Monday, June 3, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 41: Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Brooch (#35)

Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Brooch" (c. 1904–1991) from Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories: Gimpel the Fool to The Letter Writer:

This story is no longer available from the LoA Story-of-The-Week website, but I found a copy at Jstor, in the Chicago Review. I hope it's the same translation, because with Singer, you never can tell. The headnote at the LoA page does a nice job explaining that: Singer wrote in Yiddish, but his translations into English were often done by him and sometimes resulted in very different versions. For instance, "Gimpel the Fool" includes a scene where a wife claims a virgin birth and in the Yiddish, Singer has a lot of irony for that idea as it relates to either Gimpel's wife or the Virgin Mary; but for the English version, Singer toned down the Virgin Mary digs.

So, though it's knowable, I don't right now know how this story in English compares to the story in Yiddish. Along those lines, although Singer writes with a semi-omniscient voice--able to swoop into Wolf Ber's or his wife's mind to tell us what they're thinking--I want to stress that "semi": there's a lot in the story that remains mysterious. Wolf Ber starts as a thief with very bourgeois values, as in the first lines:
When Wolf Ber returned from the road, he always bought gifts for Celia and the girls. This time Wolf Ber had been in luck. He had broken into a safe and stolen 740 rubles.
The bald declarations and switch get me every time; I think it helps that Singer breaks up this idea (the good man-thief) into three lines, to give this idea time to settle in the reader's mind. Too often, many writers like to hook with a first line that contains the base and the switch, but it feels too rushed.

Given the omniscient(y) POV, Singer can rewind and tell us how Wolf Ber is such a straight arrow: he robs away from home and everyone knows he's a thief, but he always pays his bills when he comes home and everything is good there. Then, as in Henry James's "Paste," this happiness is disrupted by a brooch that proves that his wife is a thief. When they argue, it comes out that this perfect home-life is actually not so perfect: everyone knows he's a thief, which exposes his wife and kids to all sorts of teases and insults.

As in James, there's a great little POV trick here: what we took as omniscient(y) in the description of Wolf Ber's life turns out to be his limited view of that life. When he's exposed to the flipside, suddenly his certainty crumbles, going so far as to even doubt the paternity of his kids (shades of "Gimpel"). But while we've been getting this limited omniscient view from Wolf Ber's perspective, we also need to note that the end is somewhat mysterious to him even though it centers on his feelings and thoughts: a family can't have two thieves, so he'll go take up the job he hated as a tanner. Why? As in James, Singer doesn't say more than the characters.

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