Thursday 18 April 2024

April is the cruellest month

April is to me full of sad associations. 

Last year, I was going through a difficult time. So I went through one Chekhov volume after another, in the translations by Ronald Wilks and Ann Dunnigan and Constance Garnett. Out of Constance Garnett’s 13 volumes, I read 8. At such a time, Chekhov brought me comfort and consolation. At such a time, I felt closer to Chekhov than any other prose writer, even more than Tolstoy and Jane Austen.

But now, somehow I’m not in the mood for Chekhov, for the pessimism and the unhappy people in his works. Perhaps it’s tiresome after a while to keep reading about people wasting their lives and losing their chances of happiness. Or perhaps it’s simply that Chekhov makes me more pessimistic, when Tolstoy or Shakespeare doesn’t have on me such an effect.

Is there something to Joseph Epstein’s idea about literature and faith in God? 

Anyway, I’ve been reading Isaac Bashevis Singer. I realised at the end of 2023 that I hadn’t read many books by Jewish writers—how Jewish is Kafka? how Jewish is Proust?—so I’ve been reading Isaac Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer and Primo Levi and now, between the 2 parts of Don Quixote, am back to Singer’s Collected Stories. It’s odd—at the beginning of the book, 2-3 months ago, I thought he was very good but couldn’t help thinking “so what?”, intending to write a blog post examining the idea of relatability in literature—but now I’m thoroughly enjoying his stories.

Singer’s short stories, I guess, might be roughly divided into 2 groups: the Polish, folklore-like stories, full of devils and dybbuks (like “The Destruction of Kreshev”, “The Last Demon”, “Henne Fire”, “A Crown of Feathers”, etc.) and the American, more realistic stories, usually with a Yiddish writer as the narrator (like “A Friend of Kafka”, “A Day in Coney Island”, “The Cabalist of East Broadway”, “A Quotation from Klopstock”, “Old Love”, “The Yearning Heifer”, etc.). But the realistic New York-based stories can sometimes be filled with ghosts, like “The Cafeteria”, and sometimes a folkloric story may be built on a horrifying historical event, such as “The Last Demon” is, one gradually realises, about the Holocaust.  

But what do I like about Isaac Bashevis Singer? He’s a fantastic storyteller. I love his rich imagination, his prose, his striking metaphors and imagery. I love his warmth and humour. I love the compassion he has for all his characters. 

So I’m spending the cruellest month with Isaac Bashevis Singer. 


  1. It’s interesting how different writers catch us in different moods. I haven’t read nearly enough Singer, so I can’t really comment on him. It is interesting that Chekhov fed your dark mood — or at least was more in tune with it — because I don’t find him especially dark. He’s not darker than Dostoevsky. Rather, he seemed to be endlessly (albeit compassionately) interested in varieties of human experience, and with aspects of human weaknesses.

    As for Jewish writers, I agree that Proust seems more French than Jewish, at least at first — but in his later books, as he explores the effect the Dreyfus case, he also explores Jewish issues more. Just as he likewise focuses much more on homosexuality later — the other key aspect of his identity. Kafka seems very Jewish to me.

    1. Chekhov is not darker than Dostoyevsky, but his is a more personal, relatable kind of dark, I think: loneliness, waste, sense of failure, sense that your life is over and you will never be happy, etc.
      The world of Dostoyevsky - poverty, addiction, obsession, spite, humiliation, torment, etc. - is very far away from me.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of Singer. I happened to take a class on Jewish literature leading up to the Holocaust in college, although Elie Wiesel's Night was part of it, so maybe I am remembering the span of it wrong. Anyway, I currently reading Abraham Heschel's The Prophets, which I also learned of and read a little in that class. It was more of a survey, so I didn't get too deeply into any of them then. For Singer we read his novel Satan in Goray, and I read a few short stories later. It seems like all these books are coming back into my life again, which makes me very happy.

    1. Is The Prophets good?
      Yeah, at the end of last year, I realised that none of my favourite writers were Jewish - Kafka I used to like a lot, but I hadn't read him for years - so I thought it would be good to go discover a few.

  3. How about something that has no aim other than to make you feel good, that just makes you laugh? The English were better at this than just about anyone - Augustus Carp, Diary of a Nobody, Three Men In a Boat, and of course, the divine P.G. Wodehouse.

    Thank God for divine frivolity - it can be a lifesaver. (I can point to times in my life when I don't know what I would have done without W.C. Fields...)

    1. I'm reading Don Quixote at the moment and it's hilarious.

      Great to hear you also like Wodehouse. I'm a fan too.


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