July 08, 1985 12:00 PM

by Isaac Bashevis Singer

How is it that a writer can make what happened decades ago in a poor village in Poland or in prewar Warsaw seem relevant to our lives today? In this new volume of 22 short stories, the Nobel laureate answers that question in a note at the beginning: “Literature must deal with the past instead of planning the future. It must describe events, not analyze ideas; its topic is the individual, not the masses…. Literature is the story of love and fate, a description of the mad hurricane of human passions and the struggle with them.” Singer provides sublime examples. In his title story, the daughter of a poor family has the great good fortune, everyone in the village thinks, to be loved by a wealthy young man. When he proves fickle, she has a second chance at love—only to be thwarted mysteriously by the past. In “Advice,” a man continues to love his wife even when she leaves him for another. The wife then wants to bring this new lover—and his wife—home to live with her husband. The writer of an advice column advises the man not to let them do it, but he does, and it takes years before the consequences are revealed. In “One Day of Happiness,” a poor, lovesick woman stakes everything on a letter she writes to a poetry-writing general who immediately invites her out. Her day of happiness turns horrifying, and there is an astonishing, ironic twist at the end. O. Henry was famous for the surprise ending; Singer almost always manages to deliver one that is a twist of pain, a powerful emotional tug that hits inside the heart. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $17.95)

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