The Spirited World of I. B. Singer

“Writers were not born to change the world We cannot even make it worse,”says the modest winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature. For Isaac Bashevis Singer, writing is an act of worship, love, and play.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, at seventy-four, moves in an animated scurry. His ceramic blue eyes miss nothing. He might be one of the dybbuks that populate his fiction and also, so he says, his New York apartment, a large and agedly comfortable spread on the fifth floor of a gray fortress at Eighty-sixth Street and Broadway. Singer claims that demons steal his manuscripts, his fountain pens. “Let me tell you,”he confides, the Yiddish man of letters performing one of his small vaudevilles of black magic, “I don’t think that the demons in the United States are as passive as some people think. They are merely less conspicuous because of the noise. But I think they are very active demons. As a matter of fact, I think they are Americanized.”

Singer’s readers are more familiar with his Eastern European demons, the shtetl imps that fly like bats through his pages. His tales, most of them set in the vanished world of the Polish Jews of fifty or sixty years ago, are nearly always haunted, thick with surprises and perverse turns. A bedraggled young girl overnight assumes the being of a worldly and wealthy matron; the dead matron’s soul, like a small, hard pea, enters the girl through her nose, and the girl goes to live with the mourning husband as if she were actually his wife. An aged scholar marries a spinster with a broken nose and a moustache, and on his wedding night unaccountably turns into a miraculous lover. Out of a perverted piety, adepts of Shabbatai Zevi, a false messiah, fall into orgies of defilement. “The world is full of puzzles,” Singer has written. “It is possible that not even Elijah will be able to answer all of our questions when the Messiah comes. Even God in seventh Heaven may not have solved all of the mysteries of His Creation. This may be the reason fie conceals Elis face.”

Singer has been a wonderfully industrious writer. He has produced twenty-nine books (eight novels, seven collections of short stories, three volumes of memoirs, and eleven books for children). His works have been translated into sixteen languages (for reasons Singer does not entirely understand, the Japanese immediately translate everything he writes; they even have English editions with Japanese footnotes). He seems as productive now as at any time in the fortythree years since he fled Warsaw and settled in New York. Last spring. Singer published A Young Man in Search of Love, the second installment of a projected three-part memoir that he plans to put together eventually as A Lost Man in Search of Himself. Last summer, Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater produced his play Teibele and Her Demon, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux brought out his eighth novel, Shosha.

For all that enterprise and exposure. Singer was still a comparatively unfamiliar figure in American letters when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in the fall. (Shosha had a highly respectable, if not blockbusting, sale of something over 50,000 copies; before that. Singer’s highest sales were with his 1967 memoir, In My Father’s Court, and a children’s book. When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw.) The night the prize was announced, David Brinkley mispronounced his name on the NBC-TV news report. For some years, of course, there has been a Singer cult. “Some people know about me,” Singer said with a shrewd, amused air one afternoon, a week before the announcement. “But most of the people in the United States and the rest of the world have never heard of me. I tell you, in this country, to be really famous, you have to be either Frank Sinatra or that fellow who died, what was his name? Presley. My books don’t get on the best-seller lists, or when they do, it’s the bottom of the lists. But anyway, I don’t much like the company on those lists.”

As Singer knows, he is something of a literary curiosity, an exotic. For one thing, he always writes first in Yiddish, that subtle, rich, vital, and probably doomed tongue. Yiddish, based originally on a Middle High German dialect, developed in the tenth century and eventually became a wonderfully supple international language with borrowings from almost every IndoEuropean language. Among Jews, Hebrew was the language of piety; Yiddish, quivering with life and idiom, was the medium of the street. Before World War II it was the principal language of some eleven million people; now it is spoken by four million and fading yearly. Grandfathers can speak it in paragraphs; fathers can speak it in sentences; sons, in a few scattered phrases. The tongue has been debased by its relentless repetition in the acts of Las Vegas comics, men who whip their microphone cords: shtik, the whole magillah, shiksa, and so on.

“Yiddish,” Singer has said, “is a tragedy and a responsibility.” It is possible to understand Singer’s imagination if you understand his persistence in writing in Yiddish: his deep loyalty to the vanished culture of the shtetls, his foredoomed love of the idiom and everything it is capable of conveying and preserving, and his sidelong faith in miracles, a faith amounting to a transcendent superstition. “I like to write ghost stories,” Singer has explained, “and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language, the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish, and as far as I know, they all speak it. Secondly, I not only believe in ghosts but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish-speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day, and their first question will be. Is there any new book in Yiddish to read? For them, Yiddish will not be dead. Only a miracle can save Yiddish, but in Jewish life, so many miracles have happened that a miracle almost becomes a natural thing.”

For years, Israelis have disparaged Yiddish as being somehow an abject tongue, the language of exile, of dispersion. Better Hebrew, they have said, the holy, patriarchal language. The attitude annoys Singer. “Where is it written,”he demands, “that a language of exile cannot be as rich as the language of a fatherland?

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The opposite: The more a language is in exile, the richer it may become.”

Singer publishes most of his fiction first in the Jewish Daily Forward, in Yiddish and usually in serial form. Then he works with a translator—often his nephew Joseph, son of his novelist brother, I. J. Singer—to bring the prose into English. Much is inevitably lost. Those who can read Singer’s Yiddish call it a wonder. Irving Howe has written: “No translation, not even Saul Bellow’s magnificent rendering of ‘Gimpel the Fool,’ could possibly suggest the full idiomatic richness and syntactical verve of Singer’s Yiddish. Singer has left behind the oratorical sententiousness to which Yiddish literature is prone, has abandoned its leisurely meandering pace, what might be called the shtetl rhythm, and has developed a style that is both swift and dense, nervous and thick. His sentences are short and abrupt; his rhythms coiled, intense, short-breathed.”

Writing is for Singer a kind of religious vocation. “The cabala influenced my work,”he says, speaking of the system of mystical thought he learned as a young man in Poland. “The Almighty is a writer. God is a writer. His main attribute is creativity. Since men are created in His image, there is an clement of creativity in every human being, and, actually, in everything alive. God’s work is made so that always something new and unexpected must happen, just like in a good novel.”

Singer’s definition of a good novel stops somewhat short of modernism, even though his own work is modernist enough in its eroticism and irrationality. Surely one of the best storytellers of the century, he dislikes literary self-consciousness and excessive psychologizing. He detests artistic theory. “The twentieth century has done great things in applied science,” says Singer. “They have gone to the moon—what haven’t they done? But they didn’t really excel as much in literature as the nineteenth century.” In that century reside his favorite writers: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Balzac, Dickens. “Writers were not born to change the world,” according to Singer. “We cannot even make it worse.” As for extravagant experiment: “Joyce? One Joyce in a century is okay.”But only one.

No critic, however, has accused Isaac Singer of being a literal-minded realist. His world, as one reviewer noted, “is peopled by rabbis and sinners, intellectuals and simpletons, rationalists and mystics, world savers and fatalists.” The natural and supernatural move in easy traffic through his stories. God’s law and Satan’s work are everywhere. Devils drop in.

Sometimes they are the narrators of the stories; Singer is a master of the demonic point of view. Especially wonderful are his women witches, virgins, temptresses, grotesques. In a lurid tale called “Blood,” a housewife defies religious law by participating in the ritual slaughter of animals, and eventually becomes a werewolf. “Who can understand the feminine soul?” Singer asks in a story called “The Shadow of a Crib.” “Even an angelic woman shelters within herself devils, imps, and goblins.”

In most of Singer’s stories about women there runs an insistent undercurrent of eroticism; sex is usually a preternatural transaction with great possibilities, surprises, and risks. “I feel that, to me, literature without love and sex almost does not exist,” Singer says. “From the cradle to the grave people are interested in sex. If you would make a novel about a bank or a factory or a mine, the part the reader would remember is the love story. What we know about love and sex was already known one thousand years ago, five thousand years ago. There is no real novelty, only complication.”

“The Spinoza of Market Street” is quintessential Singer, one of the loveliest things he has written. It tells of Dr. Nahum Fischelson, a broken-down scholar obsessed with Spinoza’s rationalism, living on the squalid Market Street in Warsaw. When insects fly too close to his candle’s flame, he waves them off impatiently, amazed almost at their ignorance of Spinozistic ethics: “Away from here, fools and imbeciles. You’ll only burn yourself.” “Like men,” he sighs, “they desire nothing but the pleasure of the moment.” All around the philosopher Fischelson are the chaotic shrieks and din of Market Street, the disorders of existence: “A watermelon vendor shouted in a savage voice, and the long knife which he used for cutting the fruit dripped with the blood-like juice.” Fischelson meets Black Dobbe, a hag who sells “wrinklers”-cracked eggs—in the marketplace. She knows nothing; she thinks Spinoza’s Ethics is a gentile prayer book. But she cares for Fischelson with a sweet, faded tenderness. They decide to marry. The neighborhood ridicules the improbable couple. But the wedding night is one of Singer’s miracles of eroticism: the crone and the scholar embrace with the sexual energy of youth. Fischelson looks out his window at the stars, the Spinozistic universe. “Divine Spinoza,” he murmurs. “Forgive me. I have become a fool.”

Isaac Singer was born in Radzymin, Poland, in 1904, the son and grandson of rabbis. His father and grandfather, as Irving Howe noted, were in the tradition of Hasidism, a kind of ecstatic pietism, “though on his mother’s side the misnagid or rationalist strain of Jewish belief was the stronger.” “My father,” Singer has explained, “used to say that if you don’t believe in the zaddikim [the “wonder rabbis” of Hasidism] today, tomorrow you won’t believe in God. My mother would say, it’s one thing to believe in God, another thing to believe in man. My mother’s point of view is my point of view.”

He was raised in a poor neighborhood of Warsaw, on Krochmalna Street, and studied in the rabbinical seminary. For three or four years during his adolescence. Singer stayed in his grandfather’s shtetl of Bilgoray. What he saw and learned in those years reappears again and again in his novels and stories.

Singer’s older brother, Israel Joseph, set him an example by embarking on a distinguished career as a novelist; he was to write The Brothers Ashkenazi and Yashe Kolbe. The decision of both brothers to become writers represented a painful break with Jewish tradition. To Singer’s parents, secular Yiddish writers were heretics, almost as bad as apostates. Isaac persisted, and in 1935, seeing the inevitability of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, he emigrated to the United States, where he joined the staff of the Jewish Daily Forward in New York. His first major work, Satan in Goray, appeared in Yiddish in that year.

Although his writings and lectures bring in something like $100,000 annually, the author and Alma, his wife of thirty-eight years, live much as they did when Alma had to clerk at Lord & Taylor to help pay the rent. Singer has been a vegetarian for sixteen years and recoils at the thought of killing anything. Although he admires some of the work of Vladimir Nabokov (a writer with whom he shares the themes of exile and nostalgia), he is almost metaphysically puzzled by Nabokov’s lifelong devotion to lepidopterology; how, Singer wonders, could the man have extinguished the spark of life in so many butterflies, so many of God’s creatures? The gun-burdened Hemingway does not even bear discussion on that score.

For two months in the fall, and again for two months in the spring. Singer goes out lecturing to college audiences and other groups around the country. He speaks on “The Cabala and Modern Man,” “The Autobiography of Yiddish,” and other subjects Jewish and literary. That routine, says Singer, “leaves eight months for scribbling, which is more than enough for humanity. They don’t need so many scribblers.” He works in a large, bright, and mildly book-cluttered room with white covered couches and a small menorah on the mantelpiece. When composing his first drafts, he writes longhand in lined composition books; then, later, he transfers his work to the typewriter, outfitted with Yiddish characters, that he has used for fortythree years.

Although it would be difficult to find a man of more profound vivacity, Singer is a pessimist. In his memoir A Little Boy in Search of God, Singer wrote: “My view was then, as it is now, that this world is one huge slaughterhouse, one enormous hell.” Sitting in his apartment, sipping tea, he asks, “Don’t you think that too, when you read the newspapers? How many people are being killed in wars and revolutions and epidemics? There is so much suffering in this world, the only thing that compensates for it is the little joys that life has, the little surprises that life has. If there would be no surprises, if there would be only slaughter, it would be so unbearable that even amoebas would commit suicide.”

Singer has never written about the Holocaust, only about its approach, the premonitions that some of his characters—those in the novel Shosha, for examplefelt in Poland in the thirties. “I never witnessed it,” he explains softly. “The Holocaust itself was so terrible that imagination cannot do anything with it. I would say the greatest books about the Holocaust were written by men who had nothing really to do with literature, who just told the story. All you do is tell the truth, and it shocks you to pieces.”

As with some of Nabokov’s work, Singer’s world is a pure act of devotional memory, protected and elaborated, made to move, brought alive by a tender and sinister imagination. Singer is a thoroughly Jewish writer, yet his tales obviously possess an appeal that transcends his unique cultural boundaries. By writing about a lost world, he achieves an eerie distancing effect, an undertone something like what Hawthorne accomplished in his demon-ridden tales of earliest Puritan New England.

“The Zionists would like me to preach Zionism,” Singer complains. “The socialists would like me to preach socialism. The homosexuals would like that I should all the time praise homosexuality. Or why don’t you write about women’s liberation? they say. They assume that a writer should sit there and look out for every new vogue and immediately there should be a novel about it.

“I prefer to write about the world which I knew, which I know, best. This is Bilgoray, Lublin, the Jews of Kreshev. This is enough for me. I can get from these people art. I don’t need to go to the North Pole and write a novel about the Eskimos who live in that neighborhood. I write about the things where I grew up, and where I feel completely at home.”

Singer’s world exists nowhere except in his mind and books, and the language spoken there is dying. But even memory has its self-sufficiency. “I don’t believe that the whole of history is dead,”Singer says, “and that only we are alive. I’m sure that everything which has lived has left some trace. . . . But how it works, I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone will ever know. This is one of God’s most guarded secrets.” □