"The Manor" is a difficult novel to enjoy but is a realistic depiction of the lives of Jews amongst Gentiles in 19th century Poland. Poland at this time was partitioned by Prussia, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Polish Count of "The Manor" in the title, has been exiled to Siberia for participating in a Polish rebellion against Russia. A Russian Duke confiscates all his property. Calman Jacoby has frequently traded with the Count and he leases the property from the duke, taking a small shack for himself on the property while allowing the Countess and her daughters to remain living in The Manor. The disasters that befall Calman from that point forward make up the body of the novel.
When the Polish Count and his son, Lucian, return from Siberia, they are disillusioned and debauched beyond repentance. Lucian, a handsome rogue, seduces and elopes with Calman's favorite daughter, Miriam Leiba. They flee to Paris where they reside in filth while Lucian cuckolds Miriam Leiba continuously. Upon their return to Poland, a murder lands Lucian in prison. Miriam Leiba becomes a lush, loses the custody of her children to Lucian's sister, and contacts tuberculosis.
In the meantime, the Count sets up residence with a Russian woman he brings from Siberia, shortening the life of his wife, the Countess, by several years. Calman loses his own wife around the same time. She had been a bitter but responsible woman who failed to enliven Calman though she attended to his every need...except one. Calman marries again, believing himself in love with Clara, a rich, fashionable, society woman. She is beautiful and appeals to Calman's senses but she is reckless and pressures him to evict the Count and his Russian concubine. She is pregnant and fancies residing in The Manor after she updates it to her liking. The peasants see negative omens in the sky when Calman moves into The Manor, but they don't protest because the Count was oppressive. The son Clara delivers to Calman in the Manor is a monstrous brat that engenders feelings of shame rather than that of love.
Shortly thereafter Clara begins an affair with Zipkin, a university student with communist leanings. Affairs have become "fashionable" with her "in-crowd". She hires her lover as a governor and tutor for Calman's rebellious son and moves him into the Manor until Calman, always suspicious but never officially exposing her, becomes uncertain of the parentage of Clara's second pregnancy and throws Zipkin out. Then he leaves The Manor himself, opting for a religious life in the Shtetl of his youth. He is done with "The Manor" forever, prefering to be a tenant of someone else than Lord of The Manor. He claims that as a tenant "God watched over him" and as a Lord, he was in over his head.
In my opinion, the characters in the novel are overly concerned with marriage and sex, so much so that every fatal mistake is attributable to their choice of spouse or lover. If each had spent time alone to develop self-sufficiency and notice it in others or enjoyed some form of useful trade, many of their personal disasters wouldn't have happened or could've been prevented. That they all end up dissatisfied, unhappy, in prison or in retreat is a logical outcome of their emotive, irrational decisions. Only Calman, the only character engaged in useful trade, realizes what has caused his problems and by the end of the novel he is consciously working to repair his soul. The other characters fade off the pages in ignominy, victims of their dreams and own irresponsibility.
The building of an independent country, an issue uniquely applicable to these two nations, requires the full development of its people to create, defend and inhabit that new nation. Any nation is doomed to fall like a "House of Cards" (which The Manor comes to symbolize) when emotion is placed above reason. What Isaac Bashevis Singer shows us in this unhappy tale will help all who read it to understand why this must be so.
"The Manor" is a worthwhile if not enjoyable read and needs more exposure through a new reprint.