Nobel laureate's superb stories; The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, selected and with an introduction by Mr. Singer. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux. 588 pp. $20.Under the Canopy, by Dorothea Straus. New York: George Braziller. 165 pp. $10.95.
When Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize for literature, the literary world was glad that the Swedish Academy had not allowed another Joyce or Conrad or Proust to pass on without receiving its recognition. I suspect, too, that Singer's longtime readers and admirers must have been pleased that no complaints about obscurity or parochialism attended this choice - although this writer has acknowledged his exclusive subject matter to be ''the Jews of Eastern Europe, specifically the Yiddish-speaking Jews who perished in Poland and those who emigrated to the USA.''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
He has lived in the United States since 1935, continuing to write in stories and novels and newspaper articles (often published first in the Jewish Daily Forward) in Yiddish. And though it would be a serious disservice to America's interests not to claim him as one of its greatest living writers - there is no question that Singer's fiction embodies the experiences of a destroyed culture, as it endeavors to keep the memory of that culture alive.
The extent to which he accomplishes this purpose is implicit in ''Under the Canopy,'' a memoir by a devoted friend and translator, who finds in Singer's ethnic dignity and moral strength a ''way back'' to the world of her ethnic heritage long ''disavowed'' by her wealthy Westchester family. ''We had never wanted to be Jews, and we had hoped to merge with those less endangered than ourselves,'' Dorothea Straus writes in ''Under the Canopy.'' She offers vivid and revealing glimpses of Singer on his adopted turf, feeding pigeons on Upper Broadway, swapping stories with cronies at the Yiddish Writers' Club, blaming mishaps on the imps and demons whose reality he coyly credits. She also shows him to us in Stockholm, when he went to collect his prize, eloquently insisting that it is the writer's duty to be, first and foremost, a storyteller. Hers is a modest portrait, but it's deftly done, and very welcome.
Singer's preeminent position among the storytellers of our time will be firmly consolidated by the current ''Collected Stories,'' which gathers 47 tales from eight previously published volumes. For narrative drive, color and variety, and sheer suggestive power, they seem to me as superior to most contemporary fiction as they are distant from it. Perhaps the unusual texture results from the compounding of various literary influences - such as Poe, Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun, and Kafka - with Singer's grounding in apocryphal and cabbalistic literature, and Hasidic folktales.
His typical strategy is to state a plain fact, then bring it to life with a sequence of quick specific details. Here's an example of Singer's patented directness and economy: ''The day began, dark as evening. Fine snow dust was falling from the murky sky. The smoke could not rise from the chimneys; it spread over the roofs like ragged sheets. The rooks cawed harshly. Dogs barked.'' He can create thickly populated, complex areas of activity and conflict as convincingly as any writer since Dickens. These stories are filled with detail about religious and dietary practices - yet we never feel oppressed by mere information. As one of his narrators says in denying that death exists: ''everything lives, everything suffers, struggles, desires.''
It's useful, I think, to divide these stories into categories. The earliest and arguably the best record the material or spiritual travail of Polish village people. Demons, or their master the ''Evil One,'' are frequent antagonists in ''The Gentleman from Cracow'' and ''Taibele and Her Demon.'' Deviations from orthodox behavior are examined in these early stories. In ''Yentl and the Yeshiva Boy,'' a woman who longs to become a scholar pretends she's a man; in ''Henne Fire,'' a Herculean shrew literally keeps bursting into flames. Yet the perfectly upright, too, are inexplicably tormented in ''The Unseen'' and ''The Slaughterer.'' Singer's range includes boisterous comedy (in ''The Dead Fiddler, '' a pair of quarreling dybbuks inhabit a single beleaguered body). It also includes slow, rich, patiently developed chronicles of moral crisis and redemption. These often have the density of novellas, as one sees in ''The Little Shoemakers,'' and ''The Destruction of Kreshev.''
A series of even more ambitious stories dramatizes the relativity, or even failure of various philosophical and religious ''truths,'' or argue in Kantian fashion that if reality is subjective, anything can happen. Thus: a goodhearted simpleton and cuckold (''Gimpel the Fool'') bases his limitless credulity on his faith that ''all things are possible.'' An elderly scholar-recluse (''The Spinoza of Market Street'') is ''deceived'' into entering fully into life, and feeling - and bitterly laments his human folly. The ambiguity is breathtaking. Ghosts and spirits crowd these stories. Other ''worlds'' interpenetrate with this one continuously. ''The Letter Writer,'' lone survivor from a family that perished in the Nazi death camps, find solace - and much more - in his correspondences with total strangers, and his fervent belief in ''the world beyond.'' The story just expands, and expands - it's the ultimate expression of Singer's supernaturalism and, in my opinion, his finest story.
I find fewer successes among the mostly recent stories about elderly writers in New York, musing over their colleagues' surprising fates (''The Cabalist of East Broadway,'' ''A Friend of Kafka''). Several are honestly moving (''Old Love ,'' ''Neighbors''), but some are little more than vignettes, and at least one accomplished comedy - ''The Admirer'' - strikes me as both petulant and boorish on the subject of the aging writer as pursued celebrity.
No more negative remarks, except to protest the omission from this collection of two of Singer's very best stories: ''The Captive'' (from ''A Crown of Feathers'') and ''A Pair'' (from ''Passions''). This is one of those books that I regretted to finish and wished were longer. I can think of no higher praise, nor any recent book more deserving of it.