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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Theconversion of I B Singer: Inventing the truth

It's surprising to see a "new" story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Inventions, in the current New Yorker - as IBS died about 20 years ago I think - but it's not surprising why this story was never published. The story is slight and atypical and I would suspect it's a piece that IBS discarded, disowned, or set aside for further work. Not to say that it's a terrible story - but not on the level of Gimpel the Fool, for example, to put it mildly. Story has two time frames - one of an older man, the writer, who has trouble sleeping, has very rich dreams when he does sleep (he describes one of clawing through a basement and a tunnel, trying to escape, a very typical anxiety dream - is anything more pat and dull that dream sequences in literature?), and when he's awake he has vivid ideas for fiction - and he presents one (so this is a story about a man writing a story, hm): a Polish communist intellectual, Krakower is his name I think, in the Stalinist era attends a party conference and at night in his hotel room is visited by what he first takes to be a nightmare but later comes to believe is a visit from the spirit of a denounced and "disappeared" party leader whole failed to kiss the ring of Stalin. Krakower is shaken to the core by this visitation, as he comes to realize that if he accepts it he must abandon his lifelong belief in materialism and communism - and begin to explore spiritualism and idealism. Story just ends there - or does it? Is there something at the elemental autobiographical level here, even if somewhat shrouded and masked in metaphor? Perhaps IBS, the writer outside the frame of the story, is trying to examine an element of his own life: shift from political beliefs that blinded him to an acceptance of spiritualism, which opened up for him an entire world of fictional possibility. His work is universally known for the golems, dybbuks, and ghosts that populate his stories and determine the behavior, ideas, beliefs, and fate of his characters - but perhaps behind this spiritualism lies a writer's struggle: present his fictional world - the shtetl and the Jewish settlements in New York - as controlled by fates or by material forces? We know which way IBS turned, but he may be recognizing here that to do so he had to undergo a conversion of sorts, a visitation. The title of the story indicates this as well: He is not recounting truth, although his stories are rich in detail and seem to many to be truthful chronicles of the world of his childhood, but he - like all writers - is inventing truth.

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