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.”