“Inventions”
by Isaac Bashevis Singer
translated from the Yiddish by Aliza Shevrin
from the January 26, 2015 issue of The New Yorker

Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer died in 1991. According to The New Yorker (here, in an illuminating interview between Deborah Treisman and David Stromberg) this particular story was written in 1965, translated sometime in the late 1960s, and then never published in English until this week. It’s a refreshing offering from The New Yorker, a reminder that we have a master storyteller in Singer whom we should not neglect . . . as I have (fortunately, The Library of America has three volumes of his stories available.

Because I have read only a handful of Singer’s stories, and those some time ago, I cannot offer much in the way of context. This story appeared out of the blue, unmoored, and that’s how I read it. While I’ll offer my brief thoughts here, I look forward to your insights in the comments below.

The story had me hooked from the first sentence. For some reason, I love it when an author can begin a story with something relatively droll and yet immediately gripping:

Since moving to the country, I find myself growing sleepy by ten o’clock at night. I retire at the same time as my parakeets and the chickens in the coop. In bed, I peruse “Phantasms of the Living,” but I must soon turn off the light.

It’s wonderful, and it’s also worth noting that little of the information here becomes central to the story. Moving to the country? Incidental. Parakeets and chickens? Irrelevant. We don’t get the narrator’s full name or even his first in the first sentences. In fact, we never learn his name. Somehow, the vagaries of this kind of opening is able to realize a setting and character better than a dump of information in some clever first sentence. I’m thinking particularly of a kind of sensibility I find dominant these days and that I can best point to in Karen Russell’s opening to “Proving Up”:

“Go tack up, Miles!” says Mr. Johannes Zegner of the Blue Sink Zegners, pioneer of the tallgrass prairie and future owner of 160 acres of Nebraska. In most weathers, I am permitted to call him Pa.

(Funnily, I was talking about this division of sensibilities with Elif Batuman and John Self on Twitter a couple of years ago, and I brought up “Proving Up” then as well. Another Twitter user made me laugh by writing: “that first sentence would be so much more interesting without the comma before ‘Miles.'” Incidentally, Joyce Carol Oates jumped in the conversation to chastise us all. Anyway, out of this digression and back to my first digression)

The kind of opening Singer uses in “Inventions” is one of my favorite techniques. Rather than set the plot in motion, it sets mood and gives us a sense of the flow of life. And this life is about to flow into another, imaginary life that is likewise nicely rendered.

On this particular night — a winter night, we learn, and much like many other nights — the narrator of “Inventions” awakens at 2 a.m., his head “buzzing with plans and possibilities.” The narrator is a writer, and he is compelled to write about a Communist theoretician named Morris Krakower “who attends a leftist conference on world peace and sees a ghost.” Krakower is confidently grounded, and the mood becomes one of no-nonsense practicality, until Krakower goes back to his hotel:

A madwoman sits on the curb. Next to her is a basket full of old newspapers and rags. Withdrawn and disheveled, her eyes shining fiercely, she converses with her demon. Somewhere nearby, a tomcat yowls. A night watchman in a fur jacket and hood is checking the shopkeepers’ locks. Morris Krakower goes into his hotel, gets the key from the clerk, and takes the elevator to the fourth floor. The long corridor reminds him of a prison. He opens the door to his room and enters. The chambermaid has changed the bed linen. All he needs to do is undress. Tomorrow, the conference starts late, so Morris will be able to catch up on sleep.

I suppose I’ll keep looking at tone. I love how we transition from the confident practicality of the conference, by way of an almost otherworldly, withdrawn street and hallway, to a sense of relieved exhaustion. It’s almost like Scrooge’s walk home from his counting house that haunted Christmas Eve. And Morris Krakower is also going to get visited by a ghost: “ddenly, he feels the blanket being pulled at his feet.” When he turns on the light, a bit on edge, he finds nothing in the room. This keeps happening, until the articulation of a thought horrifies Krakower:

There must be some explanation. It can’t be a ghost.

As soon as the word enters his mind, terror grips him.

The terror and alienation of the night keeps working on Morris Krakower. He is surprised and relieved to hear a trolley car out side: “He is still in the center of a civilized city and not in a desert or at the North Pole.” This does not help him, though, and eventually this occurrence displaces his conception of life on this planet.

The narrator does inject himself in the story again, rather abruptly, as if part of him understands what Morris Krakower is going through:

I had fallen asleep and dreamed one of those dreams with recur again and again over the years. I am in a windowless cellar. I either live there or use it as a hideout. The cellar is deep, dark, the dirt floor rutted and mounded. I am afraid, but I know I must remain there for some time.

It’s a wonderful, eventually frantic dream sequence. Eventually awakened, the narrator lies there trying find an explanation for this recurring dream, though, not the kind of explanation we might normally think. He’s not trying to understand the images, the fury, the fear; he’s trying to understand “the law governing nightmares.” He finds the sleeping brain “devious.” In the end, though, “[o]ne thing is certain: this dream returns like a leitmotif in a symphony of madness.”

After this interjection, which can’t help but inform our reading of the next segment, the narrator returns to Morris Krakower (“What’s happened to him?”).

For me, that the story explores the power of the intangible as it relates to Krakower’s politics is not nearly as interesting as the way Singer walks us through the jungle of these nights. A strong story, therefore, which isn’t always the case with these kinds of posthumous “discoveries.”

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2018-04-30T14:46:43+00:00January 19th, 2015|Categories: Isaac Bashevis Singer, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett January 19, 2015 at 1:20 am

    P.S. Betsy has told me she needs some time off for renewal. She says she’ll be back. I wish her well and look forward to her return, whenever that may be.

    In the meantime, I’ll be returning to regular coverage of the stories. Please don’t expect me to be as insightful as Betsy!

  2. Lee Monks January 19, 2015 at 5:15 am

    I hope she’s back soon! Don’t be so hard on yourself, Trevor. Is ANYONE more insightful than Betsy?

  3. henry January 19, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    I’ve read a few stories by Singer. This one seemed to reflect the style of his work as I recall Singer’s work to be. It sounds like a Singer story. Gimpel the Fool comes to mind although it’s a completely different story in every other way than style perhaps. If I recall correctly there is also a “visit” by a ghost in Gimpel the Fool. In both tales it seems the ghost is trying to convey a message to the narrator.

    Singer definitely has a singular style. I think his work is identifiable just by reading it. It’s very cool that here we have the story published in English for the first time. And while the language of the story seems fairly simple the narrative approach is a little bit convoluted? I put that as a question because I’m not really sure how one would describe the narrative in terms of shifts and point of view. We know that the story opens in the first person. A narrator is telling us about an idea that came into his head; to write about a communist by the name of Krakower. It seems that the initial narrator can be Singer himself, an approach to telling a story, which from my reading experience was and is not used that often. I think it was a technique that I recall Dostoevsky may have used to begin some of his novels.

    The picture that we are presented with of Krakower is that of a man who is initially sure of himself and his ideology. A man confident in his convictions. He is not even afraid of going to prison if it comes to that. But then Krakower’s emotional state takes a decided turn in another direction. He has a dream which indicates a fault in the structure of his beliefs. A sense that for some reason or other Krakower’s emotional well being has been drenched in a well of guilt. From the moment the dream section starts there is a struggle, literally with the blanket being pulled off him, and also a psychological struggle between our protagonist and a force seen or unseen. Krakower is unsure of the true nature of the forces behind this “adversary” as was I as a reader.

    Part of what is going on psychologically in the mind of Krakower possibly stems from the relationship he has with the friend Damschak. What are the political ramifications of their relationship? This complicates the narrative further in political terms. What are the consequences of confronting communist Russia at that period in history? To further complicate things the narrator at the very beginning mentions a text he is reading, “Phantasms of the Living”, which when I looked it up I found has to do with research into psychic power, hypnosis, telepathy and thought transference. Is this the introduction of a possible explanation for Krakower’s experience with the blanket?

    Ultimately I found the story moderately compelling and mildly baffling. Is it a story of a man’s warring forces of his mind, a political statement or both?

  4. Trevor Berrett January 19, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Henry. I hope to respond soon! I finished the story last night, really enjoyed it, but need a bit of time to reread it and consider it before posting above.

  5. Parker January 19, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    I liked the story. The nature of reality is something that Singer continually grappled with. Recall “Gimpel the Fool” ends with Gimpel’s confused musing: “No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once re-moved from the true world.” The same confusion reigns in “Inventions,” in which the narrator’s waking sense of reality is seemingly being undermined by the “dark creatures” of his recurring nightmare– just as the reality of the subject of the narrator’s “nocturnal scribbling” (Kafka’ term) is being undermined by something, it’s not clear what. Is Krackower’s “tug-of-war” with his blanket an hallucination, a dream, or is the “ghost” on the end of the blanket actually something paranormal? That’s never made clear– at least to this reader– and possibly that is why Henry (as do I) finds the story “mildly baffling.” I suspect it’s baffling because the narrator-author (Singer ?) couldn’t decide where to go with it. Perhaps that why the story remained unpublished for 50 years. Yet one doesn’t have to be a Singer aficionado to appreciate the points attempts to make — both political and ontological.

  6. Parker January 19, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    Correction: Yet one doesn’t have to be a Singer aficionado to appreciate the points (HE) attempts to make– both political and ontological.

  7. Trevor Berrett January 22, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    I updated the post above with my thoughts. Need to read the comments here fully and respond, but I can’t quite do that yet. Soon!

  8. Dan January 23, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    I really don’t know about this one. On the one hand, how can the New Yorker ignore the tens of thousands of writers alive right now and struggling to see their work in one of the ever-shrinking print outlets available for short fiction? On the other hand, the story is pretty good. On the other hand, it really feels like Singer hadn’t quite worked out the ending, and maybe that’s why it was not published before.

    I truly do not understand the purpose of the frame story, except to set up that people dream, and dreams sometimes do funny things. So I guess we become more doubtful about the “reality” of the ghost, because not only are we made aware that we are in a story, but we are also reminded that Singer’s narrator has his own dreams. I don’t know.

  9. lotusgreen January 23, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    To me, the important thing to remember is that Singer himself has dreams as well. At first this story seemed all too similar to the Saragossa Manuscript, a story within a story within a tale. First read, I even missed that the guy from the country returned in the middle — I thought, that’s weird, whatever happened to him? Fortunately, Trevor’s notes clued me in.

    So I went back and read it some more times. And I was left with a puzzle it’s taken me a while to figure out, if I even have. I didn’t buy that the narrator’s tale was a frame. There were two characters in this story, each of whom had beliefs and dreams. But what, I kept asking myself, did they have in common? What were they telling me?

    Slowly I realized that in order to see the story from the proper perspective, I had to see it from Singer’s perspective; the other two are mere “Inventions.” So, a twist of the three-cornered hat, and I was sitting in Singer’s chair, weighing out what I was seeing.

    It was actually a long, slow process, certainly not obvious at first, and though now it does seem obvious I’m still not sure, and that is very appropriate to this story.

    We are given two men. The first has moved to the country, he’s one with nature. He’s waking after just enough sleep, having gone to bed bird-early, filled with inspiration. We are left with the impression that his move to the country has been a good, even delightful, thing for him.

    The second is so secure in his political identity, he can even juggle it and appear to be doing it square. For him, it is source and inspiration, security in all things. We are clear in our understanding of him as a dominant personality, one who likes power and believes strongly in his cause.

    Then come dreams. Each goes, in his dream, through a purgatory; things are bad but they are going to get worse. The political man, in his dream, is being stripped of his outer, protective layer, laid bare before the chill of the night.

    The narrator is a dark cellar, the dark of the night closing in on him; he sees no way out. His next step takes him into an even smaller room thinking that he might sit and understand, but here too the walls begin to close in on him and on his arms grow the equivalent of those things in parking lots — if you drive across them the wrong way your tires will be slashed.

    Our communist meets, in his dream at last, something he is sure must only exist in dreams: a ghost. But it can’t be a ghost, maybe not even in a dream, for to lend credence to the idea for even an instant will topple everything he holds firm, and dear.

    The narrator becomes ever more enmeshed; he is the opposite of having been freed.

    There must be a law governing nightmares.

    In daily life it is imperative to assume an identity with everything from the way you dress to how you worship; beliefs become institutionalized within your body politic. Your decisions make sense. To you. Perhaps the law governing nightmares is simply the fool within the fool you are laughing and pointing out that everything you know is wrong. The degree to which who we think we are determines who we think we actually are will amp up the dichotomy of the middle of the night.

    And I can hear Isaac laughing, at his two inventions, twisting on their own petards, and at himself who, like all humans everywhere, plays this identical game every day, and night, of our lives.

  10. Majnun Ben-David January 26, 2015 at 1:20 am

    As usual, my full thoughts on this story are at http://www.majnunbd.com.

    But a key resource for this story is the accompanying interview on the New Yorker web site with David Stromberg, who discovered the story in Singer’s papers at the Ransom Center (and who has previously translated some of Singer’s work). The interview does an excellent job of placing the story in the context of both Singer’s work and the time it was written in. It considers why the story might not have been published in English before (it was published in Yiddish in 1965), and discusses some of the ideas in the story. So I’d suggest reading it at http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-isaac-bashevis-singer-2015-01-26?intcid=mod-latest

    A summary of my review is that I think this story is of most interest for what it tells us about Singer (see above-linked interview), rather than considered on its own. On its own, it seems like a too-straightforward “message” story about the hazards of Stalinism/Leninism, with the true believer Krakower forced to confront the human cost of the purges by a ghostly visitor who literally and figuratively “uncovers” him. Yes, the story-within-a-story device is interesting, vaguely Poe-like to my ear, and sets up a nice argument between dreams/visions as being of significance (per the book the writer is reading as he tries to fall asleep, and perhaps as per Krakower’s nocturnal vision) or being just a manifestation of mundane physical needs, as when the writer’s dream is seen to be merely a bathroom alert.

  11. lotusgreen January 26, 2015 at 2:45 am

    I said earlier, “In daily life it is imperative to assume an identity with everything from the way you dress to how you worship; beliefs become institutionalized within your body politic. Your decisions make sense. To you. Perhaps the law governing nightmares is simply the fool within the fool you are laughing and pointing out that everything you know is wrong. The degree to which who we think we are determines who we think we actually are will amp up the dichotomy of the middle of the night.”

    David Stromberg says in his comments, “It may be that the ghost of this betrayed friend is pulling off the warmth and comfort of Krakower’s “cover,” exposing the lack of character behind his grand words and ideas. We see that beneath the image of a self-important theoretician is a pajamaed oil-well owner’s son afraid of his own better judgment.”

    Yup.

  12. Trevor Berrett January 26, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    Nice comments, Lily and Manjun! Lily, I hadn’t thought much of taking another step back to seeing Singer himself as another author, though it’s right there! I appreciate so much your continued comments and contributions to the thought-process I have to undertake with these stories — and I hope you’ll join me soon with “Alice,” this week’s story — it’s got a lot going on!

  13. lotusgreen January 26, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    Thanks, Trevor. This discussion has pointed up something interesting to me. I don’t know what it is about me, but I seem not to respond to the “story” but to something else. Here, or in Nuruddin Farah”s: “The Start of the Affair,” for example, it’s almost as though the politics of the story are unimportant and exist only since without them it would be straight philosophy and not fiction.

    It may just be my ignorance, I’ll admit that. Does what one knows about the Communist Party and its machinations in the 1930s (or whatever) in any way inhibit one’s grasping in full the essentials of this story? No, I don’t think so. Am I saying that Singer said to himself, “Hmmm, okay, I’ve got an idea about human nature, so what wrappings can I put it in to make it a proper story?” No, of course not. But instead, consciously or not, a story coalesced in his head which illustrated some idea about human nature.

    As writing teachers always suggest, to make something universal write it as specifically as possible.

    Nor do I suggest that all of the sociological commentaries about a given story are irrelevant, no, just that they are not the essential story.

  14. Trevor Berrett January 26, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    I agree, Lily. I don’t really know much about the Communist party in the 1930s myself, and yet this story was exceptional for me. It felt more universal than that, though I’m sure if I knew more about such things I’d perhaps get even more out of it. I read a lot of international literature and watch a lot of international film, and I’m sure many many things zip right over my head, and yet much of what I read and watch still resonates because — I think you nailed it — it is also about human nature.

  15. lotusgreen January 26, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    That’s really interesting, Trevor. Thanks.

  16. Ken February 13, 2015 at 3:03 am

    I liked this a lot and did not find it baffling. I felt it dealt with two characters in different positions who had different relations to the unreal and to their overall society. A relatively “free” writer who may have bad dreams, but is in a comfortable situation where he need not fear his arrest or accusation of treason by a totalitarian state, and one who does and who has to internalize its atheism and materialism. I thought Singer slid between the two voices effortlessly and that this was pretty masterful and especially seemed on a whole other level than the other short-in-length tales by Lennon and Coover which also flirted with allegory or the fairy tale.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.