A Guide to Isaac Bashevis Singer

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Isaac Bashevis Singer




A Guide to Isaac Bashevis Singer by Damion Searls

On the Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish patriarch and his moral universe of piety and outrage...

September 1st, 2012 reset - +

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 was a sexual pervert, giving Jews a bad name; and that while he used up all the attention Americans were willing to give Yiddish literature, someone else (Jacob Glatshteyn, Chaim Grade) was the real genius who should have been translated and should have won the Nobel. In short: Singer is not representative, he’s not! There’s a whole world here, even after the Nazis! Meanwhile, for those who did not read Yiddish it was hard not to make Singer representative by default.

Singer rode the identity-politics horse hard himself, and his very occasional lapses into outright kitsch — “The Son from America,” for example, a terrible story that appeared in The New Yorker and later in the volume that won him a National Book Award — were no less a part of his reputation and rise than the stories we might prefer. (It is meretricious, ultimately, for a critic to deny what everyone thought, since what a book is to its readers is what it is. When a critic argues that Ulysses is actually not a difficult book, what is he saying?) To his readers, in Yiddish almost as much as in English, Singer was the voice of the shtetl folkways: in the words of the Nobel Prize biography, he was “stamped” by the “centuries-old traditions” of “the world and life of East European Jewry, such as it was lived,” in Yiddish, “the language of the simple people and of the women.” Later in Singer’s life, he tried to back away from that position, for instance in the Author’s Note to Shosha, 1978: “This novel does not represent the Jews of Poland in the pre-Hitler years by any means. It is a story of a few unique characters in unique circumstances.” But by then the frame was set, and it was hard to know how to undo or evade it.

The debate had its last gasps in 1998, upon the posthumous publication of Shadows on the Hudson, and 2004, around the celebrations for his centennial, then flat-lined altogether. The identity politics clearly worked for Singer in the short term but it risks making him unread now — merely a standard-bearer for a tradition readers are ever-farther removed from. As with Asch and Abramovitsh and Aleichem and the other Yiddish patriarchs, Singer is turning into a writer more often on one’s parent’s bookshelves than one’s own.

Singer is usually said to have been born in 1904 but he was probably born in 1902, and he started lying about his age early to avoid being drafted into World War I. He immigrated from the old country to the United States in 1935, following his older brother, the eminent Yiddish writer Israel Joshua Singer, whom I.B. had little hope of living up to. But I.J. died young, in 1944, and New York had a Yiddish press where Yitskhok Zynger could make a living, and he turned out, among his other talents, to be a brilliant self-promoter: he worked closely and aggressively with his translators, found American editors, called English his “second original language” while continuing to play the Yiddish sage. And so, in postwar America, he was the one who made it — into English, into the pages of Playboy and Esquire and The New Yorker, into big Hollywood movies, into being thought “modern.” When his note in the front of The Magician of Lublin thanks “my friends [...] the editors of the Noonday Press, who have for years encouraged me in the difficult task of introducing Yiddish writing to the American reader,” what he means by Yiddish writing is his writing. His sixth book of stories, A Crown of Feathers, shared the 1974 National Book Award with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; he won the Nobel Prize in 1978 and died canonical in 1991.

There were attempts all along to treat Singer as something other than an ethnographic talisman of his culture. A remarkable 1965 essay by Ted Hughes in The New York Review of Books, for example, calls him “visionary and redemptive,” his work “not discoursive, or even primarily documentary, but revelation.” (Cf. Cynthia Ozick in 1982: “an artist and transcendent inventor, not a curator.”) Hughes admires Singer, irrespective of how representative he might or might not be, as “among the really great living writers, on several counts,” saying of one Singer story, “The Black Wedding,” that it “is a more alive, more ferocious piece of poetic imagination than any living poet I can think of would be likely to get near.” Of course, he admires Singer’s return to “the Jewish heart” as “a way out of the modern impasse,” thereby identifying Singer’s view of “the Hasidic way of life” with the actual, singular Hasidic way of life — precisely what infuriates the curators and invites the dreaded charge of essentialism. It doesn’t help that Hughes’s other essays for NYRB were about Snorri Sturluson’s folkloric twelfth-century History of the Norse Kings and Greenway’s Literature among the Primitives.

Hughes’s sixties reading of Singer as starting with the “Existential Choice,” “a point where most comparable modern writers have remained, emotionally,” is a brilliant reading for its time, especially for not having Singer’s fiction set after the war available to him. Now, though, the scope of Singer’s new-world fiction is clear, as well as the balance between prewar and postwar in his work as a whole. Or, to put it more strongly: the identity between Singerworld before and after the war. There are the same snowy evenings in Warsaw and New York. The novels and stories set before and after the Holocaust feel shockingly the same, not only in their characters — Aaron in Shosha might as well be Herman from Enemies, although these are very different books — but in the doubleness Singer brings to bear in either case. We all live in a New World, if you give the name symbolic, not geographical, meaning; the Old World has always been destroyed, and Singer does not re-create it so much as explore the act of re-creation.

In particular, the Khmelnytsky massacres starting in 1648 (in Singer’s work the Ukrainian Cossack’s name is usually given its Polish spelling, Chmielnicki) serve to detach the human condition from its particular twentieth-century form: fiction set in the 1650s and 1660s, including Satan in Goray and The Slave, is already “poetry after Auschwitz.” Cossack monsters cutting open a woman’s belly and sewing a live cat or rabbit inside is mentioned in at least three Singer books, and with good reason: a more visceral, tactile, horrific image of atrocity is hard to come by. But really, any period will do — in Scum, the sudden death of the protagonist’s “clever and handsome” son is enough: “If a youth of seventeen can complain of a headache and then minutes later breathe his last, then man’s existence is not worth a puff of smoke.” There is the general atrocity of killing to survive: Singer was a committed vegetarian, and pointed out that “For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” In the most universal terms of all, “Time is also a Hitler,” as a survivor of Majdanek says in Shadows on the Hudson. “It too destroys everything.”

Singer’s work is not cosmic pessimism, though, but an engagement with pessimism: he explores what it’s like to decide to both see and not see the darkness. In “The Black Wedding,” the story Hughes singles out, Rabbi Aaron Napthali has spent his life pursuing “miracle-working cabala,” ignoring the departure of his Hasidic followers, and “warr[ing] constantly with the evil ones,” who plague him for the sins — i.e., saintliness — of his grandfather. His daughter, Hindele, is also “sunk in melancholy,” sick, fasting, “short, frail,” with “a large head, a skinny neck, and flat breasts,” and “an insane look in her black eyes.” When Hindele is orphaned and a marriage is arranged despite her flaws, because of her dead father’s position:

She cried at the celebration of the writing of the marriage contract, she cried when the tailors fitted her trousseau, she cried when she was led to the ritual bath. There she was ashamed to undress for the immersion.

Then, when the wedding veil is lifted and she sees her husband’s face for the first time:

She knew what she had suspected long before — that her bridegroom was a demon and that the wedding was nothing but black magic, a satanic hoax. [...] How strange that the moment Hindele understood that her husband was an evil spirit, she could immediately discern what was true and what was false.

The rest of the story, in increasingly shocking detail, fully equal to anything in Bosch or Bolaño, is the nightmare of Hindele’s life: the wedding guests have goose feet, the musicians have tails and horns, devils drag her to the wedding canopy, which is a braid of reptiles. She can do nothing but resist. On her wedding night, she “felt herself lying in blood and pus. [...] That night never ended. True, the sun rose. It was not really the sun, though, but a bloody sphere which someone hung in the sky.” The world is not this, but that. Trapped in horror, like Hindele herself, we read on: she becomes pregnant, “horror of horrors,” and a monster grows inside her, defiles her, mocks her, sucks and eats and bites her. She dies in childbirth, flying straight to Asmodeus’s castle in hell.

Hughes is certainly right to praise the power of the story’s images, but the crucial thing about the story is its split view on the world. We can see through Hindele’s visions — we know the wedding guests are calling the bride to a Good-Luck dance, even if she knows it is “actually” a Bad-Luck dance — and thus can dismiss her perceptions; we are asked to dismiss them, as madness or “melancholy.” Yet we know they are true. Sex and childbirth and the social fabric are satanic horrors. You know it and I know it. “How strange,” the narrator says, when Hindele learns to “discern what was true and what was false,” and the obvious irony is of Hindele’s mad, false truth. But are we mad too, like Hindele? We are never told that Hindele is mad. Is she mad?

The split is more explicitly historical in a story like “A Wedding in Brownsville,” one of Singer’s most powerful and moving stories, but it is the same split. (I say “more explicitly” because the divide in “The Black Wedding” is historical too: Hindele’s forefathers are the ones who practiced cabala and battled demons; magic is not old-world, but older-world.) The first five pages of “A Wedding in Brownsville” give us Doctor Margolin in postwar New York, his marriage, his back-story, the melancholy at the heart of his successful new life; his one great love, Raizel, had been shot by the Nazis. It could be Chapter One of a whole novel — and in fact, unusually for Singer, the character is given the same name as a similar character from a different book, Shadows on the Hudson. Margolin takes a taxi one winter night to a wedding of people from his village in the old country, and witnesses a car crash on the way. He arrives, and the swirl of celebration brings the old country back to life, as it were. Then he sees Raizel. She has survived, it’s a miracle. But she looks too young, the way she looked in the past, and she is confused about where she has been in the intervening years; he too is confused; he realizes that the man killed in the driving accident looked strangely familiar. What matters, though, is that they are together; the guests have taken their seats, and her father leads her down the aisle.

Old world and new world each pulse with life, but each is equally the other’s afterlife. (The revelation in the story is handled flawlessly, and I feel bad spoiling it here.) Each existence proves the other unreal, while being, itself, the lack of the other. God himself had to withdraw from the world, in the cabalistic image Singer often invokes, so that there would be a realm for his light to emanate into. It doesn’t matter, then, whether or not Singer represents or misrepresents the old country — he represents the loss of an old country. The fundamental fact of our age is that loss, whether of Hasidic Judaism, Italian rural peasantry, British social rigidity, Japanese spirituality, or any other traditional life-world. That is what the writers of Singer’s generation explore, none more searchingly than he does.

The first Singer I ever read was “Gimpel the Fool,” the first story in FSG’s one-volume Collected Stories, and I admit I approached its shtetl-style title with a dutiful, sinking feeling. With the help of a surging translation by Saul Bellow, though, the story gives us a man who quite consciously insists on believing the best of people: the villagers who mock and cheat him, his wife who neglects and cuckolds him, customers who steal from him, and the rest of the world who despise and take advantage of him. “I am Gimpel the fool. I don’t think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that’s what folks call me,” the story begins, and it turns on the question of who are the real fools. There are so many ways this story could go wrong — cloying fable, misanthropic satire, schematic didacticism — but like Gimpel, or the narrator of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for that matter (“Results aside, the ability to have complete faith in another human being is one of the finest qualities a person can possess”), it instead continues on its steady way, presuming and achieving something astonishing.

After that first story, I flipped ahead several hundred pages to “A Day in Coney Island,” where I read this opening: “Today I know exactly what I should have done that summer — my work. But then I wrote almost nothing. ‘Who needs Yiddish in America?’ I asked myself.” Good question! “No one gave a hoot about demons, dybbuks, and imps of two hundred years ago. At thirty, a refugee from Poland, I had become an anachronism.” Good point! And the story goes on to address it, with a perfectly realistic sequence of events as impish as anything a dybbuk could dream up. Amid constant turnabouts in his fate — awaiting a visa or deportation, a receptive editor or near-starvation, a wrong number with his last dime at the pay phone or free coins raining out — the narrator constantly promises and pleads with higher powers. “I had taken with me a copy of Payot’s The Education of the Will in Polish. This book, which taught how to overcome laziness and do systematic spiritual work, had become my second Bible. But I did the opposite of what the book preached.” Singer’s characters often act unaccountably, in a way that feels remarkably real and is one of the hardest tricks for a fiction writer to pull off. At the end, the narrator explains, “I remained sitting, baffled by the sudden shift in my luck. In my consternation I took the coins from my pocket and began to count and recount them. [...] Every time, the figures came out different. As my game with powers on high stood now, I seemed to have won a dollar and some cents and to have lost refuge in America and a woman I really loved.” The forces at work in Coney Island are as astonishing as Gimpel; I don’t know what made me flip ahead in the Collected Stories — the Coney Island title, or intuition, or one of the higher powers Singer writes about — but reading these two stories in a row was one of the great events of my reading life.

The indispensable stories are too numerous to list, or even to fit in a single volume — neither “The Black Wedding” nor “A Wedding in Brownsville” made it into Collected Stories, for example — but there is a three-volume Library of America collection of all his stories in English, or the 10 individual volumes. As for the novels, the opinion seems to have hardened into indisputable fact that Singer’s stories are better than his novels, but I’m not convinced. He seems to me to be one of the rare writers equally at home in the story, short novel, and epic.

So where to begin? The late novels The Penitent, Meshugah, and The King of the Fields are not his best work. The Family Moskat was Singer’s first novel to be translated into English and, like Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark (the only translation before he began writing in English with The Real Life of Sebastian Knight), it was brought over before the author mastered his mode of translational re-creation. Through no fault of the novel’s own, it doesn’t work as well as it should in English. Scum, about the seedy underworld of pre-World War One Jewish Poland, fails as a novel in its own right: Max, the main character, is too Singery to be a convincing gangster. Lastly, Enemies, A Love Story is a strong book, and important for the trajectory of Singer’s reputation since it was his first novel in English to be set in postwar New York, but it is also an excellent movie, one of those successful efforts that never quite make it into popular culture but win Oscar nominations and awards and stand up 20 years later as well worth watching. Unlike Yentl, based on a Singer story but auteured within an inch of its life by Barbra Streisand, it stays true to the moral universe of Singerworld and it’s a treat to see and hear the sights and sounds of postwar Jewish New York. Save the book for later.

That leaves seven. Singer’s long novel The Manor — first published in English as two novels, the Manor and The Estate — is clearly influenced by Tolstoy and Buddenbrooks and I.J., and Singer knows how to do the two most important things in an epic: launch a plot arc (Calman Jacoby, a pious merchant, finds enormous business success after the 1863 revolutions in Poland; does it goeth before a fall?) and bring the many characters to life lightning-fast. Less than 10 pages in, we have Calman’s four daughters: dried-out Jochebed, hard-working and frowzy; feisty Shaindel, with jet-black hair and sparkling eyes; spoiled, blonde Miriam, with pensive, aristocratic airs; and saintly Tsipele, eight years old, always giving away her pocket money. In four sturdy paragraphs, we’re off.

Satan in Goray, published in the thirties before Hitler came to Poland, is a classic first novel, announcing and foreshadowing the author’s lifelong obsessions. It is his only novel written before the Holocaust, at least the Yiddish version was, but it is already a powerful, apocalyptic story of self-delusion, persecution, and destruction. More importantly, Singer was already reaching back into the Hasidic past, not for historical color or ethnic representation but as a way to explore timeless conflicts in the human spirit.

The Magician of Lublin is Singer’s most personal novel: many of his other protagonists are stylized versions of him while Yasha Mazur, the wonder-working showman of the title, in the most artificial, most local-colory of Singer’s prewar-Polish settings, feels like the man himself, unmasked. “He could never understand how other people managed to live in one place and spend their entire lives with one woman without becoming melancholy. He, Yasha, was forever at the point of depression.” Transposing the time seems to have freed him to reveal the character, as though his real self in his real life-circumstances would be too much. The Magician of Lublin also contains one of the best scenes in any Singer novel, where we get to see the magician in action. Singer always excels at conveying atmosphere, and in making vacillations and inner dialogues seem filled with plot and incident, but it is a thrill, in a novel where we are so often told that Yasha is working his magic, to get to see him do it. And that means his verbal magic, for of course telling us about how skillfully he picks a lock can only go so far. The thrill is Yasha’s patter for his audience of crooks and thieves:

Yasha could have opened the lock immediately, but he did not wish to shame [the lockmaker]. He decided to act out a little scene.

“Say, this is a hard nut to crack!” he grumbled. “What sort of beehive have they braided in there? So many teeth and hooks, a regular machine!” He strained, pushed the wire. He raised his shoulders as if to signify, “I don’t have the faintest idea of what’s inside this thing!” The crowd grew so quiet that the only sound was Chaim-Leib snorting through his broken, polyp-filled nose. Several of the women began to whisper and giggle, a sign of tension. Now Yasha made the same remark he had made at numerous performances, “A lock is like a woman. Sooner or later it must surrender.”

Laughter broke out amongst the women.

“All women aren’t the same.”

“It’s a matter of patience.”

“Don’t be so sure of yourself,” [the lockmaker] said in anticipation.

“Stop rushing me, Mechl. You’ve been fussing with this thing for half a year.”...

“It doesn’t give, eh?”

“It’ll give, it’ll give. You only need to squeeze the bellybutton.”

And at that moment, the lock sprang open.

We can see Singer the showman here — how well he, too, knows how to work a crowd.

Shosha and The Slave are his best short novels, with Shosha, set in the period of Singer’s young manhood, the most achingly romantic, while The Slave is his most visionary world-building and his grandest, most unified structure. He rings the changes on the central metaphor of Slavery no less than Franzen does on Freedom, and the Biblical analogies of the main characters’ names, Jacob and Sarah, return again and again in different ways to enrich the book. The Certificate, translated after Singer’s death by Leonard Wolf, has a vigor and snap in the language that fits perfectly its topic of a young man’s self-discovery; Wolf may be Singer’s best translator after Bellow. All three of these novels and Enemies, A Love Story, though spread over 30 years in English with other novels interspersed, appeared in Yiddish in the sixties and early seventies, which thus looks to be the period of his greatest novels as well as short stories.

Finally, there is Shadows on the Hudson. It met with a dramatically divided reception upon publication, with dueling reviews in The New York Times calling it a “seamless tapestry” or a “shapeless lump,” and speculations on why Singer did not have it translated in his lifetime. In my view, Shadows on the Hudson, with its postwar reflections on the past, its darkness, and its sprawl, is not only Singer’s best title but may be his most important book. Where The Manor is Tolstoyan, Shadows on the Hudson produces the feeling, in stretches of its second half, that I have felt elsewhere only in Dostoyevsky’s long novels: as the book plunges into a maelstrom of utter insanity, it makes me irritable even as it transports. I can see the point of those who loathe Dostoyevsky, or Shadows — it comes from the perspective of urbane, self-controlled, rational creatures: What is all this mess? Too many words! But we look to fiction for more than just rationality. From Shadows, at the start of married Hertz Dovid’s affair with married Anna:

He withdrew from Anna, turning his back to her. She did the same. Bodies, like batteries, need to be recharged. But everything remained: the love, the lust, the fear of the new day. [...] He did not want to watch the sun rise, the day break. He shut his eyes tightly, warming himself in his own body heat. He was awake, but his interrupted dream tried to pick up the dropped stitches, its knitting needles clicking rapidly and quietly. What was sleeping slept; what was awake paid attention. Who said that one can’t be asleep and awake at the same time? Where is it written that one can’t be happy and unhappy simultaneously? Leah [his wife] is Leah and Esther [his mistress] is Esther and the children are the children. Oh, how cold the air is! Don’t they provide any heat?

Everything remains, and the worlds of sleeping and waking, of our fractured emotional lives, of those we love and those we hurt, are one.

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