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.