Fiction - Autumn 2020

The Professor’s Wife

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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New York in the time of the Holocaust—it appeared in serial form, was translated during Singer’s lifetime, but remains unpublished in book form.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?

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