Lost in America
The mere existence of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Lost in America—in English translation, in a large printing—confirms one of the great hidden laws of twentieth century literature. This law can best be stated with recourse to the Gospels: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” It applies to many writers who otherwise have little in common: to Franz Kafka, whose parables and enigmatic tales were virtually all unpublished when he died, who asked his best friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts; to James Joyce, who followed Ulysses (1922), a book which asked its readers to learn to read in an entirely new way, with seventeen years spent composing Finnegans Wake (1939); to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who, under a death-sentence from cancer after years in labor camps, in exile in Asian Russia, wrote his manuscripts in a microscopic script and hid them every night. It applies also to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who chose to imprison himself in a dying language, to write about a culture that no longer exists. All of these writers have been read by millions and will continue to be read for generations to come.
Lost in America is the third volume in Singer’s ongoing “spiritual autobiography,” following A Little Boy in Search of God (1976) and A Young Man in Search of Love (1978). Like all of Singer’s works, it is translated from the Yiddish; like the two preceding volumes in the series, it is a beautifully produced book, elegantly bound, printed on fine heavy paper, and marvelously illustrated with paintings and drawings by Raphael Soyer, including a number of color plates. The illustrations alone are worth the price of the book.
Singer’s autobiography does not conform to the usual expectations of the genre. In an author’s note prefacing Lost in America, he says that the series “does not pretend to be completely autobiographical.” Many of the people he describes are still living; he has omitted important events and distorted dates, places, and other facts. He then issues a cryptic summary: “I consider this work no more than fiction set against a background of truth. I would call the whole work: contributions to an autobiography I never intend to write.” The storyteller escapes.
Lost in America presupposes a knowledge of at least the previous volume in the series, A Young Man in Search of Love. Singer has been writing this idiosyncratic autobiography in serial form, and the division into separate volumes is rather arbitrary. Lost in America begins in Warsaw, right where A Young Man in Search of Love left off. Indeed, the book is almost half over before Singer even arrives in America.
“At the onset of the 1930’s,” Singer begins, “my disillusionment with myself had reached a stage in which I had lost all hope. If truth be told, I had had little of it to lose.” Against the backdrop of Adolf Hitler’s ominous presence, he quickly sketches a...
(The entire section is 1262 words.)