is a novel filled with conflict. A young man (Christopher, twenty-five) becomes infatuated with an older woman (Catherine). Though flattered and enlivened by his intensity, she makes determined efforts to discourage him. But even when she reveals to him that she’s forty-seven and has a nineteen-year-old daughter, his ardor is not dampened; he continues to insist on marriage; Catherine weakens. Complicating matters is the husband of her daughter. He’s a reverend in his fifties, and though he’s much older than his wife, he and his priggish mother consider Catherine’s relationship with a mere boy to be repugnant. Since he has the power to separate Catherine from her daughter, his uncompromising attitude carries weight. In the midst of these pressures, Catherine marries Christopher. But love doesn’t conquer all; instead it leads her into a desperate struggle. She’s in the last stage before old age sets in, and to combat that dissolution she has elaborate (and expensive) “treatments” to make her appear young; they help, but they also make her look cheap. Catherine loses something precious to her: her dignity. Her formerly quiet life is in emotional turmoil, and though her daughter sticks by her, their harmonious relationship is altered. Love turns out to be a mixed bag. Are the ecstasies (which, on Christopher’s side, become less and less ecstatic) worth the grief? For me the answer is no; reading this book was a painful experience. The author creates a rose-colored aura, not unlike what would be found in a romance novel, yet the roses have thorns.

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