Isaac Bashevis Singer Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 1) - Essay

Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Singer, Isaac Bashevis 1904–

Singer, a Polish-born American who writes in Yiddish, is the author of Satan in Goray, Gimpel the Fool, and The Magician of Lublin. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

When I first read "Gimpel the Fool" … I felt not only that I was reading an extraordinarily beautiful and witty story, but that I was moving through as many historical levels as an archaeologist at work. This is an experience one often gets from the best Jewish writers. The most "advanced" and sophisticated Jewish writers of our time—Babel, Kafka, Bellow—have assimilated, even conquered, the whole tradition of modern literature while reminding us of the unmistakable historic core of the Jewish experience. Equally, a contemporary Yiddish writer like Isaac Bashevis Singer uses all the old Jewish capital of folklore, popular speech and legendry, yet from within this tradition itself is able to duplicate a good deal of the conscious absurdity, the sauciness, the abandon of modern art—without for a moment losing his obvious personal commitment to the immemorial Jewish vision of the world….

It is the integrity of the human imagination that Singer conveys so beautifully. He reveals the advantage that an artist can find in his own orthodox training—unlike so many Jews who in the past became mere copyists and mumblers of the holy word. Singer's work does stem from the Jewish village, the Jewish seminary, the compact (not closed) Jewish society of Eastern Europe. He does not use the symbols which so many modern writers pass on to each other. For Singer it is not only his materials that are "Jewish"; the world is so. Yet within this world he has found emancipation and universality—through his faith in imagination.

Alfred Kazin, "The Saint as Schlemiel" (1958), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 283-88.

Isaac Bashevis Singer is the only contemporary Yiddish writer to have achieved international recognition. Somehow he has succeeded in breaking out of the closed circle of Yiddish literature and in attracting widespread interest to his wild and imaginative novels and stories. This is especially remarkable because Singer writes in a language frequently condemned to imminent extinction, about a bizarre group which has all but disappeared from the face of the earth and which evokes sympathy and understanding from few of the living….

With few exceptions, Singer writes about Eastern European Jewry as it existed between the mid-seventeenth century and the beginning of the Second World War. More specifically, he tends to concentrate on the Polish Hasidic element, the fanatically Orthodox mystics, as we think of them today: Against this seemingly staid background Singer has created incredible tales of fantastic and lusty happenings. Out of situations in which modesty and control dominate there develop situations in which intemperance and insanity run wild. A strange world is made stranger by the incongruous and the unexpected. Nevertheless, the reader, for his part, is fascinated. The action and its developments are intriguing. The characters come to life with amazing vigor. And in spite of its strangeness and oddities, the world of Singer's creation comes through vividly, making itself felt in all its fullness. But what is felt with clarity is not always clearly understood. From the very beginning the reader is beset by very perplexing problems of interpretation. Singer does not appear to be at all consistent. He seems to hop from view to view, from position to position; he never asserts a view firmly or directly. Rather, he infuses a tension of mystery into his stories by means of this apparent ambivalence….

Probably the oddest aspects of Singer's works are his themes. An inordinate stress, certainly for a Yiddish writer, is placed on sex—on evocative scenes of passionate sensualism. Astonishingly, the participants are often old-fashioned pious Jews with earlocks and beards, or devout, bewigged matrons. No combination seems incredible to Singer. Not even the aged and malformed are excluded from his lusty erotic imagination. Adultery is prevalent, orgies crown sequences of intemperate behavior, and shutters are insidiously closed in the middle of the day. The reader, conditioned to expect a more conventional version of the pre-modern world of the Hasidim, may well wonder, what ever happened to the Torah!…

In the writings of Singer a number of revealing themes and attitudes constantly recur. Prominent are the greed, lustfulness and sensuality of man. Man repeatedly descends lower and lower, to deeper states of corruption, till he is reduced to complete bestiality. Frequently, the totally innocent are forced into compromising situations by external forces and act as humans would be expected to act. Each small weakness is soon magnified into a major flaw, and the innocent gradually become hopelessly diseased. Ultimately, all suffer horribly for a state of affairs which does not seem of their making, and in which they are the slaves of their senses, not their own masters. A frightening injustice seems to dominate man's existence. On the one hand he is irresistibly attracted by the pleasures of the senses; on the other, he is cruelly punished for submitting to the temptation. Because of this, Singer often displays both horror and contempt of the physical world. The world he recoils from is the world of the market place, of human passions, of vain ambitions, of misguided aspirations, and of all the human relationships which result from them….

As a moralist, Singer follows a Judaic puritanical tradition. He advocates piety, restraint, wisdom and a spiritual involvement with humans. But these are values which are widely accepted and art not the monopoly of Judaism. In his writings, Singer rises above the values which are peculiarly Jewish. The sensuous Kabbalists, a particular kind of (ghettoish) gluttony, and the foolish seeking a Messiah on their own terms as the chosen people—these have no role in Singer's vision of good. Thus, Singer is able to exploit the universal values of Judaism without becoming affected by its parochialisms which limit the writings of other Yiddish writers.

J. A. Eisenberg, "Isaac Bashevis Singer: Passionate Primitive or Pious Puritan?," in Judaism, Fall, 1962, pp. 345-56.

One of the best writers of prose fiction in America today is Isaac Bashevis Singer,… [who presents] a meaningful vision of reality consistently moral and beautifully individual. The nature of this vision may become clearer if we follow one theme which runs insistently through his work—the theme of faith….

Singer establishes as a framework what might be called the standard Jewish faith. Primarily this includes belief in the Jewish God, personal, omnipotent, who imposes after death rewards and punishments according to man's virtues and sins. The way to serve God is through halacha, the code of law which is essentially a code of behavior, controlling man's communal and private actions, his objective relations to society, to family, to God. This framework serves as a standard which is taken for granted in the Jewish communities Singer's characters live in. The novels neither support nor approve it, but use it rather as a background before which the crises of faith operate, and in terms of which they can be understood….

In its relentless insistence on the lonely necessity to decide how one is to live, what to believe, and especially in its conclusion that while man must choose, the best he can hope for is commitment and never certitude, Singer's work is enormously meaningful for man today, Jew or non-Jew. But this would count for little were it not for the actuality of presentation, the reality of scene and the reality of character which Singer achieves. It is not just that Singer's craftsmanship is meticulous; it is that his books become alive.

J. S. Wolkenfeld, "Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Faith of His Devils and Magicians," in Criticism, Fall, 1963.

Singer's greatest achievement is the convincing authenticity with which he handles the supernatural as a real but different dimension in human experience…. Certainly he has the problem faced by every visionary writer, that of convincingly representing the supersensual world with the data of the apprehensible one. Poets and mystics tend to work in this medium with symbolic systems and their powers of allusive evocation. Singer does too, although since the frame of reference he uses is generally unfamiliar the reader may only sense the solidity it gives his work without knowing what it is or how it works. On the other hand, as a novelist Singer uses a very credible psychology—one is almost tempted to say a psychopathology—to develop characters and situations susceptible of producing a visionary or transcendental resonance….

Singer's mythology is most interesting. Being dualistic it assumes a certain kind of metaphysical balance, unstable though that might appear to be in human experience. In Kabbalistic tradition this unstable dualism acquires a vast, interlocking significance.

Michael Fixler, "The Redeemers: Themes in the Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer," in Kenyon Review, Spring, 1964.

No other living writer has yielded himself so completely and recklessly as has Isaac Bashevis Singer to the claims of the human imagination. Singer writers in Yiddish, a language that no amount of energy or affection seems likely to save from extinction. He writes about a world that is gone, destroyed with a brutality beyond historical comparison. He writes within a culture, the remnant of Yiddish in the Western world, that is more than a little dubious about his purpose and stress. He seems to take entirely for granted his role as a traditional story-teller speaking to an audience attuned to his every hint and nuance, an audience that values story-telling both in its own right and as a binding communal action—but also, as it happens, an audience that keeps fading week by week, shrinking day by day. And he does all this without a sigh or apology, without so much as a Jewish groan. It strikes one as a kind of inspired madness: here is a man living in New York City, a sophisticated and clever writer, who composes stories about places like Frampol, Bilgoray, Kreshev, as if they were still there. His work is shot through with the bravado of a performer who enjoys making his listeners gasp, weep, laugh and yearn for more. Above and beyond everything else he is a great performer, in ways that remind one of Twain, Dickens, Sholom Aleichem…. Singer's stories claim attention through their vivacity and strangeness of surface. He is devoted to the grotesque, the demonic, the erotic, the quasi-mystical….

Isaac Bashevis Singer is the only living Yiddish writer whose translated work has caught the imagination of a Western (the American) literary public. Though the settings of his stories are frequently strange, the contemporary reader—for whom the determination not to be shocked has become a point of honour—is likely to feel closer to Singer than to most other Yiddish writers. Offhand this may be surprising, for Singer's subjects are decidedly remote and exotic…. Yet one feels that, unlike many of the Yiddish writers who treat more familiar and up-to-date subjects, Singer commands a distinctly "modern" sensibility….

Singer's stories work, or prey, upon the nerves. They leave one unsettled and anxious, the way a rationalist might feel if, waking at night in the woods, he suddenly found himself surrounded by a swarm of bats. Unlike most Yiddish fiction, Singer's stories neither round out the cycle of their intentions nor posit a coherent and ordered universe. They can be seen as paradigms of the arbitrariness, the grating injustice, at the heart of life. They offer instances of pointless suffering, dead-end exhaustion, inexplicable grace. And sometimes, as in Singer's masterpiece, Gimpel the Fool, they turn about, refusing to rest with the familiar discomforts of the problematic, and drive towards a prospect of salvation on the other side of despair, beyond soiling by error or will. This prospect does not depend on any belief in the comeliness or lawfulness of the universe; whether God is there or not, He is surely no protector….

What is most remarkable about Singer's prose is his ability to unite rich detail with fiercely compressed rhythms. For the translator this presents the almost insuperable problem of how to capture both his texture and his pace, his density of specification and his vibrating quickness. More often than not, even the most accomplished translator must choose between one effect and the other, if only because the enormous difficulty of rendering Yiddish idiom into another language forces him either to fill out or slow down Singer's sentences….

Within his limits Singer is a genius. He has total command of his imagined world; he is original in his use both of traditional Jewish materials and his modernist attitude towards them; he provides a serious if enigmatic moral perspective; and he is a master of Yiddish prose. Yet there are times when Singer seems to be mired in his own originality, stories in which he displays a weakness for self-imitation that is disconcerting. Second-rate writers imitate others, first-rate writers themselves, and it is not always clear which is the more dangerous….

Singer is a writer of both the pre-Enlightenment and the post-Enlightenment: he would be equally at home with a congregation of medieval Jews and a gathering of 20th-century intellectuals, perhaps more so than at a meeting of the Yiddish PEN club. He has a strong sense of the mystical and antique, but also a cool awareness of psycho-analytic disenchantment. He has evaded both the religious pieties and the humane rationalism of 19th-century East European Judaism. He has skipped over the ideas of the historical epoch which gave rise to Yiddishism, for the truth is, I suppose, that Yiddish literature, in both its writers of acceptance and writers of scepticism, is thoroughly caught up with the Enlightenment. Singer is not. He shares very little in the collective sensibility or the folkstimlichkeit of the Yiddish masters; he does not unambiguously celebrate dos kleine menshele (the common man) as a paragon of goodness; he is impatient with the sensual deprivations implicit in the values of edelkeit (refinement, nobility); and above all he moves away from a central assumption of both Yiddish literature in particular and the 19th century in general, the assumption of an immanent fate or end in human existence….

Irving Howe, "The Introduction" (© 1966 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), in Selected Short Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Irving Howe, Random House, 1966.

All of Singer's works, with the exception of The Family Moskat, are parables of conversion, in which the primary relationship is between man and God, not between man and man. The pattern is one of conversion from defiance, sin, greed, lust, and doubts to submission, virtue, chastity, and selfless faith in God. Since only the radical sinner can undergo a dramatic conversion of this sort, Singer's protagonists cannot, in the nature of things, be other than they are. They do indeed violate the expectations of the Yiddish reader in their initial arrogance and lack of charity toward their fellow men, yet they must violate them if Singer is to write the sort of fable that engages him. It is, in fact, one of the ironies of Singer's relationship to his "natural" audience that the end toward which his fables move is a total affirmation of what his heroes grasp as the Jewish deity and His way.

Baruch Hochman, "I. B. Singer's Vision of Good and Evil," in Midstream, March, 1967, pp. 66-73.

Of all the critical approaches to I. B. Singer's fiction, the most usual, as one would assume, has been evaluation of his relationship to the mainstream of Yiddish literature. However, an examination of his short stories yields a striking thematic concern, unexpectedly placing Singer squarely in the broader stream of twentieth century literature. While he sensitively recreates a time and place in modern history dead and all but forgotten, and while his stories superficially reflect a preoccupation with Jewish folklore, Singer repetitively and compellingly focuses on the individual's struggle to find a viable faith in an age possessed by this very problem. Thus, the stories, despite their setting in the nineteenth century Eastern European Jewish ghetto and their deceptive mask of simple folk tales, portray and explore this predominant problem of modern man with all its accompanying apprehension and tension. Specifically, Singer predicates his fiction on the idea that the presence or absence of human faith in God is an eternal, omnipresent dilemma which the individual must resolve for himself, and he consistently shows that man's fate after death, to be in Heaven or Hell, is directly correlated with his degree of faith in God. Accordingly, Singer's stories run from unshakable belief in God to inflexible trust in the Devil….

Singer's characters may be viewed as allegorical figures, all working toward their resolution of the dilemma of faith and, thus, their fates because central to their lives is their relationship to God….

Beyond Singer's theological assumptions are insights into the nature of man. Singer's fictional vision makes clear that the compulsion to align oneself with God or Satan marks the split in man's nature into the humanistic, concerned, creative individual versus the narrow, egotistical, sterile person. This essence of man's current dilemma is what makes Singer universal.

Linda G. Zatlin, "The Themes of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Short Fiction," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 2, 1969, pp. 40-6.

[Singer's] first achievement, as a Polish Jew and Yiddish writer in our time, is not to be paralyzed by the horrors of history, nor be rendered impotent by filial pieties, nor become tendentious and overtly moralistic. Avoiding these pitfalls, he honorably performs his function as a chronicler, epic namer and celebrant of well lived and worthy lives. There are in these books astonishing images of vitality of character, place, emotion, so that while one feels the burden of sadness in realizing that this life was annihilated, one also feels wonder and pleasure that it was truly lived, felt, real. Indeed, this is always the effect of good biography or history: mingled sadness and awe at the spectacle of the transitoriness of human life and institutions along with the astonishing persistence of recognizable human motive, desire, and aspiration.

Jules Chametzky, "History in I. B. Singer's Novels," in Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Irving Malin, New York University Press, 1969, pp. 169-77.

On the surface no two fiction writers seem quite as different as Flannery O'Connor and Isaac Bashevis Singer…. They are both, however, literary apostates and cause discomfort to readers who believe that Catholic literature must be concerned only with Roman Catholics and priests and that Jewish literature should be firmly anchored to such traditional texts as the Pentateuch, the Talmud, and their various glosses. Catholics are as suspicious of Flannery O'Connor's revivalists as Jews are of Singer's preachers of the gospel according to the Baal-Shem-Tov, Baruch Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Martin Buber. Flannery O'Connor writing about a Protestant South is quite as suspect as the Singer characters who quote with rare conviction from Spinoza's Ethics or Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea.

The similarity cuts more deeply. In the broadest sense both Singer and Flannery O'Connor belong to a loosely apocalyptic tradition which attempts to define a spiritual dimension…. Singer's stories and novels offer a constant reminder of the disproportion between the ethic the Jews have fashioned for themselves in their galut and the abuse it has fallen into at various moments in their history; this is his real subject—whether he chooses to etch it in reality or in myth.

Melvin J. Friedman, "Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Appeal of Numbers," in Critical Views of Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Irving Malin, New York University Press, 1969, pp. 178-93.

Alone of Yiddish writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer has caught the fancy of critics, teachers, students, and public…. [Singer's] fiction evokes a past rich in the sufferings and joys, shapes and sounds of the Jewish exile's last four centuries. His dybbuks and beggars, rabbis and atheists, saints and whores are bound by common spiritual ties, an expressive common tongue, a common destiny, and frequently a common martyrdom. Together they constitute the most varied and coherent cavalcade of Jewish life in modern fiction.

Singer is no primitive. Despite exotic materials and idiomatic style, he is a sophisticated craftsman with the easy fluency attained by only the finest writers in any culture. He is a born storyteller, with sure insight and an outrageous compulsion to create. Fable and fantasy, chronicle and saga, tale and essay issue from his pen. His least inspired tales have a tender, gusty, tragic vitality derived from a sensitive fusion of Yiddish and Western traditions…. Fiction mirrors God's artistry, Singer believes, only when facts are extended and enlarged by images from the unconscious or supernatural. This fusion of fact and image, of objective report and subjective fancy, he terms chronicle—"external chronicle and psychological chronicle." (pp. 5-6)

Viewing traditional concepts and values with an ambiguous mixture of love, pride, and doubt, he finds no easy answers to the eternal questions. What few answers there are, he makes clear, each must glean for himself. His refusal to champion group, philosophy, or commandment bothers many. For Singer all mankind constitutes the human reality; hence he spares neither Jew nor Christian, code nor attitude. (p. 7)

Singer's tough, intimate, earthy prose conveys the rhythms of Yiddish folk speech—its human beat and stress, intonations and embodied gestures. His frequently archaic, at times obsolete, Yiddish (discernible even in translation) reinforces a complex interweaving of fact and fantasy, comedy and terror. (p. 9)

Singer does have a perverse, if not morbid, taste for violence, blood, and animal slaughter, not to mention rape, demons, and the grave—all gothic horror story elements. He relishes those medieval superstitions and fears that clung to shtetl life into the twentieth century. His devils, demons, and imps may represent a partial deference to the strong contemporary taste for "black humor" in its myriad forms. But primarily his demonology enables Singer to expose the demons driving us all. His devils and imps symbolize those erratic, wayward, and diabolic impulses that detour men from their fathers' piety and morality. (p. 10)

The Family Moskat represents one of Singer's two major fictional modes. Like The Magician of Lublin, The Slave, and The Manor, it is essentially direct, realistic narrative. But Singer's earliest novel, Satan in Goray, and many of his short tales embody the demonic and supernatural. Realism and fantasy are not for Singer mutually exclusive categories but only, as he puts it, "two sides of the same coin. The world can be looked at one way or another, and the theme of a story determines its style." (p. 14)

The Slave finds Singer at his most effective. Nowhere does he express so movingly man's undying concern for the spirit and unfailing surrender to the flesh. No reward, he again makes clear, should be expected on earth. Yet all need not despair, for there are those for whom even the most crushing defeats may serve as a means of exploring and elevating the human spirit. True holiness and love transcend time and tragedy, cruelty and injustice, to attain a higher, heavenly reward. Indeed, those few who—like Gimpel, Yasha Mazur, Jacob and Sarah—accept not only suffering's inevitability but its necessity attain a measure of serenity on earth. But such beings are rare. Singer's prose, always spare and controlled, is here lyrical, his imagery precise. He reveals again his flair for sustaining interest and concern in the bizarre and remote. And rare in Yiddish fiction is his easy blending of plot, structure, and physical nature. (p. 30)

[Singer's] unique vision gives to Jewish tradition, history, and lore new meaning and application. This vision is broad as well as unique. For Singer no intellectual mode suffices alone; none proves a panacea for man's doubts and fears. Finding asceticism and indulgence equally unappealing, he rejects pointless sensuality, intellectualism, or parochialism for universal values of moderation and generosity or sincerity of spirit. Neither optimist nor cynic, Singer never strikes poses through his characters to defy faith or to disdain learning. He observes his struggling figures without intruding judgment or sympathy; both seem almost irrelevant, but they prove otherwise. Through every tale runs a clear line that divides good and evil and renders an implied moral verdict on every act.

Singer's intent, however, is less to criticize his bedeviled fellow beings than to understand and reveal them. Despite his meticulous depiction of setting, manner, and belief, he never allows these elements to become as important as each character's painful self-scrutiny. The historical moment also is secondary. Singer strives for those acts of revelation that catch his proud, lustful, deluded little people at points of great stress, acts that cut through the banalities of religion, culture, and setting to expose their common substance across the generations. Ultimately, their loneliness and longings, their painful awareness of self and inevitable self-doubts, constitute a penetrating inquiry not into Jewish but into universal existence. (pp. 43-4)

Ben Siegel, Isaac Bashevis Singer ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 86), University of Minnesota Press, © 1969 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

On the whole, Singer's fiction frees us from the tyranny of the literal, the merely sensible, without succumbing or catering to our perpetual longings for wish-fulfillment, erotic and otherwise.

Jay L. Halio, "Fantasy and Fiction," in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1971, pp. 635-50.