“The Boarder”
by Isaac Bashevis Singer
translated from the Yiddish by the author

from the May 7, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Three years ago The New Yorker published a never-before-published story from Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I’m thrilled that they have another. “The Boarder” was never before published in English but also, apparently, in Yiddish. There were no dates on the Yiddish original nor on the English translation, so it is not clear when this story was written. David Stromberg, the editor for the Singer estate, in his interview with Deborah Treisman, says he thinks it was likely in the mid-1950s but admits this is a guess, though I’m inclined to rely on his expertise.

I think Singer is a master, and “Inventions,” the one The New Yorker published in 2015, was wonderful (see the post here). There’s always a risk when a story is found among discarded manuscripts; why was it never published, in this case not even in Yiddish? Stromberg speculates it may have something to do with the subject matter. This may be spot on; after all, one character calls God “a Nazi to end all Nazis.”

I am very excited to read this one, and I hope you’ll all share what you thought of the story below.

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By |2018-04-30T14:47:03+00:00April 30th, 2018|Categories: Isaac Bashevis Singer, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. David April 30, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    Unless I have forgotten something, this is the first Singer I have read. So any thoughts I have about it have nothing to do with comparing it to his other work. I thought the story was nice enough, but there isn’t much special here, so I can understand why it ended up forgotten by Singer.
    .
    The initial part of the story reads more like a detailed outline for the introduction of the characters. There is a lot of just telling us who they are and what their histories are. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but better writing would find a way to give us this information through storytelling and not just a data dump. Then we get to the conversation of the two characters. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it and it is well written, but it is an all too familiar presentation of the problem of evil and the loss of faith that can sometimes result from living through horrific experiences. I enjoyed the conversation, but got nothing really new out of it.
    .
    For me the most intriguing thing about the story comes from the interview and the information about the translation. Trevor, you might remember that it was almost exactly a year ago that I asked about translation into English of stories by authors who are fluent in English themselves and why they don’t more often just do their own translations. (That came up in the context of Etgar Keret’s story “Fly Already”.) While most of Singer’s work was translated into English by other people, it appears he translated this one himself. I don’t know if there was any cleanup of the translation after it was recently found, but if not I’d say this story proves he could translate his own work into English just fine.

  2. Ken May 5, 2018 at 3:12 pm

    I’d have to agree with all of David’s comments about this. The debate in the story is one of the most familiar in 20th century philosophy and each position has been argued many times in many other forums. That said, the story is well-written and interesting but probably best left as supplemental material. I’m not that familiar with Singer either but I also read “Inventions” and liked it a lot. I’d say that’s the type of posthumous material which deserves full attention and this story, despite its skill, is not. Stil…compared to some of the stuff lately, this at least is obviously the work of a skilled, professional talent.

  3. Greg May 12, 2018 at 4:41 pm

    Thanks David and Ken for your thoughts! The story indeed has themes we’ve seen many times before, and naturally makes us think of the Theodor Adorno observation:

    “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

    Lastly, I really liked these lines from the start of the story:

    “Through the window, hung with Dutch curtains, a butterfly flew in and landed on the table. It stood motionless, its wings together, waiting with the fatalistic calm of a creature that lives for only a short time.”

  4. Larry Bone May 13, 2018 at 2:00 pm

    Greg’s quote chosen from Singer’s story of the butterfly is it’s best part. It gives context to what follows in terms of basic human vulnerability. It is probably the only somewhat hopeful part of the narrative in that the butterfly is not quashed by a rolled up newspaper or the bottom of someone’s shoe. This story does not seem so reflective of the 50’s if it was written then. It does seem reflective of today with horrible acts of cruelty and anger directed at God and religion. And the boarder’s only solace in pursuit of easy women reflects the outlook of sleasy politicians or other men in powerful positions. The story may not add much to the argument of God being all good or all bad or life as a short period of choice amid endless struggle. But that butterfly is a memorable statement of man and woman’s general precarious state in this universe. I think Iran could become the new Hitler bent on destroying Israel so Singer’s story seems somewhat prescient. I hope iran gets reined in somehow since Saudi Arabia and other Arabic nations are feeling threatened. That may be reading too much into it but it is amazing how something observed by a character in a short story seem to almost occur later on in a somewhat similar form. We all hope the worst never happens.

  5. Greg May 13, 2018 at 10:18 pm

    I’m glad you found that quote on the butterfly to be brilliant too Larry! And thank you for expanding on the full meaning behind it.

  6. William May 30, 2018 at 3:26 pm

    I found this story well written and funny. The two men argue about “deep” topics. Not clear how serious each man is — the Reb seems to want the boarder’s company for diversion while he eats lunch — like people do today with their phones. In the end the boarder sees the spoon tip, so he leaves to find a woman. Was he looking to the spoon for an omen? Or an excuse? Are the men serious about their abstract argument? Or is it only a question of different personalities? Singer leaves us to ponder these questions.

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