Fiction - Autumn 2020

The Professor’s Wife

By Isaac Bashevis Singer | September 23, 2020
Ponzini Family/Getty Images
Ponzini Family/Getty Images

This story, first printed in the Yiddish Forverts on September 22, 1968, appeared under the pseudonym Yitskhok Varshavski. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s use of pseudonyms in Yiddish has long been discussed and assumed to have a hierarchical structure—Yitskhok Bashevis for his most recognizable work, Yitskhok Varshavski for literary criticism and memoir, and D. Segal for subject matter that might be considered lowbrow. But Singer also published a few works of fiction under the Varshavski name when he felt that the story might be controversial or unusual for readers. This was the case with his most famous autobiographical collection, published in English as In My Father’s Court (1966), and his novel The Charlatan (1967–1968), a masterpiece of existential angst set in New York in the time of the Holocaust—it appeared in serial form, was translated during Singer’s lifetime, but remains unpublished in book form. “The Professor’s Wife,” appearing only months after the final installment of The Charlatan, suggests that Singer was still exploring those themes to which he always returned: the Holocaust and its implications for the postwar world. He appears to have found the story important enough to translate into English, leaving behind a typescript with handwritten corrections, though it’s likely the treatment of this theme, with its provocative ending, led to the story’s being set aside in favor of other works. The story, in a slightly edited form, appears here in English for the first time.

—David Stromberg, translator and editor of the Isaac Bashevis Singer Literary Trust.


I met her on a bus riding down a narrow winding road somewhere in Italy, I think between Sorrento and Naples, or perhaps between Amalfi and Sorrento. I had slept badly the night before, and the morning was foggy and cool.

It was a small bus, and its seats, with torn upholstery, were almost empty. If I’m not mistaken, the American woman and I were the only passengers. I sat to the right of the driver and she to the left. She continually asked him questions about the sea, about the hills, the villas, and many other questions, as one sometimes hears with children whose curiosity can never be satisfied. Her voice was also like a little girl’s. The driver spoke a broken English, and I could see he had great difficulty answering her. The road seemed to me quite dangerous. With the slightest mistake we could have fallen from a great height right into the Mediterranean. I had an urge to tell the lady to leave the driver in peace if she intended to arrive where she was going. Just the same, I kept silent.

The woman was in her early 30s. Her face was ruined from acne. I noticed that she bit her nails and that her fingers had ink spots, like those of a schoolgirl. Her dress was also on the sloppy side, like a teenager’s. Her ash blond hair was held together with a rubber band. She soon began to talk to me, even though we had not been introduced: Where do I come from, where was I going, what was my profession, am I married? I answered all her questions with the tone of a sedate man who tolerates the chattering of an enfant terrible. After a while, I asked her without standing on ceremony: How about you? Where do you come from, where are you going?

“I’m from Chicago. My husband is a professor. We were supposed to go to Europe together, but at the last moment he changed his mind. He dug up some conference or God-knows-what. He had to present a paper. So we decided that I would go by myself. Until about a week and a half ago, I was receiving mail from him every day and sometimes even a few letters in the same day. He knew my travel plan and all the addresses. Wherever I came, the hotel clerk gave me some mail. Suddenly he went silent. I’ve cabled him a few times and tried to talk to him on the telephone, but there’s no answer. I’m going absolutely crazy.”

“Maybe he’s traveling too?”

“No. He was supposed to stay in the city. Even if he was traveling, he could still write to me. I’m not sleeping nights. Sometimes I imagine that he’s lying dead in our apartment. It’s summer and all of our friends have left the city. He could have died not once but 10 times and no one would give a hoot.”

“Don’t you have any relatives in Chicago?”

“No relatives. What do you think I should do?”

“You have to decide for yourself.”

“I thought of going back, but my ship is leaving Naples in three weeks. I’m a coward. I don’t fly. I’m absolutely in despair. May I sit down near you?”

“Of course.”

“Come. Let’s sit farther back. We’re disturbing the driver. I’m sick and tired of all this beautiful scenery. More palms, and more flowers. It’s gorgeous, it’s magnificent, but there’s a deadness to it all. If he were here, I’d enjoy each minute. Alone it’s all a big drag. I don’t know Yiddish, but my grandmother read the newspaper you write for. As children, she’d read us, what do you call them, those letters from the reader, and it was very interesting.”

“What does your husband teach?”

“Mathematics. I was never good at mathematics. I got the worst grades. To this day I don’t have the slightest clue what it’s all about, but he’s a wiz at it. Calculus, analytical geometry, who knows what else? I envy the wives whose husbands teach literature. These women can speak to their spouses about the subject they teach. I can’t say anything to him about mathematics except that I hate it.”

“Don’t you have any children?”

“Children, no. What for? Who wants to bother with a little boy who screams all day and makes a slave out of you. What satisfaction does this give? Absolutely none. Irving would have liked to have a baby, but I told him: not with me. You get nothing out of them when they’re small, and you know how little gratitude they show when they grow up. As long as I can, I want to enjoy my life. I just had an idea. It’d be good if we could have children in old age. Let’s say that a woman would begin to get pregnant and give birth at 60 or even at 70. Isn’t that a good idea?”

“Tell it to God.”

“Is there a God? Look how he’s driving. It’ll be a miracle if we get there alive.”

Strangely, we’d both made reservations at the same hotel. Not that there was a big choice. We actually became neighbors. We ate supper together in the half-empty dining room, a large Italian meal with plates of fruit as dessert. The professor’s wife—I call her that because I’ve forgotten her name—asked for a paper bag and packed in it some apples, oranges, and grapes that she took to her room.

I forgot to mention that the moment we entered the hotel she immediately asked if there was any mail for her. The answer was none. For a while she seemed disturbed, she gave me a worried look, but it lasted only a moment. She soon recollected herself.

After the meal, a long silence ensued. She looked at me as if she were asking what we should do now. There was a time when I dreamed of such adventures—a trip abroad, another man’s wife. But only a few weeks before I’d written an article where I said that the Ten Commandments are not only divine laws but also the very principles of civilization and that those who defy them become immediately part of the underworld. Thou shall not kill and thou shall not commit adultery are two sides of one coin. I compared a man who has dealings with another man’s wife to a Nazi. I did not now intend to turn all this into a joke because of this female whose husband may be lying sick and helpless in his apartment in Chicago. Who knows? His tortured soul may be hovering right here in this darkly lit dining room, watching and waiting to see our next move. If we behaved badly, this soul may quote my article before the throne of glory and denounce me, saying, “See, Father in heaven, what he preaches, and how he conducts himself.” On the other hand, if the professor was dead, this would no longer be adultery. The professor’s wife suddenly asked:

“What do you think has happened?”

“I don’t know. There are many possibilities.”

“What possibilities?”

“Perhaps he’s fallen in love with someone else.”

“Even so, he wouldn’t remain silent. I always told him, if you don’t love me anymore, tell me openly and clearly. I want you to know that my husband is not some superficial guy. He’s 20 years older than I am. He’s not the type to run around with women.”

“Perhaps he’s in the hospital, God forbid.”

“If he was conscious, he’d send word. As far as I know, he’s quite healthy. But who can tell?”

We soon went upstairs to our floor and for a while we stood between her door and my door. The professor’s wife hesitated. “Would you like to come to my room?” she said.

I heard myself answer, “Perhaps a little later.”

“Very well. Come later. This place is empty and boring.”

I entered my room and was immediately at a loss as to what to do with myself. I had nothing to read and neither did I have any desire to write. From the window I could see a courtyard where many barrels were standing. My thoughts returned to the professor. I could see him lying in the middle of a room, a body in the process of decay, with a yellow face and with one eye half opened. He most probably cried for help when he got the heart attack. Perhaps he tried to call someone on the telephone but fell down knowing it was his end. He most probably thought about his young wife, whom he let go to Europe alone.

I knew in advance what would happen if I visited her room. We would babble for a while until we fell upon one another. If there is a God, He would look upon us with his divine eyes and think, “Miserable hypocrite! You don’t fool me. I know how to deal with scoundrels like you.”

I wasn’t as afraid of His punishment as I was ashamed before Him. This is the same God to whom I pray whenever I’m in trouble, and from whom I demand that he should avenge the Jews for what the Nazis did to them. How can I myself behave like a Nazi? I decided firmly not to go visit the professor’s wife. I lay down on the bed in my clothes and after a while I began to doze. I awoke to someone knocking at my door. I had forgotten where I was. I called out, “Who’s there?”

“It’s me, your neighbor. You were supposed to visit me. Were you asleep? I’m sorry.”

It became quiet. She must have gone back to her room. After a while, I got up and opened the door and no one was there. I had missed out on a little play with this frivolous creature. But I’d convinced myself that I was not completely without character, that what I said and wrote had some weight.

The next morning, when I went down to breakfast, she was gone. She’d left without saying goodbye. I imagined that the evil spirit said to me, “There is no God and the powers that do exist care little about who sleeps with whom. It’s all nonsense, unnecessary guilt, cowardice, irrational fear.”

“If these powers don’t care who sleeps with whom,” I answered the Evil One, “they should also be indifferent to who steals from whom, and who kills whom. And in that case, the Nazis have done nothing wrong.”

“They did wrong from a human point of view, not from a cosmic point of view,” the Evil One replied. “Don’t people treat animals the way the Nazis treated the Jews? Are you really sure that the Almighty loves humankind more than he loves an ox?”

There was no purpose in this debate since the professor’s wife was gone anyhow. I don’t remember exactly how I spent the few hours in this town. If I’m not mistaken, I took a sightseeing bus and went to some churches and historical sights. A few days passed and I found myself back in Rome. I went with a group of tourists to see a museum. Our guide stopped at a painting or a sculpture and began explaining its symbols and meanings. A few feet away, another group entered with another guide and he, too, began to explicate some work of art. The men’s voices intermingled. I looked up and saw the professor’s wife. She stood in the other group and someone held her hand—a tall middle-aged man in sporty dress with a camera hanging from his shoulder. His crew-cut hair was yellowish and so was his curly mustache. He had a snub nose and pale blue eyes. He kept whispering to her and kissing her earlobe. His clothes and his whole appearance were strictly European. Was he English, French, Swedish? One thing was clear to me—he was not her husband.

At first, I could not make out the language he was speaking. Then I heard that it was German. He certainly was not a German Jew. I said to the Evil One, “Here’s the golden opportunity I missed. This man could have easily been a Nazi during the war. Men like this tore out the teeth of dying Jews for the bit of gold in their fillings. They took Jewish children from their cradles and dragged them to the ovens in Auschwitz.”

But the Evil One has a dialectic mind and can always come up with the right answer. “This man might have been one of the few good Germans who saved Jews from the Nazi terror,” he told me. “Besides, doesn’t the Bible teach us to forgive and forget? How long should people remember the Holocaust?”

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