The Death of Methuselah by Singer

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The Death of Methuselah by Singer

Editado: Dez 1, 2020, 5:09pm

I recently finished The Death of Methuselah by Isaac Singer. I love his writing, and thought I'd post my review here. This short story collection was published in 1988, when Singer was 75. It is his final published collection, though he went on to publish four more novels thereafter. Even though Singer lived in the U.S. for decades, he continued to write only in Yiddish. My love for these stories about older Jewish characters, mostly men, runs deep. A lot of the stories remind me either of my father or of my father's gin rummy cronies.

Singer wrote about passion, hope, frustration and folly, about the strange course that life could take, with clear, usually straightforward language, gentle humor and a great affection for humanity and for the human condition. Though much of Singer's earlier writing concerns both city and shtetl life in pre-World War II Poland (where Singer was born and lived until moving to the U.S. in 1935) and often features strong elements of Jewish mysticism, only two or three stories in this collection fit those categories. Mostly here we have older men in the U.S. and sometimes Europe or Israel, looking back on their lives and/or musing about human nature. Many of the tales intersperse storytelling with philosphising either by the narrator or another character. Often, there is no closure or culmination of plot in the standard sense: just, instead, a rambling tale of a life, or of one or two lives intersecting, which, when you turn the last page, simply stops short.

A couple of examples of Singer's humor and of his observational style: In one story a retired man, bored with his life of inactivity, meets a stranger in a cafeteria who soon is trying to entice him to buy a store and start a new business. Tempted, but worried that the exertion will be too much for him, the man asks, "Who should I start a new business for, my wife's next husband?"

But a bit more deeply, here are some passages from the beginning of the story, "House Friends:"

We were sitting in the Cafe Piccadilly, Max Stein and I, and our talk turned to married women with lovers tolerated by their husbands. "House friends" we used to call such men in the Yiddish Writers' Club. Yes, women--what else could we have talked about? Neither of us was interested in politics or business. . . . Max Stein, a frustrated painter, tried to make a drawing of me on a sketch pad, but without success. He said to me "One cannot draw you. Your face changes every second. One moment you look young, another moment old. You have peculiar tics. Even your nose changes from minute to minute. . . . Love is supposed to be an instinct, but what is instinct? Instinct is not blind, or what they call unconscious. The instinct knows what it wants and plans and calculates perfectly. It is often shrewd and prescient. Schopenhauer dwells constantly on the subject of blind will. But will is far from blind--the very opposite. The intellect is blind. Give me a cigarette."

Several of the stories consist of one person telling his life story to a listener. In "A Peephole in the Gate," a young man in pre-war Poland looks through the aforementioned peephole and sees his fiance making love to a janitor's son. In despair, he runs off to New York, thus being spared the Holocaust. Many years and twists and turns later, he is an old man, now called Sam, telling his life's tale to another old man on a cruise ship bound for Buenos Aires. After hearing the man's long and complicated life story, the narrator/listener goes back to the beginning of the man's tale . . .

"It may be," I said, "that if you didn't look through the peephole that evening you would never have gone to America. You and Eve and your children would all gave been burned in Auschwitz or tortured to death in some other concentration camp."

"Yes, I thought about that, too. One look through a peephole and your whole life is changed. You would still have been here at this table, but not with me. . . . What does all this mean? That everything is nothing but a miserable accident."

"Perhaps God wanted you to live and therefore he mad you look into the peephole."

"Now, my dear man, you talk nonsense. Why should God want me to live while millions of other people are destroyed?"

Just before this passage, Sam has said, ". . . I had hoped that old age would bring me peace. I reckoned that after seventy a person stops musing about all petty things. But the head does not know how old it is. It remains young and full of the same foolishness as at twenty. I know that Eve is no longer alive. She mush have perished in the Nazi slaughter. Even if she were alive, she would be a tottering old woman by now. But in my mind she is still a young girl and Boleck, the janitor's son, is still a young boy and the gate is still a gate."