In each of these three books, Singer has focused on one philosophical problem, as well as the period in his life when that problem was central. The first book, as do the others, ends with the restatement of the dominant problem, emphasizing the fact that although he may have learned more about it, Singer has not come any closer to a solution. In the succeeding book, he does not discard the theme of his previous book; instead, he simply subordinates it to his new preoccupation, hoping that new experiences will bring answers for his increasing burden of unsolved riddles. By the third book, then, he is dealing with an accumulation of increasingly complicated uncertainties; indeed, it is clear that in that confusion Singer has reached his definition of life.
The first book, A Little Boy in Search of God, focuses on the relationship between Isaac and his God, whose ways seem unjust, whose world seems to be dominated by cruelty and evil. In the introduction to the book, Singer speaks of himself as a mystic, not a member of a religious group—in other words, as a religious individualist. A mystic will ask hard questions of his God, and from his early childhood Singer has done so. It is appropriate that the first book deals with the search for God, for although other matters are often stressed in the latter two books of this series, there is never a time either in his fiction or in his autobiographical works when Singer is not at least subconsciously concerned with his spiritual quest.
Because, as a mystic, Singer defines life in terms of the spiritual rather than the material, these three volumes give far more attention to internal developments than to external events. In A Little Boy in Search of God, for example, he devotes as much space to his discovery of the cabala books in his father’s library as he does to the dislocations and terrors of World War I, as much attention to his visit to a library as to the revolution at the end of the war.
The reason for Singer’s rather unusual emphasis is that for the first two decades of his life he was testing the theories he encountered in his attempt to understand and to approach his God. At first, he was influenced by his father’s Orthodox Judaism; the boy, however, could not reconcile the just and good God of whom the Scriptures told with the cruelty of the human beings He had created in the brutal and bloody world which He controlled. In the mystical books of the cabala, Singer hoped that he would find more satisfying answers; indeed, he responded to the beautiful faith of those writers, who insisted that God was in all things and that all things were godly. Nevertheless, such theories only intensified the problem of evil. What kind of god would collaborate in the deliberate torture of animals or in men’s murderous attacks on other men? When Singer found his way to the library, he was sure that somewhere in those books he would find the solution to the mystery of life. Yet in the books on science and philosophy which he read over the next several years, he found no more answers than he had in the Scriptures or in the books of the cabala.
Singer’s emphasis on his spiritual and philosophical development rather than on external events is typified by his treatment of World War I and its aftermath. While most autobiographers would have described in detail the dramatic and fearful events of the period, Singer is more interested in the various responses of those close to him; these included the prayers of his parents, Rabbi Pinchos Menachem Singer and his devout wife, Bathsheba Zylberman Singer, and the scientific skepticism of his older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, a position to which for a time Isaac himself was drawn. Neither satisfied him. While his suspicion that the world is a slaughterhouse was being proved daily by the events of the external world, internally Singer was if anything less secure than ever; sometimes he wondered if the God in Whom he believed was simply indifferent.
In the final chapters of this book, Singer describes his discovery of uninhibited sexuality, when as a nineteen-year-old he was taken into the home and the bed of Gina Halbstark, a thrice-married older woman who was unimpeded by traditional Jewish moral standards. At first it seemed a perfect situation, but after some months Singer discovered that although he had not accepted the...
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Isaac Bashevis Singer’s achievements as the greatest living Yiddish writer were recognized when he was awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature. Singer’s reputation rests on his fiction: He is a master of both the short story and the novel. Aside from their intrinsic interest, then, his autobiographical volumes are valuable for the light they shed on his fiction.
At one level, it is possible to trace many connections between incidents recounted in these memoirs and scenes in Singer’s stories and novels. Several of Singer’s novels—most notably Der Kuntsnmakher fun Lublin (1959; The Magician of Lublin, 1960), Sonim de Geshichte fun a Liebe (1966; Enemies: A Love Story, 1972), and Neshome Ekspeditsyes (1974; Shosha, 1978)—feature situations in which the protagonist is involved with several women at once. These situations may strike the reader as having all the marks of sheerly fictional contrivance. They appear to contain a strong element of wish fulfillment—especially since Singer’s protagonists (like Singer as depicted by himself in his memoirs) generally resemble Woody Allen more closely than they do Don Juan. There is a schematic quality to these relationships, too, as each of the women with whom the protagonist is involved represents a distinct type. Yet, given the evidence of Singer’s autobiographical volumes, this fictional scenario is rooted in his actual experience.
To trace the autobiographical elements in a work of fiction is not sufficient to “explain” its meaning; such connections in fact often lead critics away from the work at hand. Nevertheless, Singer’s memoirs suggest that the compulsive readability of his fiction derives in part from a powerful autobiographical impulse, operative even in the most “unrealistic” works.