New Yorker Note: Inventions
25 Jan 2015
The New Yorker publishes a new short story almost every week, and I offer my thoughts on it here. Usually I aim to get my review up within a day or two of the story being posted, but I'm a little tardy (six days) with this one. Other websites that provide coverage of The New Yorker stories are The Mookse and the Gripes and Clifford Garstang.
This week's story is "Inventions," a newly discovered story by the late Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Nobel Prizewinner. The story was originally written in 1965, translated from Yiddish in the late 1960s, and discovered in Singer's papers in the Ransom Center by David Stromberg.
By New Yorker standards, this is a rather short short story, just about 2500 words. And, in fact, there are two stories here, a story-within-a-story. A writer remembers a night when he awoke with the idea for a short story. We get the short story he remembered, with one intermission detailing the dream the writer had when he fell back asleep that night. As noted in the accompanying interview with the discoverer of this story, this kind of literary game-playing is unusual for Singer, and may have contributed to the story not appearing (until now) in English.
In fact, much of what I might have to say about this story is covered in that interview, so I recommend those interested in the story read it here. It puts the story in historical context, both in terms of Singer and in terms of US/world history, and provides a good take on the symbolism employed here by Singer.
The story within a story is that of one Morris Krakower, a Polish Communist Party functionary attending a conference of the party in Warsaw in the 1930s. He is a dedicated and effective leader of the party, skilled at intrigue and speechmaking. At night in his hotel room, Krakower is repeatedly disturbed by the blankets being pulled off his bed by an unseen force. Finally, the unseen force becomes seen: it is the disfigured ghost of his close friend, Comrade Damschak, who disappeared on a visit to Russia after publishing several articles attacking various writers. Krakower struggles to reconcile this vision with the materialism of his Leninist beliefs. The struggle throws off his speech the next day, which still argues that there can be no doubt permitted in the party.
The framing story, of a writer remembering a night when he awoke with the idea of the Krakower story above, is referenced only once at any length after the beginning. As Krakower is struggling with his bedding, the writer interrupts to recall a dream he had after falling back asleep on that same night. I won't relate the details of that dream here, but the significance of the sensations at the end of it are revealed to be a signal that the writer should awake in order to go to the bathroom. So much for the significance of dreams and symbolism, he seems to be saying.
To me, this is a fairly straightforward tale. It seems to reflect Singer's views on the Soviet regime, namely that those advocating for it were fooling themselves, as actual events (e.g., the death of Damschak, presumably as part of a "purge") reveal. The "uncovering" of Krakower is both literal and metaphorical.
As Stromberg puts it in the interview: "Morris [Krakower] remains a character who wishes to believe the lies that he tells himself and others. This kind of self-deception was one of Singer’s central themes, from 'Gimpel the Fool' all the way to his last stories and novels."
I think this story is of interest primarily because it was written by the accomplished and lauded Singer, and so I'm glad that the accompanying interview with Stromberg draws out what the story suggests about Singer. If the author of this story were anonymous, I think it would be a too straightforward and simple tale to merit much interest. In other words, I find this story to be of value mostly in terms of understanding Singer.