Isaac Bashevis Singer

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Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 6)

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Singer, Isaac Bashevis 1904–

Singer, a Polish-born American novelist, short story writer, translator, and author of books for children, writes primarily in Yiddish. One critic aptly summarized: "Many American authors have claimed Singer for their spiritual father, which is one reason for reading him; another is Bernard Malamud's dictum that today we are all Jews, and Singer … is a mine of information on our traditions." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[The Family Moskat] is a considerable novel: there are a dozen powerfully created characters; a deep sense of Warsaw as a city; and a real saturation in Jewish lore which gives the book a massive authority. It also possesses the impersonality of the epic, so that we swing from the rationalism of the Marxist intellectuals to the search for God in Spinoza or the Bible without feeling in the slightest at the mercy of the author's prejudice.

The binding theme is the death-wish of Polish Jewry, embodied in the desperate life of Asa Heshel, the teacher and intellectual. 'Death is the Messiah. That's the real truth,' a friend says as the bombs fall at the end. But for all its interest it has its defects as epic. The novel lacks a kind of intimacy, so that although we know the lives, movements and thoughts of Asa Heshel, we never feel we know him at a very deep level. The objectivity is carried to the point where the novel really becomes the panoramic documentary of an era, with some of the unavoidable defects that seem indigenous to the wide screen. (p. 734)

John Daniel, in The Spectator (© 1966 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), June 10, 1966.

No other writer has quite the historic awareness of Isaac Bashevis Singer. All his work is saturated with a sense of things past and dead, of superstitions and beliefs and institutions crushed and swept away by the increasing materialism of the 20th century, of people caught up in the puzzling but inexorable processes of social and political change that marked the decline of feudalism and the fractured rise of international socialism in Europe at the end of the last century. And yet he is not an historical novelist in any of the regular uses of that term: his brilliant evocations of Warsaw in the 1890s, and New York of the same time, seem less the result of intensive research and the study of old photographs than the painstaking reconstructions of his own half-glimpsed childhood memories and the stories handed down to him in the Yiddish oral tradition.

He is the supreme example of the family chronicler, the dispassionate recorder of fact, as if the task of capturing a family's history had fallen to him and he were recording it in a log-book. 'Daniel Kaminer was suddenly taken ill' or 'In mid-October Shaindel died'…: these are like the statements that used to be written in the flyleaves of Victorian family Bibles, the encapsulated tragedies, the illnesses, the weddings, the births—all the bald statements that mark some kind of dramatic change in the structure of a family, and that in their own abbreviated way seem to give trivial historic events a peculiar and personal immediacy. It is to this tradition that Bashevis Singer firmly belongs. (pp. 538-39)

Campbell Black, in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 23, 1970.

There are in the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Nathaniel Hawthorne … great disparities in the treatment of the idea of Satan and/or the evil influences emanating from...

(This entire section contains 5390 words.)

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him. Yet critics have referred to Singer as a Yiddish Hawthorne. There are, of course, obvious similarites: both are tale-tellers interested in fantasy, myth, superstition, guilt, and sin. Both have written about witchcraft and the seventeenth century (although Singer has gone back further and they do not write in the same tone). Finally, Hawthorne is speaking of the artist, the individual in his collision with society, while Singer stresses the need for all individuals to relate to God and to man. Hawthorne, inThe Scarlet Letter, hints at the presence of Satan, calling him "The Black Man," "The Prince of the Air," but never brings him into view. Frequently, however, Satan is an active participant in Singer's stories. Hawthorne's Satan dwells in the forest of man's imagination, but Satan in Singer's work is an actual character or persona, usually invisible, sometimes in disguise.

When Satan possesses a Singer character the possession is graphic and leaves no doubt that a body has been taken over by an evil spirit. In Hawthorne's stories, however, Satan is often synonymous with a state of mind such as the false joy of the merrymakers in "The Maypole of Merrymount" or the lawless passion of Hester and Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. In Singer's earlier stories, Satan is more than a symbol; he exists. (pp. 359-60)

One cannot infer from Singer as from Hawthorne that man must live with evil, that it is part of his nature, that perfection occurs only in death. What Singer implies is that man must always be on his guard against the evil that tries to dominate him. Man's imperfection does not obsess Singer; he and his characters accept it as a kind of divine joke. For after all, the Jewish God has promised redemption….

Both Singer and Hawthorne are concerned with damnation, the Fall, original sin; but they approach it differently. (p. 361)

For Singer, the struggle between man's higher and lower natures is the struggle to remain a Jew and a believer amid worldly follies. In The Magician of Lublin only the most absolute faith can restore a man from the depths, but the rabbi in "Joy," who denies God's existence after his children die, returns to religion when he thinks he sees his dead daughter standing before him and rebounds to his original position—that one must live "joyously." In "Gimpel the Fool," only the fact that he is a fool protects Gimpel from life's blows; it is as if his foolish goodness were equated with religious faith. In Hawthorne's novels and stories, characters often lose faith but never regain it, nor is their faith always specifically religious. Religious faith, on the other hand, often leads to a perverse harshness, such as the attitude of the townspeople toward Hester in The Scarlet Letter, or toward "The Gentle Boy" because he is a Quaker.

The flaw from which Singer's characters suffer is not so much pride, as with Hawthorne, but sensuality and a lust for material possessions. (p. 362)

Undoubtedly contributing to their differences is the fact that though the literary influences of both Singer and Hawthorne came out of the nineteenth century, for Hawthorne it was the romantics and transcendentalists, while Singer has been impressed by the great social realists. Singer manages to combine the mythical with the real in such a way that the mythic, the supernatural, becomes realistic. For Hawthorne, realism turns into a mythic, romantic experience. Singer's spirits talk like people. Hawthorne's people talk like spirits. (p. 363)

Obviously, Singer treats his spirits humorously, which Hawthorne never does. But then they are not the same kind of spirits.

Singer writes of a folk society wherein the spirits as well as the spiritual belong to the lives of his villagers, but Hawthorne wrote of individuals who were in some way detached or even cast off from their society. Singer's characters reflect their milieu—what they do affects the community, and vice versa—but Hawthorne's characters are in a world of their own from beginning to end. (pp. 363-64)

Generally, redemption is inaccessible to Hawthorne's characters, while for Singer a little prayer goes a long way. In "A Piece of Advice," there is the practical note of compromise: "So also with faith. If you are in despair, act as if you believe. Faith will come afterward."

In Singer's stories, what happens to one person happens to all; the community is emotionally united. One woman is sympathetic to Hester on the scaffold, but when Lise, the disgraced wife in Singer's "The Destruction of Kreshev," receives her bill of divorcement after being shamed by a march through town, women lament and men have tears in their eyes…. Lise commits adultery out of intellectual curiosity, boredom, perverseness. It is she who is the modern woman. No one is as romantic as Hester anymore. Singer's women are European but provincial. To break away from the community role, to become intellectual, is enough to damn any of them.

It is perhaps their preoccupation with sin and the fantasies concurrent with it—the supernatural, the satanic forces—that unite Singer and Hawthorne, and for both authors it is the acceptance of the reality of the devil, symbolic or not, that provides the tension within which their characters struggle. But Hawthorne's devil obsesses the individual and sets him off from society, a recluse, a misanthrope, damned by his own introspection. Hawthorne's thinking man is frozen in loneliness. His characters do not so much act as react, or withdraw. Singer's characters are all actors in search of an author, waylaid by their director, Satan, who puts into their mouths words that should never have been spoken. If they are lost it is not because they think, but because they let Satan think for them. But the inhumanity and imperfections of mankind that so plagued Hawthorne are for Singer softened by a Jewish optimism. How can a Jewish world that rejoices in fertility and homecooked meals, a world in which being alive is a congratulatory condition, believe that God's beneficence will not extend to the other side, despite the devil? And if the devil is to be contended with, it is because he is so attractive. How easy it is not to draw a distinction between the false Messiah and the true one—who was promised but never comes. The Jew cannot stop believing that He will come and that Paradise will include all the pleasures of this world and more. Who can blame the individual whose trust in Paradise leads him to the gates of Hell? (pp. 364-65)

[In] Singer's recent book of stories, The Séance…, [the] mythic has not been lost; rather, it has been expanded, becomes synthesized with reality. As a result, these later stories have a more contemporary tone. They are not so obviously tales as stories about people. And because the world's evil and men's passions and rebuttals have become more closely allied with their actions, rather than set off in dialectical arrangements with the devil, Singer's stories now show a closer resemblance to those of Hawthorne. For while Singer has always been the more contemporary of the two, he now tends to use Satan as an idea or symbol, as Hawthorne did, rather than as an actual adversary.

Singer seems to be asking: How does man live with the destructive elements around him, as well as with his own evil tendencies? (pp. 365-66)

Those who pursue the mystical, the Cabala, the occult, who seek forbidden knowledge, are of special interest to Singer, who indicates that they put themselves in jeopardy by looking beyond the façade of reality. (pp. 368-69)

For Singer, evil continues to be a recognizable force in the world and Satan a deft and clever adversary whose tantalizing ways do not even cease when life ceases. Living or dead, men are full of absurd desires that end only in Hell; even virtue itself is a luxury for which man pays….

For Hawthorne, individual integrity, whether inspired by Satan or not, may condemn a man to the hell of isolation, but for Singer the only way to live is through integration with the community. It is Satan who lures one outside, and outside there is only Hell. It is fitting, therefore, that Hawthorne's Satan should arise from within man or remain an imagined tendency, a primitive instinct; but Singer's Satan, though he may have become invisible, is still potent enough to have a voice, the ability to act and confuse. Within man or without, he remains a power to be contended with, an emissary of evil, constantly trapping men and women with evanescent inducements. (p. 370)

Elaine Gottlieb, in The Southern Review (copyright 1972, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. VIII, No. 2, Spring, 1972.

The twenty-one stories in I. B. Singer's A Friend of Kafka,… show this venerable master seriously extending his range. The Polish Pale is no longer the major focus of Singer's work, as he turns increasingly to immigrants in America (where he himself has lived for many years now) and to "enlightened" Jews in Argentina, Israel, and other places. Possibly betraying a prejudice, I still tend to favor the stories of the Pale, such as "Altele" or "The Blasphemer," in which the author's imagination seems more easily and completely engaged. By comparison, stories like "Schloimele," about a fast-talking New York entrepreneur, seem thinner. Somehow Singer's appealing blend of fantasy and reality elsewhere fails to develop, except in "The Key." Bessie Popkin is a true Singer grotesque, an aging widow riddled by phobias who, one summer's eve, accidentally locks herself out of her apartment on New York's upper West Side. The setting, to the last detail, is extremely vivid; so are poor Bessie's fantastic interpretations of ordinary reality which her increasing isolation from other people feeds. Suddenly exposed alone all night to the milieu and its imagined terrors, Bessie discovers through her neighbors' simple acts of kindness that the area is not inhabited solely by hoodlums out to rob her. The humanity she finds in others and in herself is like the recovery of a happy dream (with which the story ends) or the end of an illness. The key Bessie has used to lock others out—and herself in—becomes, after all, unnecessary. (pp. 466-67)

Jay L. Halio, in The Southern Review (copyright 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1973.

A Crown of Feathers asserts [Singer's] deepening fear that chaos may lie all around us; that the act of ordering may be sheer self-delusion. Even stories that differ widely in plot and tone grind out the same pessimistic message….

The heroes of many of these stories are artists-in-exile, attempting to reconcile the evidence of the world's illogical disarray with their dwindling sense that the old, determined dream of wise and decent men—that the World has meaning, and the Self can discover it—is something more than a painful anachronism. Most of these stories relentlessly dramatize the failure of the dream. Their recurring protagonist is a Yiddish writer recently emigrated to America from Europe….

Beneath the dulling sameness of the settings (most of the stories-within-stories are passed among customers at dingy cafeterias), there are intimations of mysterious unfathomable ruling powers which exert themselves through sudden strokes of good, then bad fortune…. The enigmas thus central in their experiences impel Singer's characters to torture themselves with metaphysical questions. (p. 131)

There is an added dimension in the stories set in America—for Singer's brooding emigrés must sense the mysterious contrast between their new country's pragmatic concreteness and the demon-infested otherworldliness that follows them from the old one. The impenetrable mysteriousness of what has happened to them becomes the force that rules their lives….

In these marvelous, moving stories, the purest kind of open form is operating: setting the world vibrantly before us, concentrating our own attention on our own developing responses—inviting us to draw conclusions, if we dare, or can. However well we think we know them, the old forms still entice, surprise, and reveal. The more things remain the same, the more they change. (p. 132)

Bruce Allen, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permissions), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.

Many of the stories in Isaac Bashevis Singer's … prize-winning A Crown of Feathers directly comment on and—perhaps—exploit their author's situation in a manner nearly unique in contemporary fiction. Over half of the stories consist of monologues delivered to Singer's surrogate or double: he is a writer, conversant with mysteries, demons and witches, taken to be wise, and known to be concerned with large questions of philosophy—not a man to render an easy judgment, he is suspicious of any sort of 'truth', even his own, and flirts with the idea that everything in the end may be illusory. Illusions of any sort enslave those who hold them, and so this modest, superficially companionable fellow maintains a careful ambiguity about even his conventional subject matter. As the exemplary first story demonstrates, truth is a crown of feathers which crumbles at a touch.

This narrative device, which has produced some of Singer's most memorable and disturbing stories, is more than faintly Somerset Maugham-like. If anything, this perfect listener is even more isolated and busy than his counterpart in Maugham, even more pleased with himself, and far more willing to turn others, especially women, to his own uses. I think Singer has been touted as a great writer for so long that his growing complacency has been obscured: bottomlessly fecund, he is yet content with his own manner, and coasts on it. He chooses to offer merely his own familiar proficiency and shapeliness. However, at least one of these stories, 'The Son from America', is radiantly simple and economical, and two others in this collection. 'The Briefcase' and 'On a Wagon', are as haunting as anything he has written. (p. 355)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), September 13, 1974.

Whether [Singer's] landscape be a Warsaw soup kitchen for intellectuals, an old world haunted by demons, imps, and dybbuks of the past, or a cafeteria in Coney Island, it is alive and vibrant with unforgettable people: the tormented heroine … who becomes an anguished pawn in a battle between supernatural forces…; a chess prodigy who insists on a medical examination to verify his bride's virginity and who finally dies a suicide; a once-beautiful and talented singer who after a mad macabre dance with her son is destroyed in the bombing of a Warsaw ghetto; the Yiddish Maupassant; a dentist who had translated Shakespeare's sonnets into Yiddish; the cabalist of East Broadway who, forced to eat pork in a Colorado sanitarium, fell into a deadly melancholy; a Polish poet who reveals a curious study of homosexuality…. What a gallery, Chaucerian in its vitality and gusto.

Singer's technique is conventional and traditional. His favorite mode is the story within a story, often narrated by a person who is a projection of Singer himself. The narrator meets a friend or acquaintance who tells him a story about another friend or acquaintance. Singer's people are prodigious, insatiable, indomitable talkers; one has the feeling that if the hydrogen bomb is finally dropped, the last sound on earth will be that of one of Singer's wonderful people, relating a tale of love, lust, betrayal, passion, demonic possession, madness, success, frustration, suicide, life. As is inevitable with this narrative method, related events flow from past to present over sometimes decades of time, and few authors can manipulate as effectively as he such long sequences, such counterpointing of past and present: Singer is an adroit, indeed masterly, technician.

Perhaps the most remarkable element in so many of these stories is the presence—not the intrusion, but a kind of extra dimension, never seen, never articulated, but always there—of the narrator himself: wise, witty, skeptical, compassionate, a kind of all-seeing I-Eye-Consciousness as old as the hills and as contemporary as today, an angle of vision alive with understanding which continuously illuminates these strange and often terrifying stories, a world view which can perhaps be suggested by a few comments: "Sooner or later everybody sends you a bill." "Nu, one mustn't know everything." "If there is such a thing as truth it is often as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers." "Man does not live according to reason." "In a world where human beings are burned in gas ovens, what point is there in art?" "Who needs Yiddish in America?" (pp. 718-19)

William Peden, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974.

Mr Singer's truths lie neither with the God of Jew nor Gentile and his stories question the purpose of a God in the light of our predicament. His people are made up of devout old-style Jews, revolutionaries, artists and exiles. The stories [in Crown of Feathers] are set either in Poland or America and the time varies from the turn of the century to present post-war years, or they are told outside time like folklore. Some are drawn from encounters he has made in Yiddish cafeterias in the Jewish neighbourhoods of New York, or deal with incidents that happened many years before in Warsaw and other Polish towns. An emigré Polish Jew, he writes naturally enough about Jewish people, their religion and traditions, because their lives have been his experience. It is the material out of which he makes stories that in the hands of a lesser writer might never penetrate beyond Jewish communities. But Mr Singer's stories have brought him world renown because he is concerned with anxieties that are universal. Simply, what are we doing, where are we going, and to what extent are we the masters of our fate.

When demons abound I find it more reassuring than when his mysterious forces are left unstated. At least we can be sure there are demons. A woman disappears in broad daylight while out shopping in New York, and her husband reflects that she was by nature a person born to lose and be lost. The narrator suggests that it was her original, lost fiancé turned demon who made her lose everything and then returned to claim her. The demon here provides the explanation, but some stories have invisible demons. In 'The Cabalist of East Broadway' a distinguished religious writer lives unrecognised and in penury in New York, he goes to Israel where he is acclaimed, but it wasn't, it turns out, what he wanted at all. He returns to New York, to the familiar cafeteria, where he sits seedy and silent. He prefers it that way, but he doesn't know why since 'man does not live according to reason". Logic might exist as science but the human temperament is not conditioned to apply it. The world is quite irrational and the people in it, too…. We are driven by mysterious forces. (p. 57)

Terrible things happen and living becomes a process of shattered illusions where wounds suppurate until death. And Mr Singer watches his characters dimly groping in the half-light of themselves towards an ultimate grave. The demons leave their clues, the mystery deepens, but Mr Singer … remains dispassionate, an observer, and leaves the answers to the demons.

Mr Singer … writes with a dry realism and a sense of irony worthy of Maupassant. Some of the finest stories in this collection deal with the absurd attempts of revolutionaries or anarchists to make a better world…. The situation is not healthy, but the Gods of Jew and Gentile keep silent. The Ten Commandments are daily broken within the law, revolutions turn corrupt, love fails, deceit is everywhere, and then Mr Singer remembers Spinoza saying that there are no falsehoods, only distorted truths. Demons visible and invisible spin the plot and keep us curious unto death. We live through worlds beyond our understanding and Mr Singer writes of them with a moral intensity that makes his belief in a supernatural totally credible. (pp. 57-8)

Simon Blow, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Hansom Books 1974), December, 1974.

To Singer adherents, the characters and settings [of Passions] are as familiar as repertory theater. Ancient Hasidic tales are informed with contemporary psychology and wit; fables are folded over so that the moral appears in the middle; plots are peopled with men and women of the Old World, resettled in New York or Miami or Buenos Aires, denizens of the apartments and cafés that Kafka termed the catacombs of the Jews.

Singer's new production is aptly named…. [Singer] remains one of the least explicit but most sexually charged of modern writers. (p. 78)

Singer's work sometimes drops precipitously from reasoned metaphysics to unexamined mysticism. In ghost stories, where everything is possible for the narrator, too little is plausible for the reader. It is in his least adorned works that the mysteries of affection and identity are hauntingly stated. Sam Palka and David Vishkover, for example, is not merely the richest tale in Passions, but one of the most provocative short fictions of the last decade….

Singer recalls the psychological explorations of James, Stevenson and Conrad. Yet it is none of these authors whom he most resembles. In the illumination of the ordinary, in the acuity of his observations, Singer is sounding a theme that has not been heard in a hundred years. Bending close to the page, the reader can see the characters of Anton Chekhov…. (p. 80)

Stefan Kanfer, "Fiddler," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 27, 1975, pp. 78, 80.

In its essence, drama is a blinding, minute-to-minute bolt of lightning. It has no time for the nuances of slowly gathering clouds. The life of the stage pivots on character, action, surprise and eloquence. That is one reason why adaptations from short stories and novels, while embarked upon with the worthiest of intentions, are almost invariably stillborn in the theater.

Such formidably gifted writers as Henry James and James Joyce made a stab at writing plays. Both failed. Therefore it is not unduly surprising that another writer of distinctive talent, Isaac Bashevis Singer, has also failed.

Almost from the moment the curtain goes up [on Yentl], one feels that one is browsing in a library, which, in the theater, is the dramatic equivalent of dozing off. To begin with, the story does not lend itself to a willing suspension of disbelief. The setting is a Polish ghetto town about a century ago. Yentl … is an extremely bright girl who relishes reading and discussing the Talmud and the Torah with her learned father. It is strictly taboo for a Jewish woman to be studying these sacred texts. Yentl is precocious and prone to dispute with her elders, like the young Jesus.

When her father dies, she dons male garb and enrolls in a yeshiva, a school for rabbinical studies….

Even for a fable, [the rest of the story] is a little too fabulous. Shakespeare was able to get away with the man-woman mistaken identity gambit because he imbued it with humor, poetry and a sly fencing of the sexes. But that is not the case here, where the prevailing mood is one of folkish piety.

T. E. Kalem, "Rabbinical Lib," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), November 3, 1975, p. 86.

The history of the Jews before, during, and after World War II has remained the main core of Singer's writings. Hitler was to him the irrefutable proof that evil exists. It exists to such an extent that many times one is tempted to doubt the existence of God, to fall into despair and rage. Then the characters in Singer's books see themselves as passive tools, and frustrated, they turn to magic, to politics, to atheism.

Like Henry James perpetually oscillating between the depravity of Europe and the innocence of America, Singer keeps one foot planted in the graves and old customs of Poland, and one in New York, the place he moved to in 1935 from Radzymin. After 40 years of residency in the States, he still writes in Yiddish; his stories have to be translated into English. Whether born in America or immigrated from Poland and Russia, his characters are Jewish outcasts, refugees, well-to-do merchants, victims of poverty. Their stamina comes from the past.

Basically, Singer rejects the pragmatic, American way of life. He does indeed praise and feel thankful for the new found El Dorado, but deep inside lurks a condemnation for what the affluent society has done to him and people like him. Money and success have blinded their vision, the vision the Old World had….

[Singer uses] a repetition of themes and motives often smacking of obsession, hackneyed situations, trivial details, ludicrous and sensational bric-a-brac. It seems as though something in the author's mind haunted his fiction, forcing it to revolve around one vast issue: a conflict of generations, thereby compelling him to ultimately write one single book. For example, the conclusion of a novel, "The Estate," echoes "Grandfather and Grandson" in "A Crown of Feathers." "Passions," the latest collection, is a recapitulation of all that precedes it….

In defense of this repetitiveness, some critics have said that Singer doesn't care too much about style. As proof, they quote his distaste for "literati," for theorists, for realists with no imagination, the hypocritical clowns that extol and slander one another. But, we object, what writers does Singer pan to substantiate that view? Unknown people, or people known only to him. As a further contradiction, I'd like to point out that in scores of short stories the main character happens to be either a writer, or a translator, or a lecturer, or a magazine editor. Names are dropped, papers mentioned, discussions generated. Singer takes himself and his clear style so seriously that his stories are a long biography of himself, the good, famous Yiddish writer. It's a joke, isn't it? Let us rather say that Singer, whose art is oral at its origin, has the amiable, excusable defect of the good raconteur: He repeats a lot, as bards of old.

So it is with "Passions." The "I" returns again, the "I" of the lecturer, of the freelance writer, of the person that tells or listens. But the book is different in one respect from the preceding collections: It is a long, sustained dialogue with the dead, a meditation a la Herzog. With one proviso, though. Bellow extracts subtle flavors from the apple of knowledge; Singer ravenously bites into it, spewing out a jumble of emotions. Where Bellow's progress is essentially vertical, Singer's remains horizontal, with few chasms or astounding revelations….

Sorcery and magic … in the whole book turn into holy mystery. Belief in spirits, for Singer, is belief in God, never scientifically provable because of man's free choice. That's why "Passions" abounds with telepathy, clairvoyance, premonitions, reincarnations. All these phenomena are intimations of a life beyond, as are demons and witches, spirits flying in the air. One has to tolerate them with patience and fight them with a pure conscience; one must pray, as old Jews did, when besieged by evil; one must atone for sins, do penance for errors….

In "Passions" Singer, like Herzog, does nothing but meet the dead: his dead wife in "Old Love," his dead sister in "The Admirer," the dead Jews in "Hanka." Odd, lost souls, schizophrenic virgins, crazy writers call on him. They shine and flash a few moments like falling stars, and are lost.

Death and lust, lust with a Yiddish twist, burn in "Passions" like unquenchable fire. Call it lust of the senses, of the body, of the earth, it is the irrepressible desire to be alive, impish and zesty, to enjoy oneself to the utmost in order to understand death better. Real death is in fact to let go, to be unable to love. (p. 49)

[There is] fundamental dichotomy in Singer between reason and lust, Satan and God. On one side there is the world, with its foolish requests, its diabolical seances, its irreverence and skepticism, on the other Singer's own aspirations for purity, for the holy and inspired ways of the old Jews. For them death was not a curse, but a liberation from the fire of life, from the secret, relentless urge that spurs us to make love, to desire, to scheme, awed and seduced by the boiling wonder of life….

Singer's heroes, the baffled recluses, the holy rabbis, the flagellant hermits, all try to tear themselves away from the pleasures of the world, but they all long for the flesh and betray God…. They are defeated by something greater than they are, the nostalgia for a world of meaning that is the center of Jewish life….

Nereo Condini, "Singer Skips to a Fiery Dance on the Edge of the Abyss," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), February 2, 1976, pp. 49-50.


Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 3)


Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 9)