ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER’S 14 NOVELS in English, memoirs, and hundreds of short stories, set on four continents and in as many centuries, not to mention his children’s books and countless translations and journalistic pieces in Yiddish, form an unusually coherent whole. Any chapter of Singer, a paragraph, sometimes even the look of the sixties Noonday Press typography on the physical page, and you are back in Singerworld. It is less a voice than a sensibility, a moral universe of piety and outrage, humility and rakishness, sly and cynical intelligence about human weakness and wide-eyed wonder at the sun and the stars and the snowflakes, each with six sides, every single one. A scene recurs in many of the novels and stories — looking out on a quietly snowy evening — sometimes the sky is “half red, half violet, without a single star, as if a cosmic conflagration were in progress”; sometimes the snow descends “sparsely, peacefully, as if in contemplation of its own falling”; sometimes a character feels that “the day hung in the balance, as though hesitating: could something yet be accomplished before nightfall, or was it too late? All at once, as though a switch had been turned, the light went out. Darkness fell, and the day was beyond repair.” Singerworld exists before and after the Fall at once, suffused equally by the horrors that everyone has had to face for the past 100 years — especially someone from the heart of Polish Judaism — and by an irrepressible love of irrepressible life.
The downside of coherence is a certain shapelessness to Singer’s oeuvre, not helped by a byzantine publication and translation history. His novels were published in English in a different order from how they were written in Yiddish (usually serialized in New York’s The Jewish Daily Forward, and often not published in book form at all); there is also the question of whether Singer, in working with his English-language translators, changed the tone and content of his works, and thus whether the posthumous translations, without Singer’s involvement, are more accurate. There are several novels still untranslated into English. The Magician of Lublin (1960), called Singer’s “second novel” on the cover of its fiftieth-anniversary reissue, was actually his third novel and fourth book in English and his eighth or tenth novel in Yiddish, depending how you count the two-volume The Manor and the unfinished (and untranslated) Warsaw 1914–18; it would have seemed like a step into modernity to his English-language readers, after Satan in Goray (Yiddish 1933–34, English 1955, set in the seventeenth century) and the old-country tales of Gimpel the Fool (English 1957), but it feels like a step back in time, almost escapist like its hero, when you think of it as coming after Shadows on the Hudson (Yiddish 1957–58; English 40 years later, in 1998; set in New York in the late 1940s). I certainly didn’t know where to start reading Singer, and I will end this essay by trying to bring a little structure into the Singer bookshelf.
An even greater difficulty in approaching Singer’s work today is that, until now, how he has been read has largely depended upon where you stood with respect to the Jewish and Yiddish communities he transcended. Detractors say he kitschified the old country with his stories of demons and dybbuks, sidelocks and phylacteries; that he...read more