The story starts off worrisomely as another one of those meandering character sketches, the writer-protagonist meeting an unusual, eccentric so and so, the eccentric’s monologue going on and on and on, with a few philosophical asides along the way, a few reflections denoting the writer’s detachment, a touch of discomfort, bemusement or distaste on his part, and then scene. Singer developed the formula to excess. Gets old fast. The eccentric in this case is a rich old man in Miami Beach, Max Flederbush. The story has all the trappings of the Singer formula, but it comes alive, ironically, as Flederbush describes the funereal atmosphere of his aged and dying set, dying in a sea of luxuries. There’s a lot here that echoes William Trevor’s “The General’s Day,” a story taking on greater significance the more stories I read. “If man is formed in God’s image, I don’t envy God.” “It’s scary to think the human species will last so long.” Getting old is torture. It is an invitation to cynicism.
One of Singer’s monologuish stories. Freidle the monologuist is a free-spirited woman, a physician hedonist who claims to believe in nothing, who cheated on her husband on her honeymoon and sleeps with everything that moves, but whose free spirit crumbles the moment it’s about her 16-year-old daughter, who despises her. Her life is a double-standard. The daughter is living with Tobias, the husband, who, according to Feidle, is making a whore of the girl to spite Freidle. (“There is one sphere in which everyone is a genius, and that is in being spiteful.”) It’s a thin story that wears thinner as you read. Som of the better lines:
Another episode in Singer’s stories of odd couples, this one starring Red Elka, to whom death and all things eschatological are an aphrodisiac, and Meir, an reformed thief who becomes more guarded with the years. Both are married to invalid millstones that won’t die. Elka works as a Jewish undertaker and eventually employs Meir, enabling the couple to have their trysts on deathly runs, but Meir’s wife won;t grant a divorce. He has dreams of opening a funeral parlor with Meir in the United States (“There is no lack of females and corpses there”) but the 2014 war and other manufactured obstacles intervene, and Elka is happy taking care of the dead where she is, until she develops breast cancer. Her sister begins to work with Meir but she is as sullen and surly as Elka was jovial and talkative. She makes a move for Meir once but he rejects her. Elka wants him to marry her sister when she dies. He refuses. One day he and the sister are on a run for multiple deaths. Their vehicle crashes. They die, and the corpse of the actor they were carrying dies a second death. The multiplicity of deaths revives Elka one last time. She buries them.
Automat, 163-5 East 86 St., Sept. 15, 1936. (NYPL Digital Collection)
An echo of “The Psychic Journey” in structure and themes, though Journey came a decade later. Aaron, an exiled Polish writer in his late 60s regularly dines at a cafeteria on Broadway where Holocaust survivors gather, among them Esther, who loves the writer’s work. “Sometimes I imagine that the funeral parlor is also a kind of cafeteria where one gets a quick eulogy or kaddish on the way to eternity.” She’d been imprisoned in Russia. She works odd jobs. She disappears and reappears over time. On one of these reunions Esther tells Aaron she saw Hitler with his posse at the cafeteria late one night. This is the 1960s of course. The vision coincides with a fire that destroys the cafeteria. Maybe she set it. Just like Margaret Fugazy in “Psychic,” Aaron becomes afraid that Esther will continue to contact him. But she doesn’t. He then has an apparition of his own, seeing Esther looking younger and happier than she’d ever been, on the arm of a man walking on a street in Toronto. He does not speak to her of course. Aaron later learns that Esther had killed herself a long time before that apparition.
The parallels are as much with “Psychic Journey” as with, say, Russell’s “Prospectors,” the differences being that Singer amplifies the gravity of his story by injecting Hitler in his apparition, while Russell uses unknown WPA construction workers and fills her story with more mirthful mist than Singer’s brooding reflections on death and the afterlife. Switch the characters–what if Esther happened on a performance of “Guys and Dolls” at the cafeteria in the middle of the night?–and the scale doesn’t tip as heavily toward the profound.
Another tiresome, wandering story glued to the psychic imaginings of a Margaret Fugazy, who meets the unnamed writer on the Upper West Side and has supposedly been visiting him “in astral form.” She knows the interiors of his apartment. He has a girlfriend of his own, Dora, but she’s run off to a kibbutz in Israel, where her daughter Sandra was having her first baby. He and Margaret develop some sort of relationship. It’s never clear to what intimate extent. She convinces him to be a tour guide with her on a trip to Israel, where they’re both stranded by the breakout of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The relationship’s breakdown is inevitable but never clearly defined. Too much of the story is an excuse for whatever happens next, little of it meshing or making sense outside that glue that excuses everything. You’d expect the wart to provide a more interesting twist. It doesn’t. It provides this page:
There’s a bit of Orientalist stereotype in that smell of “tar, sulphur, and Biblical battles that time had never ended,” and lazy lyricism in “the acrid scent of eternity.” You wonder if the journey to Israel isn’t itself astral. The writer reunites with Dora in the end, and once crosses path with Fugazy, eliciting a confession.
Sterling Ruby – Black Stoves 1, 2, 3, 4 painted stainless steel – installation view at La Museé de la Chasse et de la Nature, Paris.
There are times when Isaac Singer the fiction writer is really Isaac Singer the editorialist who doesn’t have a solid piece but has been filling his grab-bag with little tidbits that can be thrown together in an item, what The Times called “Topics,” what every provincial paper calls any of a number of stupid terms to justify the laziness or the pointlessness, from “darts and laurels” to “hearts and arrows.” “Stories from Behind the Stove” is one of those grabby stories, a rehash of the usual themes, the demons around us, spread over three tales, one about a disappearing shed, one about a disappearing rabbi, the third one I’m not so sure. I lost interest. The morale is convenient: “With the exception of God and stone, everything is mad.”
(Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. )
A transgender boy, Zissel, wants to be a girl, acts like a girl, dresses like a girl when he can, “spent most of his time with girls and enjoyed their ways and their games.” Singer details the agonies of the transgender soul: Zissel “suffered anxiety and all kinds of doubts. He already was convinced that to be a male was unworthy and that the signs of manhood were a disgrace.” His family finds him a bride. Meanwhile he falls in love with a boy, Ezriel, who is also headed for marriage. Both marriages fail: Zissel writes Ezriel that his marriage “caused him heartache and shame.” Finally Ezriel steals his wife’s dowry and jewels, dresses as a woman, and flees from town to meet Ezriel at a hotel, where they spend a night before moving and setting up house in Lublin, where they lived several years. When the money ran out Ezriel set up shop but got no customers. Zissel became a bath successful attendant, and the household’s only support. Ezriel gets fat and depressed, again an aspect of the life of a repressed gay man but not fully explored here. Singer’s focus is on Zissel, who develops affection for a 17-year-old virgin about to be married, a woman, and eventually falls in love with her, to her consternation. Zissel and Ezriel fight, come to blows. One night when Zissel and Reizl, the girl, who by then is married, are alone at the bathhouse, he rapes her. They drown. The secret is out. When townsmen find out, they rush Ezriel’s home and bludgeon him to death: just like a stoning by the Taliban.
Zissel’s desire for a woman is never explained and seems more like a device than a natural development though nothing says a transgender person can’t be bisexual: the story is about the fluidity of sex, not its dogmas–and the dogmas triggered as a consequence of the fluidity of sex, when uncovered. The title of the story is perfectly revealing: two boys, two natures, two love stories, two fates, and so on. (He wrote another story called “Two” later in his career.) This was written before transgender was a common word. The word is never used, nor are transsexual, gay, homosexual: part of the purity and truth of of the story is its avoidance of these trap-words that ultimately mean as little as racial or ethnic denominators.