WHEN ISAAC Bashevis Singer spoke at South House last year, he told about "a young artist who once came to me and told me he was afraid he hadn't suffered enough."
"I told him a story," Singer said. "I once went into a tailor's in Warsaw and asked for a coat with crooked pockets. He told me I didn't need to ask, I could ask for straight pockets and they would still be crooked...In the same way, since humor is based on suffering, we will have humor for a million years."
It helps to remember this story in reading A Crown of Feathers, because the story makes plainer the pain Singer expresses in the theme that runs through A Crown of Feather's stories: people's inability to know the truth, or even to know that there is any truth that would make what they suffer meaningful. Again and again in these stories--like almost all Singer's stories, they're stories of Polish Jews or their children in the United States, told in slightly humorous, simple sentences that probably lose something for not being read aloud--the fear that what happens to people is not meant to make sense reappears. "Nu, one mustn't know everything," says a bearded woman in one of the book's weaker stories, in which Singer gives so little hint what his story means or might mean that it's just tantalizing, it leads to no hint of resolution. "We walked out on Broadway and the heat hit me like a furnace," Singer says at the end of another story:
Over a movie house hung a billboard of a half-naked woman four stories high, lit up by spotlights--her hair disheveled, her eyes wild, her legs spread out, a gun in each hand...I looked at Zelig...I said to him, "If there is no God, she is our god."
"I never heard the story before," conceded a youthful character in another story, caught in a synagogue by a blizzard. He ends up listening to a series of long and incredible stories about things like Polish squires who sleep in coffins and are carried off to peasant wives by floods. "What do you young people know, anyway?" the storyteller replies. In fact, there seems to be just one truth on which young people and old can rely absolutely:
The sun was setting on Riverside Drive, and the water of the reservoir reflected a burning wick. The radiator near which I sat hissed and hummed: "Dust, dust, dust." The singsong penetrated my bones together with the warmth. It repeated a truth as old as the world, as profound as sleep.
Or if there is another truth, Singer approaches it gingerly and ambivalently. At the end of "On a Wagon," a character decides he "had to make a choice between God, Who may not exist, and creatures as loathsome as Mendele Shmeiser and his females," and he goes back to his yeshiva. But not all Singer's characters choose this way. Some of them choose the world, or try to change it--the anarchist in "Property," for instance, although he turns up later as a Miami Beach landlord, "fat and flabby...in shorts and a pink flowered shirt"--and Singer seems to think others should have.
In "A Crown of Feathers," the best story in the book, a beautiful and haunting story, a girl remorseful because she didn't marry her grandfather's choice finds a crown with a miraculous feathery cross in her pillow, and becomes a Christian and then the squiress Maria Malkowska. Miserable with her unfaithful husband, she conjures up the Devil, who tells her that it was he who braided the feathers, that "the truth is that there is no truth."
She returns to the Jew her grandfather wanted her to marry, a fanatic who wakes her to roll in the snow with him for penance. At last, dying, despairing, wondering about "the Apostates who denied God, considering the world a random combination of atoms," Akhsa rips open her pillowcase and finds in a crown of feathers God's feathery Hebrew name.
But how is this crown any different from the first? "No matter how much the townspeople pondered and how many explanations they tried to find, they never discovered the truth. Because if there is such a thing as truth it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers." It seems as though Akhsa would have done as well to stick with "the castigating words of the prophets, who never mentioned the Kingdom of Heaven or the resurrection of the dead. All they promised was a good harvest for good deeds and starvation and plague for bad ones."
The other thing that Singer's characters find overwhelming, besides the impossibility of being sure of deeper meanings, is the one truth they can be sure of, the "dust, dust, dust" of change. Change can almost overwhelm even, those who accept the prophets' castigating words, who accept responsibility for their actions and say, however reluctantly, that that's meaning enough. There's Zeinvel Gardiner, an intellectual who's survived 20 years of turmoil in Poland including stays in fascist and Stalinist prison camps, who turns up in Paris with a new wife, determined to start a little magazine to tell people the truth. Zeinvel's wife is less optimistic than he is:
For dinner she had cooked a Warsaw soup of potatoes and brown flour, and as she put the plate down in front of me I saw the blue concentration-camp number on her wrist. She noticed my looking at it and said, 'If you die, you die, but if you live you have to go through the whole comedy. There are too many magazines already. If Moses himself descended from Heaven today, he'd just be laughed at.'
'So what should we do, Friedele?' Zeinvel asked. 'Look and keep quiet?'
Zeinvel winds up as dust, too, but the narrator of the story runs into a humorist friend "someone had told me that a tragedian had gone off with his wife while they were both fleeing the Nazis"--at the funeral.
I knew he wouldn't move until he had come up with a joke. I said, 'Feivel, you can't force humor. Let's go.'
He shook his head, smiled, revealing a new set of false teeth, and said, 'Really, it doesn't pay to leave. We'll soon be back anyhow.'
Every once in a while, Singer's characters achieve something beyond even accepting the certainty of change and the uncertainty of everything else. There's one really happy story in this book, the one Singer read at South House last year, "The Son from America." It's about the visit to an old couple from their American son, gone so long and changed so much that his parents can't recognize him at first, and it seems to say that under the right circumstances it's possible at least to imagine tender change, change that lets its subjects love each other and themselves, so that the one certainty in Singer's world can sometimes be a happy one.