How do you choose what writers to read? Or more specifically, how do you choose from those writers that you know you’re ‘supposed’ to read? The dead and dusty ones from the canon.
I take shortcuts, which is probably the reason why Cervantes has never darkened my door. Short stories have many virtues, but they’re unparalleled in that regard. Take out Hemmingway’s short stories and you’ll quickly work out whether you want to delve into something more ‘substantial’ like for whom the bell tolls.
In that vein, I browsed my local bookstore for Isaac Singer’s collected stories, flipped it open and chose to read the shortest of these short stories and Singer’s introduction. If things went well, the book would be forked out for.
The introduction was promising – strident, and opinionated, albeit a collection of opinions that raised my shackles. For example, amongst the three main pitfalls for any fiction writer are forced originality: “These verbal pitfalls of so-called ‘experimental’ writing have done damage even to genuine talent; […] imagination is one thing, and the distorition of what Spinoza called ‘the order of things’ is something else entirely. Literature can very well describe the absure, but it should never become absure itself”.
His scowling at experimentation aside, the introduction is as useful a starting point as any for readers looking for a sharp definition of what a short story should or shouldn’t be: “Unlike the novel, which can absorb and even forgive lengthy digressions, flashbacks and loose construction, the short story must aim directly at its climax. It must possess uninterrupted tension and suspense. Also, brevity is its very essence. The short story must have a definite plan; it cannot be what in literary jargon is called ‘a slice of life’. The masters of the short story, Checkhove, Maupassant, as well as the sublime scribe of the Joseph story in the Book of Genesis, knew exactly where they were going. One can read them over and over again and never get bored.”
So, on to the story – chosen precisely because of its brevity. Joy is the story of a rabbi struggling with his faith as his family dies around him from some un-named illness. There’s no doubting Singer’s skill, as he almost immediately starts dishing out the facts and the gaps of the story, enough to ensure that a distinctly non-hassidic dubliner can find enough to keep him interested and happy to read on.
The premise is simple – how can a holy man reconcile suffering with his faith. It’s stated as baldly as that, when in the opening page the rabbi’s wife, herself ailing and grieving the loss of another child, accuses “”What good are your knowledge, your prayers, the merits of your ancestors, your prolonged fasts? What does he have against you – our Father in Heavern?”. Singer, like his cited models knows exactly where this is going right from the start. Unfortunately, so too shortly after does the reader.
The Rabbi shakes the roots of his community because of his very obvious loss of faith. He starts losing his followers, as veers towards the heretical. Then, he has an epiphany, where he realises that in a complex world one must be, above all, joyous – and promptly dies reconciled with his community.
Far be it from me to argue with a nobel prize winner for literature, but the route by which this epiphany takes place is a shortcut too far. Amidst wrestling with his faith, he’s interrupted in his study by his daughter – who momentarily brings him joy, but a la Wordsworth it’s a surprise because her death is one of the reasons for his faith grappling. Perhaps in a novel a supernatural appearance could be fleshed out, as it were, to dignify it’s appearance as more than a crude and clumsy device, but in this very short story it’s the reason why the collected short stories of Isaac B. Singer gets put back on the shelf.
Life is short.
Tags: short stories