Soon after starting to read this collection I found myself comparing Singer’s stories with those of Jorge Luis Borges. First of all, both writers deal with elements of the fantastic, though Singer is concerned mainly with that which has to do with Jewish folklore and legend, and Borges delves much further into the out-and-out bizarre and surreal. In addition, both writers, in many of their stories at least, write of idiosyncratic characters from their native lands: Singer of Jewish communities in Poland, and Borges of rough common folk in Argentina. And finally, both often insert themselves into their stories as themselves, playing the narrator or an observer who objectively observes and comments upon the main events.
I think I prefer Borges personally, because I enjoy the intricacies of his fantasy worlds, the mind-puzzles, the conundrums. But that is not to take away from the value of Singer’s stories.
To be honest, the first several stories didn’t impress me much. They were rambling and disjointed and without coherent theme. But then I read “The Son from America” and after that I was hooked. This story is a perfect little parable, the kind of story you read and afterwards think that it couldn’t be improved upon. It tells about an elderly couple who live in a tiny poor village in Poland. Their son has gone to America and they haven’t seen him for years. One day he shows up, rich and prosperous, with all sorts of plans to improve the lifestyle of his parents and the other villagers, but then he gradually comes to realize that they are all content and have need of nothing. That and the closing story, “Grandfather and Grandson”, which deals with a devote old man’s reaction to the events of the Russian Revolution, were my favorites in the collection, but basically every story in between these two was a good solid interesting tale. Maybe the stories are presented chronologically and after a certain point Singer really hit his stride; I don’t know. But that’s how it worked out with me.
This collection was co-winner of the National Book Award in 1974 with “Gravity’s Rainbow”. Though I have read some Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow” is one that I have not yet tackled, so I can’t really compare the two. It seems, at first glance, that they are unlikely bedfellows: the traditional and the avant-garde. I don’t know offhand what else was published that year; I do know that the Pulitzer judges settled on giving no award in 1974, though the committee had voted unanimously in favor of “Gravity’s Rainbow”, evidently thinking that the novel was too outlandish to be honored. But my point is, though I thought “A Crown of Feathers” was a good solid collection of stories, I’m not sure I feel it’s of award caliber. Then again, awards are merely a matter of taste, after all. It is, however, a good read, and a fascinating insight into the Jewish milieu in Poland and New York in the early half of the twentieth century.
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