A collection of stories by an accomplished Yiddish writer now appears in English for the first time.
These stories are a remarkable achievement. This volume combines the two books of stories Lempel (1907-1999) published during her lifetime; much of her work appeared in Yiddish newspapers and remains uncollected. Lempel described female desire, abortion, and incest, among other things, at a time when very few other writers were willing to take on such subjects. She did so with modernist acuity, making use of stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques, with a poet’s eye for sharp, unsettling images. In “The Death of My Aunt,” the narrator, after learning of her aunt’s death, hangs up the telephone and looks out the window. It’s nighttime, and she sees “that the bare branches of my tree were filled with keening women wrapped in black shawls.” Her grief becomes literal, external. In “Images on a Blank Canvas,” which describes another death, she writes: “Inside my head, black crows caw loudly around the dead body,” an image that, as in many of her stories, blurs the line between the real and the unreal. That same narrator distinguishes herself from those people who “exchange information they have observed with their own eyes. I,” she tells us, “am trying to see the invisible. I don’t trust the eye that relies on facts.” This is as precise a statement of poetics as any other and speaks well to Lempel’s individual style. Unfortunately, Lempel also has a propensity for the sentimental, and many of the stories that begin with wry honesty are resolved with what feels like forced closure. She’s prone to overwriting, to grandiloquent passages more baroque than sonorous. Still, the pleasures of Lempel’s insight outweigh these stylistic proclivities.
With shrewdness, wit, and lyricism, Lempel gives voice to the women, the aging, the ill, and others who, from the margins of modern society, have had trouble making themselves heard.