Wednesday, May 16, 2007

No Master

The Slave, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Translated by Cecil Hemley, Read by Tracy Sallows & David Chandler, Jewish Contemporary Classics, Inc., 2002

From the sheer immensity of the plaudits Isaac Bashevis Singer has received (most notably the Nobel Prize for Literature), I was certain I was going to like him. I had little luck in finding much in the way of audiobooks of Singers’s and tried out his short story collections while I waited for his 1962 novel The Slave on CD to arrive from the library.

And so I have to say it outright. I can’t quite grasp the hoopla. Singer’s relatively sparse style does little for me try as I might to enjoy it. It’s clearly crafted well, but it left me cold. The short stories in the collection (Gimpel the Fool) after a while blended into one mega story that wandered around various medieval to later Jewish societies, but the characters are fairly stock thin and structured as types and action moving elements. I never got a good sense of any of them as individual human beings with deeply rooted psychologies.

For me it’s incredibly difficult to sympathize early in the novel with a character of such rigid morality that he finds circuses evil. Like other religious yahoos in other novels, I have little fellow feeling for such strict moralities that frown on any enjoyment to be squeezed from life. Jacob, Singer’s protagonist, might be accurately portrayed for the time — I can’t speak to that — but if you start out with a humorless prig, you’ve got your work cut out for you winning over readers.

This sympathy is in part garnered because of the brutishness and ignorance of those who surround Jacob, yet he never really warms to us as a character. It is only his weakness and temptation and love for Wanda who loves him in return that humanizes him for us.

The story follows Jacob and Wanda’s illicit love affair (he’s Jewish, she’s a Gentile, such things were forbidden in the 1600s when this takes place). A refugee from the Cossack pogroms of the time who has lost his family, Jacob is a slave of Jan Bzik, a Polish farmer with a beautiful daughter named Wanda. As he teaches her the Torah, the two fall in love. It’s rather predictable in several cliché ways (I mean, come on, the farmer’s daughter?) and isn’t helped along by luminescent prose.

Bought out of captivity by the inhabitants of his village, Jacob can’t forget Wanda, so he returns to the farm and brings her back to his village where he convinces her to pretend to be a mute Jew he married on his journeys. It’s a plan that can’t help but go awry. The Catholic landlord Adam Pilitzky, who owns the town and all the land, has a tenuous relationship with the local Jews. Jacob becomes Pilitzky’s favorite after a fashion, and the landlord warns Jacob to flee when the secret that Wanda has converted to Judaism comes out during childbirth.

We are treated throughout to the vast amounts of ignorant superstition and prejudice on both sides of the issue, yet Singer’s allegorical story never lives on its own. It’s too busy setting up one more symbolic encounter, one more thinly veiled allegory. All of this could have been much more interesting. Instead we’re treated to a kind of sophisticated folk-tale. This is an immensely difficult hybrid to pull off.

The power of straight folk-tale comes from its pure id qualities, its sheer childhood terrors and its brutal simplicity. Once you add sophistication to it, try to make it work more than the story is capable, try to make it fit our times and speak to it, much of the folk-tale’s earthy strength melts away. Not enough sophistication and the story retains a puzzling simplicity; too much and the story loses it’s original genre strengths. At times it feels like Singer ladles on too much, at times not enough. I never once felt like I was in the Baby Bear sweet spot.

Whether or not I will ever return to try Singer again is a dicey proposition at this stage. Considered mostly for his short stories, I can’t say that those set me on fire either. The Slave, however, lacked even the occasional entertainment his shorter pieces brought. For now, me and Stockholm will just have to agree to disagree.

Readers Tracy Sallows and David Chandler do nicely in alternating between Jacob and Wanda’s stories and perspectives. They are perhaps the brightest spot in the entirety of this novel experience.

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