Monday, September 10, 2007

Reading Journal: "The Gentleman from Cracow"

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Until we left for England last year, we had a subscription to the Library of America. Every six weeks, a handsome new hardcover book would arrive in the mail. Although each book came on approval, I never returned a book, optimistically thinking that I might someday have a craving for Dreiser’s An American Tragedy or Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Among the volumes I’ve actually read are Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), Sinclair Lewis (Arrowsmith and Dodsworth), Theodore Roosevelt (Autobiography), and Henry Adams (The Education and most of Mont St. Michel and Chartres). Now I’m reading Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, in a volume that also includes Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In 2004, the Library of America issued a much-heralded three-volume centenary collection of the complete stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), the seventh American and only Yiddish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1978). Many of Singer’s stories are set in the shtetls (Jewish farming communities) of pre-Holocaust Poland, and have the distinctive flavor of Old World folk tales. “The Gentleman from Cracow,” originally published in English translation in the 1957 collection Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories, is a fairytale-like story about the consequences of a wealthy doctor's arrival in a struggling rural community.

The first time I read the story, I had recently finished Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), and I read Singer’s story as a fable about the effects of conspicuous consumption on a traditional society. In Singer’s story, a hell on earth is created when the villagers turn away from the traditions that bring restraint, sustainability, and resilience to their culture. This time, having just finished Ron Powers’ excellent biography of Mark Twain and its discussion of Twain’s late masterpiece, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleysburg,” I read Singer’s story as a Yiddish cousin of Twain’s tale about human corruptibility. It’s a story with many variations: a traveling salesman marches into River City and stirs up the townsfolk with visions of seventy-six trombones, a carpenter’s son from Nazareth shows up offering eternal life...

The sainted Rabbi Ozer spends the night of the gentleman’s apocalyptic ball locked up in his house. When he wakes in the morning, the sky is a fiery red and he hears shouts that sound like the howling of wild beasts. The rabbi asks himself, “Has the world come to an end? Or have I failed to hear the ram’s horn heralding the Messiah? Has He arrived?” At the heart of the story (and its Twain and Meredith Wilson variants) seems to be the problem of distinguishing between Savior and snake oil salesman. In Singer’s story, salvation comes not from the windfall appearance of a wealthy stranger, but from the careful observance of traditions that have sustained a community through time. At the end of the story, the lessons of the gentleman’s visit have been enshrined in memory and in the language of everyday life: “Whenever a shoemaker or tailor asked too high a price for his work he was told, ‘Go to the gentleman from Cracow and he will give you buckets of gold.’” Singer, writing in an old and dying language, seems to be reminding his readers that language, and stories, and even snippets of simple folk wisdom, are a lifeline flung out to us from the past.

1 comment:

John Mutford said...

The Library of America sounds great actually. In Canada McClelland & Stewart publishes a similar series called the New Canadian Library. Though ours are only paperback and in sounds like yours are presented much nicer.

As someone with a bit of a love/hate relationship with tradition, I think I'd be very interested in reading that story.

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