Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 3)
Singer, Isaac Bashevis 1904–
Singer, born in Poland, is an American novelist and short story writer who writes primarily in Yiddish. His memorable evocations of East European shtetl life, unique in world literature, have recently caught the American literary imagination. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
"Satan in Goray" and "Gimpel the Fool" are certainly amongst the most heart-piercing, penetrating, unforgettable stories ever written either in Yiddish or in America. Although I suppose Singer's plots and characters and milieu could all be called sensational, they are sensational like Märchen, like Grimm's Fairy Tales, with the authenticity and closeness to physical reality and the ways of men of a folk tale told in a cottage on a winter night in a village in the backwoods of Poland. It is as though the Baal Shem Tov had seen a vision of Poland in 1940–45 before he ever set out on his travels, and sat down one night by candlelight and told his wife a long grotesque parable, there in his log hut in the Carpathian mountains—and never had gone on his mission. The trouble with all this liberal Neo-Hassidism is that it can't really cope with the insights and revelations of our cold, hopeless, sick time. There's a certain complacent Fabian Society optimism about it. Singer's can. It can even cope with its own disbelief.
Singer has many virtues, a wirey, inescapable style, an intensely personal, inimitable vision, a Machiavellian wit, but above all else it is the bracing, revivifying character of his insight that makes him important. I suppose it is a sort of message, "Life is a bitter tonic, but it cures death itself." I suppose he could be compared to Sam Beckett, or to the Bernanos of Sous le Soleil de Satan. But he is, really, a lot further along the road to the end of night than they are and he starts out from less auspicious and promising origins.
Kenneth Rexroth, "The Lost Vision of Isaac Bashevis Singer" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; © 1958 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, November, 1958, p. 460.
Isaac Bashevis Singer is the Yiddish Hawthorne…. Singer writes what Hawthorne called "romances" rather than novels, and moral fables and allegories rather than short stories. I cannot imagine anyone since Hawthorne writing such a tale as "The Gentleman from Cracow" in Gimpel the Fool, in which a generous stranger who corrupts and destroys the little town of Frampol is revealed to be Ketev Mriri, Chief of the Devils. Singer's third romance, The Slave,… is his most Hawthornian….
Singer has been in this country since 1935, on the staff of the Jewish Daily Forward, but America and the twentieth century do not exist in his work, except once as a fantastic vision in "The Little Shoemakers" in Gimpel the Fool when a half-crazed old Jew arrives in New York and takes it to be the pyramids of Egypt. Singer's subject is shtetl (Jewish village) life in Poland, sometimes in the seventeenth and sometimes in the late nineteenth century, and he brings it into being so powerfully that reading his books one soon comes to believe that our world is a fantastic vision.
Singer's style, in the tradition of Hawthorne and Melville, is often rhetorical and flamboyant, but there is not an ounce of fat on his prose. His characters sometimes bandy proverbs wittily, in the fashion of West Africans, and similarly he is sometimes folksy and proverbial. Singer's most characteristic style is one of sophisticated ironic juxtaposition….
The second half of The Slave, Jacob's living in Pilitz with Dumb Sarah, is less effective than the first, Jacob in slavery, which is as great as anything Singer ever wrote. The miraculous end is hard to take, and some of the characters are unconvincing. Nevertheless, The Slave towers over everything else being written today. Writing old-fashioned romances in an obsolescent tongue, Singer redeems the time.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Yiddish Hawthorne," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 83-7.
[Isaac Bashevis] Singer represents a singular Jewish type. Skeptical of the casuistries of Jewish law and no longer observing ritual practices, he yet feels a powerful homesickness for the community that he has rejected. With Wordsworthian mellowness, the mature man looks back affectionately at the young boy's journey from belief to doubt, and recollects the people and episodes that formed his character and colored his iconoclasm—and that provided the materials and tonality of his fiction. But above all, In My Father's Court is a poignant document of a living culture that, nourished from within by its joyous obedience to the law, was extinguished in Hitler's crematoria. By a sad paradox these reminiscent sketches, originally published in the Jewish Daily Forward, were written in a language [Yiddish] that is read today by a tiny audience….
The destruction of any culture is an occasion for mourning, a catastrophe to the entire human family. In My Father's Court, a flower of art growing, as it were, from the ashes of that magnificent past, is an act of imaginative piety. And piety, which etymologically is derived from pity, is the radiant quality of his ancestors that, by the divine laws of art, Isaac Bashevis Singer rescues from extinction.
Herbert Leibowitz, "A Lost World Redeemed," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1967 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XIX, No. 4, Winter, 1966–67, pp. 669-73.
A Friend of Kafka is Isaac Bashevis Singer's fifth short-story collection, his seventeenth book. And his prolificacy is showing. Although a new dimension has here been added—five stories about the United states, and one each set in Israel and South America—the creative concentrate that once had been synonymous with Singer's fiction is now thoroughly watered down. With the growth of his fame there has been, I suspect, a concomitant growth of demands on him by magazine editors, forcing Singer to become a manufacturer of stories—or, worse yet, non-stories—publishable only by virtue of his name.
A few good tales might be the saving factor in any writer's collection; with Singer this can no longer hold true. His last two volumes contained more signs of mediocrity than of genius. Regrettably, this is even truer of A Friend of Kafka. There may be an explanation for this trend, but with an artist of Singer's stature explanation is no excuse….
After a while many of these stories sound alike, even though their plots and locales vary. Themes, structure, techniques blend; the soap-opera quality surfaces….
Nevertheless, Singer still manages to produce a few good stories, and there are some fine passages in the bad ones. It would be unfair to skim over these positive elements. When Singer is strong he can delineate character swiftly, as in "Dr. Beeber," composed in his characteristic curt rhythms. He consistently makes use of Jewish literary, folkloristic, and historical material to reinforce his Yiddish prose, and thus remains squarely within the Jewish writing tradition. He can combine plot with analysis of existential situations, and character with theology and an attitude toward the Jewish past.
Curt Leviant, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 19, 1970, pp. 36-7, 46.
In Singer's view, absurdity, chaos, the irrational, all the fashionable preoccupations of contemporary life, are at best apocrypha, not canon. In a world of prose experiment and cool media, Singer, virtually alone, works in the metaphysical tradition. Behind him are the contiguous works of Kafka, Chekhov—and Gogol, with whom the reader of A Friend of Kafka must agree: "Say what you like, but such things do happen—not often, but they do happen." These 21 miraculous creations are, in the highest artistic tradition, true stories.
Stefan Kanfer, "Sammler's Planetarians," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1970 by Time Inc.), September 21, 1970, p. 101.
If I. B. Singer had written only "Gimpel the Fool," it would have been enough. But his singular power as a cabalistic writer determined to describe the world of Jewish Gothic continues to grow and gather energy. In his middle 60s now, Singer seems to go from strength to strength as though increasing age had become the generative force. This newest book [A Friend of Kafka, and Other Stories] is by far the best thing we have from him. Singer's short stories are far superior to his novels, as is not entirely surprising in view of the fact that the paradigms for traditional Jewish writing, a "wisdom literature," have always been the proverb, the parable and the folk tale.
To read these stories now makes one aware of the degree to which Singer is able to create a new and Talmud-like dialectic: the subtle argument of a Jewish nihilist who is compelled to believe in Something, and knows more than a little about the demonic. In unexpected ways, the spirit of these tales is antithetical not only to the pious world of Eastern Jewry, most of which disappeared in the concentration camps, but also to the West, rooted in a materialism that reaches toward the mystique of technology. In sharp contrast to both, the world of I. B. Singer is incompatible with predictable systems. His stories, somehow, never end where one expects them to.
Dan Isaac, "The World of Jewish Gothic," in The Nation, November 2, 1970, pp. 438-40.
I. B. Singer's work is remarkable for a number of reasons. Critics have called it "modern." It is not. Most of his stories take place in the past, certainly; but Gide composing Le Roi Candaule, or Camus his Caligula, writes in an unmistakably modern way. Singer's stories turn so remote a corner in the history of human consciousness, they may give the impression of coming from the future when they are really returning from a circumnavigation of infinity … and by the back way. He writes in Yiddish, but he thinks in Hebrew; or if you like, in awfully early Greek. The characters Singer creates (like the world he makes), whether he puts them down in Poland or New York, whether they live in the sixteenth century or presently, are as distant from us as the aborigines. It isn't their funny beards or costumes; it isn't because they live by law in a book that's dead as dumbbells, or engage in quaint inter-Jewish squabbles; it isn't because their lives are so compressed by custom, so driven on by superstition, that we simply feel our age superior in light and air at least; it isn't even because goose-footed devils are as real as geese there, or that from time to time evil steals from one or other body-pox its part as plague-in-chief. I have already called Singer a shut-in: this, again, not because he writes in a fossil language, risking, yet escaping, the fate of Eugène Marais; or because the world is as much a magical volume of words for him as it is for any glossing cabbalist (since he is clearly a scholar, studies up, arranges, and collects); but only because of the primitive materiality of his approach; thus what Singer's shut inside of is a metaphysics—honored, ancient—a metaphysics of that Word which once worked itself up into World, a philosophy of acts and not intentions, of prayers and rites, not states of soul, a universe in which nothing's real but things.
William H. Gass, "The Shut-In," in his Fiction and the Figures of Life (copyright © 1971 by William H. Gass; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1970, pp. 140-53.
[Singer's] world of the shtetl is a highly personal domain, the sort of fictive world we find in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter or Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha County. And he performs with words what Marc Chagall does with paint—re-creating a ghetto world that was destroyed before either could come to terms with its curious combination of rigidity and homogenous warmth….
Singer finds himself plagued by requests which have nothing whatever to do with the fiction he is actually writing. Yiddishists demand that he be more their kind of mentsh [by decreasing his reliance on sexual themes], while his American critics secretly hope he will move into the twentieth century so that it would be easier to discuss him in contemporary novel classes. There is even a problem with his sympathetic readers—particularly the ones who are fascinated by dybbuks and devils, and who see Singer as a prophet of the irrational and bizarre (tapping walls for wine and other bits of cabalistic chicanery). For them, the world of I. B. Singer is as good a parallel to their own wish for the grotesque as they are likely to find, and a generation that deified Salinger is slowly being replaced by a cult that worships Singer.
Sanford Pinsker, "The Isolated Schlemiels of Isaac Bashevis Singer," in his The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in the Yiddish and American Jewish Novel (© 1971 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp. 55-86.
A re-reading of I. B. Singer's works raises a number of interesting questions, some peculiar to him, and some which look beyond him to the whole phenomenon of Jewish-American writers, and, indeed, to the possibility of minority cultures in this most pluralistic of lands. To begin with the obvious, the reason for his sudden rise to popularity among non-Yiddish readers after years of appearance by installments in the Jewish Daily Forward; the acclaim by readers of English is all the more puzzling when we realize that his reception by his kinsmen is somewhat less admiring. A second peculiarity is that, although he has lived in the United States since 1935, he continues to write in Yiddish, to deal almost exclusively with European Jews. His observations of American life are limited to a brief sequence in one of his chronicle novels, The Estate, and to three or four short stories—out of six novels, five collections of short stories, and a book of memoirs….
If we seek to evaluate these books in retrospect, a sense of their variety, qualitative unevenness, and their author's essential ambiguity comes to the fore. What are we to make of Singer's attitude toward spiritualism and the occult, for example? Or of those tales, like "Stories from Behind the Stove," which seem trivial or gossipy, or "The Joke" and "The Colony," which seem thinly veiled autobiography? What are we to make of the sense that some of these stories are significant and powerfully symbolic, while others are mere meintsas—yarns dreamed up or dredged out of the memory to while away an hour with the amusements of shallow fiction? In his published interviews, Singer seems to lay the basis for both these claims—a fact which is both a tease and a cautionary challenge to a critic on the make. Behind this is a question which looks beyond Singer and includes him: what does it mean to be a Jew, and how is the Jewish writer to accommodate to a non-Jewish society?
With so varied and prolific a writer critics have found tenable positions or points of emphasis which are highly diverse and sometimes contradictory: Irving Howe sees him as an existentialist, Eli Katz as a modernist, Baruch Hochman as a traditionalist, Irving Buchen as the creator of an "Eternal Past." Robert Alter treats him somewhat gingerly as a kind of maverick. Others focus on some one quality in him which is to their liking: his humor or his visionary, apocalyptic bent. Each reflects an uneasiness at having missed the "essential" Singer, or at least a sense of his elusiveness. Singer himself appears to relish this critical uncertainty and on occasion to obfuscate the issue.
A new perspective which will account both for Singer's diversity and for his integral quality is suggested by the phrase, "crises of identity."…
Singer's three chronicle novels, The Family Moskat, The Manor, and The Estate, graphically detail the cost of finding a precarious balance between the Talmudic culture and the philosophical-secular culture of the larger society….
Critics often remark on two blemishes in Singer's fiction: his irresolute endings and—related to this characteristic—his ambivalence. The irresolution is implicit in The Family Moskat, since Asa Bannet's decision to stay in Warsaw and await the onslaught of the Nazis is planless and without hope. Does he spurn escape because he has finally returned to trust in God? Nothing in the book prepares us for the inference. Is it meant to impart his final apathy and indifference? If so, it is a degree of passivity which he has never before exhibited. Some readers of Yiddish have noted that the original version ends with a reaffirmation of traditional Judaism by those Jews who remain, and Singer's decision to excise that ending leads us to see more clearly that Asa's ultimate behavior is meant to express both his sense of personal isolation and his emotional oneness with his people. A flawed identity, to be sure, but the only kind of integrity of which he is capable. In The Family Moskat Singer has given us the identity problem of a Jewish intellectual and has avoided even the hint of a solution. In the two later chronicles he offers two solutions, one in the person of Ezriel Babad, the other through Rabbi Jochanan. Ezriel is Freud-like in his rejection of the traditional faith and in his stoic pursuit of scientific learning. Jochanan, with his saintly commitment to God, is the second possibility; not accidentally, Ezriel, the doubter and modernized Jew, brings his own son, Misha, to Jochanan so that the boy can be raised in the orthodox way the father has irretrievably lost. Nor, surely, is it any accident that these affirmative characters precede in fictional time what Singer calls "the Holocaust." In the face of the Nazis' effort at total extinction he suggests no effective individual response—not even by escape to Palestine or America.
In his … collection, A Friend of Kafka,… Singer's theme remains the same: European Jews who migrated to the United States after World War I are a disinherited race because the old relationships fail to survive, or because the social forms become unrecognizable to the European Jew. Thus, an unfailing aspect of Singer's fiction is that no Gentile treats any Jew with sympathy or charity, except for reasons adulterated by self-interest…. The Jew … must exist between the world of Judaism and the world of Christianity, and with some few exceptions, that Jew who lives in only one of the cultures is found wanting.
In Satan in Goray, The Slave, and The Magician of Lublin, Singer explores the same theme but spreads it on a smaller canvas, with fewer characters than in the chronicles, and with a more diagrammatic control of plot. In Satan in Goray, his first novel, he offers an apocalyptic solution to a 17th century version of the Nazi Holocaust…. The novel, based upon historical fact, has the simplicity and impact of folklore in its implication that man must strike a balance between the demands of the flesh and the desires of the spirit, and that failure to harmonize the two results in a variety of transgressions. Finally, the presence of dybbuks, together with the whole folklore of demonology, strikes a note to which Singer returns in his short stories….
[In The Slave,] as elsewhere, Singer converts the family formula of the West European chronicle to a novel of race and relations between cultures; his hero remains industrious, morally upright, and full of consideration for his wife, yet devoid of mincing smugness or the self-effacement that mar Christian chivalry….
[In "Gimpel the Fool,"] as in his other fiction, Singer works to a distinctive solution of the problem of identity. He does not ally himself wholly with the Jewish tradition of Europe. He is attracted to philosophy, he quotes admiringly from Spinoza, Hegel, Vaihinger, Kant, and Schopenhauer, but in the end these reflections do not lead to goodness or truth. The mind cannot know God, it can only be perplexed by Him. Nor can the heart know God, for it is subject to delusion and self-indulgence. The paths between these two poles are as innumerable as are those who walk them, and each must struggle to make his own way, some led by intellect, some by love, some ensnared by lust and greed (his rabbis as much as his ordinary folk). Singer himself maintains a precarious balance between sympathy and reason, with a tendency to lean toward the irrational and the occult while stressing conceptual organization in his fiction. He thus straddles two worlds, the West European culture with its emphasis upon irony, detachment, and cynicism, and the Yiddish culture with its greater warmth, religiosity, and its Chassidic regard for the occult.
We come finally to a question we raised at the beginning of this inquiry: how to account for Singer's success following years of obscurity. Saul Bellow's translation in 1953 of "Gimpel Tam" is surely one of the clues, for it presented the English speaking public with one of his best and most charming narratives. Still, as we have suggested, the quality of some of his other works is rather uneven, for reasons unrelated to his non-conformance with the Jewish tradition. Thus, he sometimes aspires to a symbolic quality beyond his reach and ends by being mechanically appropriate rather than powerfully suggestive. He repeatedly uses the watch, for example, as an image of secular, earth-bound time, just as he has an unfortunate association of a Byronic sort with ballrooms as the scene of dissolute revelry and as omens of tragedy. His children, though they appear seldom, are always adults in miniature, and always dull. In The Magician of Lublin Yasha loses his identity papers just before the turning point of the novel, after which he speedily loses his self-confidence and his skills, the very identity that he displays in the first part of the novel. Similarly, in The Slave, Sarah's cry of anguish becomes the instrument of her total excommunication from the Jewish community. Some of these devices have a deliberate ingenuity which robs them of the complex resonance of an effective symbol.
Still, in his best work Singer has a good deal of power and emotional impact. His use of the occult, of humor, and of the grotesque permit him a currency and a market which was simply not available before World War II. His ambiguity, too, makes possible his acceptance by a diverse audience: those who seek sentiment and those who seek irony can each find satisfaction in so ambivalent a writer, as can those who look for the didactic as well as the irresolute, open-ended sort.
Abraham Bezanker, "I. B. Singer's Crisis of Identity," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 70-88.
Isaac Bashevis Singer is both an old-fashioned storyteller and a modern psychological writer. His large chronicle novels—such as "The Family Moskat," "The Manor" and "The Estate"—are thick with plot and characters and draw us into the rich and complex life of the Eastern European Jewish communities. Singer's short stories, especially those in "Short Friday" and "The Spinoza of Market Street," often take us into another world—that of dybbuks and demons. Fables built upon man's most perverse yet common weaknesses and longings, these demon stories are less realistic than the epic novels, but their intensity is sustained by a weird and driving psychological force.
Singer's latest novel, "Enemies, A Love Story," lies somewhere between the larger works and the demon stories. It is Singer's first novel about America and his first in a contemporary setting….
"Enemies" confronts mutilated psyches but little else. The paucity of felt life, surprising in a Singer work, makes the novel seem curiously clinical and removed, despite its relentlessness. Singer's marvelously pointed humor has turned black and bitter, the sex is flat, and there is little irony or selfconsciousness….
It takes a certain presumptuousness to guess at Singer's motive in writing this novel. If he is trying to tell us not to become inured to the horrors of the past, he has succeeded all too well. The hurt and the pain are reawakened, reminding us that a healing never did occur, that the demon never was exorcised. But it seems, rather, that Singer is trying to exorcise a demon of his own, perhaps a case of survival guilt….
"Enemies" is a bleak, obsessive novel that offers neither release nor hope; it is an odd book to come from so accomplished and brilliant a writer.
Lore Dickstein, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 25, 1972, pp. 4-5, 10.
In ["Enemies, A Love Story,"] his first novel set in America, Isaac Bashevis Singer works out [a] bizarre plot with perfect naturalness and aplomb. The book has the surface gaiety, ribaldry and surprise of a medieval fabliau. Yet the New York subways, telephone calls, Bronx Zoo, bus trip to the Adirondacks are solidly, meticulously real. Herman's three women expand into mythic dimensions: his first wife is Abraham's barren Sarah, who saw him marry the fruitful servant Hagar; Masha is recognizably the Angel of Death. The book doesn't stop being lowly, deliciously funny even when we see that it is being acted out under a vast and probably hostile sky. All the main characters are refugees from the holocaust; their insistence that "Anyone who's gone through all that I have is no longer part of the world" is contradicted by their busyness, lust and tenderness….
Whether or not you accept its ending, "Enemies, A Love Story" is a brilliant, unsettling novel.
Walter Clemons, "Herman's Three Wives," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1972; reprinted by permission), June 26, 1972, p. 86.
Isaac Bashevis Singer manages to make do with a short list of questions that he relentlessly poses to his wide world of fictional people: Is there a God? Does He rule, or has He abdicated? Is He malign? In the absence of God, what principle moves us? To what end? A few questions, so fundamental that they intimidate most writers, and with good reason: No matter is more likely to disappear in a heat-mist of misbegotten metaphysics than the Big Question—yawn—of what it all means.
Singer, by ruthlessly suppressing rhetorical ornaments, by holding to the principle that a fictional character's given boundaries cannot be violated, brings off grand fables. [Two of his] previous novels, The Manor and The Estate, were family and national epics, panoramas of Jewish life in nineteenth-century Poland. His new novel [Enemies, A Love Story] extends Singer's range by limiting his means. It is spare, barren, and strait.
Geoffrey Wolff, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 22, 1972, pp. 54, 57.
Isaac Bashevis Singer has his admirers on both sides of the Atlantic though he established his reputation in the United States, in the first place. He writes in Yiddish but has many more readers in English who are acquainted with his books through translations. As another Yiddish writer before him, the late Scholem Asch, Singer was lucky with his translators who, sometimes under the guidance of the author, seem to strike the right balance between the outlandishness of his themes and the smooth Americanism of his style….
[It] is not so much his individual style as his mastery in story-telling which [accounts] for Singer's success. It has been said that the great interest in American-Jewish writing of recent years derives to a large extent from the contemporary search for identity and from an urge to learn the secret of survival, both of which are threatened by our modern, computerised society. This may well be so. The Jew as the symbol of both victim and survivor is an attractive subject, and if the secret of his stubbornness in defeat could be revealed then there is a lesson to be learned from it. Moreover, since Singer's Jews seem still to be rooted in the Eastern European tradition of their origins and therefore nearer to the source of whatever it is that made them [into] what they are, they excite our curiosity in addition. However, Singer's world of unreality and irrationality, instead of revealing, is merely obscuring the deeper reality it pretends to discover. In the end we are back in the world of ghosts and evil spirits from which there is no escape.
Many of Singer's earlier stories deal with distant periods of time and far-away places, and one is prepared to make allowances for the grotesque and bizarre as part of this author's own peculiar landscape. However, in his more recent book, Enemies, A Love Story, the scene has shifted to postwar New York. There are vivid descriptions of the New York sky at dawn, the distant noise of the sea, the choking air in the crowded Metro. Yet the people we encounter are the same we have met before in Warsaw or Tzvikev and other shtetls and villages in pre-war Poland. It is as if Singer was looking for them among the new arrivals, those who have survived the ghettoes, concentration camps, and the deportations to Siberia and, after the war, had found their way to the New World; and having found them, he made them once again the vehicle of his imagery and morbid philosophy.
Jacob Sonntag, "Out of Place," in The Jewish Quarterly, Autumn, 1972, pp. 42, 44.
What illuminates the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer is his feeling for the odd detail that surprises by its very appropriateness. The colour and verve of Polish life—and more particularly Jewish life within the Polish context—come across without any sense of straining for effect. Characters are painted in bright colours yet they ring true. Incident is piled on incident, and the ball of narrative seldom stays long in one place. Isaac Bashevis Singer may or may not be one of the world's major writers; he is without doubt one of its great storytellers….
Yet another aspect of Isaac Bashevis Singer's fiction is his ability to dramatise; and one thinks in this connection of the Yiddish theatre and the marked histrionic ability found in many Jews, as demonstrated in their success as actors and salesmen. But because Mr. Singer is an artist this ability to present even tiny events in dramatic terms is not overplayed….
The Slave, like The Magician of Lublin, deals with the spiritual predicament of which some men have always been aware. That indeed is the link between these two quite different books. If one theme unites the novels then perhaps it may be this: 'All is foreseen but the choice is given.' The books can be read with pleasure for their narrative and their teasing-out of character; and they can be read again for their exploration of problems that remain open even in the age of the computer.
Robert Greacen, in Books and Bookmen, October, 1973, pp. 101-02.
The singular thing about [the] stories [in A Crown of Feathers] … (and, in a sense that will be seen, a problem with them), is that they speak with one voice—clear, direct and uncolored, the cozy drone of a natural storyteller. Singer's moral urgency, his becoming reluctance to impose a decorative phrase on a declarative sentence, is not to be found in the English language; there is no suggestion that the original contains more than the English reflects. And despite the bony style, a kind of chant soon fills the reader's ears. No author was ever better named.
This is, in the best sense, unexperimental prose. In a time that sees many of the most interesting attempts at new short fiction devoted to deflecting the narrative impulse into stasis or disregarding it altogether, Singer tells us that human happenstance is still the richest of undiscovered countries. That he does it first in a dying language, and in what we're occasionally pleased to regard as a "dying" form, helps explain the repetitiveness that is A Crown of Feathers' sole flaw, after 200 pages turning the one voice into something of a monologue. (This problem could have been remedied by a simple expedient: two books, not because the material is so various but because it is so much the same.)
Singer has, essentially, two landscapes, two main figures in them and one theme that binds them all…. The theme is evoked beautifully by a line from the book's best story, "Grandfather and Grandson": "We block the channels of mercy with our iniquities."
This is a thought for the secular mind to choke on. Singer, with his love of ghosts and fondness for final matters, worries ideas like this one for page after page with fine insouciance. We constantly encounter an unabashed taste for ultimates and a gut desire for the One….
[The] blithe erasure of the distinction ordinarily drawn between ordinary life and the macrocosm that frames it gives Singer's work its charm, and the quiet suggestion that the distinction is in error gives it its valor. What we have here oddly resembles science fiction, but only because it is its opposite: studies of worlds beyond ours, but not made by us, or of the world we inhabit made unfamiliar through invasion by our several selves….
Mortal paradox is always at the heart of Singer's stories, but it never seems grim; no matter how desperate the life, it's lifted by an element of humor that goes beyond despair….
These unusually fine stories take joy in paradox but not in irony, and they're often tragic but never sad. If their resemblance to each other makes the book seem long, it also makes it cut deep. What might be a sign of limitation in a lesser writer in Singer must be seen as wisdom. He is one of our best storytellers—"our" meaning everybody.
Crawford Woods, "Worlds Beyond Ours," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), November 3, 1973, pp. 28-9.
Isaac Bashevis Singer is an extraordinary writer. And [A Crown of Feathers], like so much that he writes, represents the most delicate imaginative splendor, wit, mischief and, not least, the now unbelievable life that Jews once lived in Poland. But Singer is also a rarity among Jewish novelists. Though necessarily secularized, he still has access to the mystical Jewish theology in which he was brought up by the rabbis on rabbis who were his father, grandfathers, uncles. So the world to Isaac Bashevis Singer still represents the mind of God….
Singer's characters are vivid, vociferous, but they are not all-important to themselves any longer. Perhaps that is why there are so many of them. Yet they are not mere victims either; they suffer from their own capriciousness (always a cardinal point with Singer), for they mean to do right, out of habit, but suddenly find their duty in this world indecipherable. And that is something they have against the world, which in their pious youth felt easier to the touch….
Singer swims happily in the whole ancient and modern tradition of the Jews—Jews are his life. But he would certainly agree with Mark Twain's reply to anti-Semites: "Jews are members of the human race; worse than that I cannot say of them." And he would also say, as Jews know better than anyone, that oppression is not good for people…. (Singer is among other things the most rueful and the funniest novelist of the erotic life in Yiddish literature)….
Alfred Kazin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 4, 1973, pp. 1, 22.
I believe that Singer, in his short and humorous tales drawn from an old tradition, celebrates the dignity, mystery and unexpected joy of living with more art and fervor than any other writer alive. He is concerned with all the major themes, with good and evil, belief and doubt, action and contemplation, the nature of illusion and the joys of the flesh, the falling-out of generations, and the mercy and rigor of the law….
Singer is a remarkable storyteller, at once swift and complex; he is an anti-rationalist whose characters regularly declare that there is no sensible answer to the question, "Who created the world?"….
Truth, in Singer's stories, is intricate and hidden, and the paradox is that pain and death may be shown—without cynicism or stridency, but with humor….
Singer exults in sexuality, in the grotesque and absurd, and in the narrow channel through desperation and self-imposed limitations by which we come to understanding and to joy. For beyond our impotence and misery there is a dance, the same dance with which storytellers for centuries have closed their fictions. Singer perceives it (in one story writes about it directly) as the reward of effort or endurance. It signifies the final innocence that nullifies disaster. This observation, like Singer's other affirmations of life and visions of love, is earned. It is neither cheap nor facile. The reader of Singer's stories is persuaded—emotionally—that his fictions are the truth.
Peter S. Prescott, "The Dance of Life," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1973; reprinted by permission), November 12, 1973, pp. 113B-114.
Isaac Bashevis Singer is the archivist of Yiddish grief. His terrible fables are images of the humiliations of sickness, age, mortality. Even in his rare excursions into whimsy the sense of disaster is imminent….
Singer's vision is rarely sentimental; neither pessimism nor disgust [touches] his world, illuminated solely by a distant irony, lucid and chilling, creating the illusion that Singer's men and women are autonomous, beyond his control. More and more, the nameless narrators become personae with all the literal biographical baggage of the author. Usually this kind of whimsy is dangerous material to control, and my response to Singer the reporter is tinged with irritation. But the result, the reader's sense of Singer's helplessness in the face of his own creation, is the basis for the powerful effects of frustration and grief he creates….
Perhaps it is just a matter of coincidence, but the emergence in Singer's fiction of the hero who is both victim and schlemiel occurs during a time when the author has found a new audience among New Yorker readers and great success as a speaker at colleges and art centers. And is it also coincidence that no single story in this new collection [A Crown of Feathers], good as many of them are, [meets] the standards set by "Gimpel the Fool," "Blood," or "The Slaughterer"? It seems to me that the more worldly the author becomes, the more private, idiosyncratic and self-indulgent the fiction grows. Again, Singer's delightful obsession with the supernatural, which in his earlier fiction could be taken as symbolic of humanity's essential irrationality, now seems less metaphoric, peculiarly literal. A Crown of Feathers is the least rewarding of Singer's six short-story collections. Nevertheless his literary craftsmanship and sophistication, and the special Singer voice, are here and gratifying; only in comparison with his past achievements does the book fall short, give less pleasure. Singer never deals directly, as far as I know, with the experience of occupation and deportation. Instead, that nightmare comes to us through the minds of the survivors, through the chilling foreknowledge of Polish life on the eve of the war. We see the holocaust in the memories of Herman Broder or in the implicit fate of Asa Hershel, waiting for the bombs to fall on Warsaw. That is despair without self-pity, numbing and empty gratification. It is a vision of heroic proportions, and our eyes widen in recognition that what is still mourned by Singer are the verities defeated. Here is literary humanism's last great tragic voice. After Singer, who has enough credence in human dignity to despair of its loss? After Singer, we are amid the knaves and the fools.
Seymour Kleinberg, "The Last to Speak That Tongue," in The Nation, November 19, 1973, pp. 538-39.
With his contempt for knowledge-as-control, his desire to leave all those centuries of Jewish tradition (and of Jewish losers) behind him, Mailer represents the unresting effort and overreaching of the individual Jewish writer who seeks to be nothing but an individual (and if possible, a hero). By contrast, Isaac Bashevis Singer represents the transformation of all Jewish history into fiction, fable, story. He accepts it for his own purposes. He is a skeptic who is hypnotized by the world he grew up in. No one else in modern Jewish writing stems so completely from the orthodox and even mystical East European tradition. No one else has turned "the tradition" into the freedom of fiction, the subtlety and mischievousness and truthfulness of storytelling. Singer, totally a fiction writer but summing up the East European Yiddish tradition in his detached, fatalistic, plain-spoken way, represents a peculiar effortlessness in the writing of "Jewish fiction," when compared with the storminess of Bellow and Mailer. That is because Singer shares the orthodox point of view without its belief, and he meticulously describes, without sentimentalizing any Jew whatever, a way of life which was murdered with the millions who lived it. The demons and spirits so prominent in Singer's East European narratives have in his "American" ones become necessary to the survivors. "It is chilling," V. S. Pritchett noticed, "to know that he is describing ghosts who cannot even haunt because their habitat has been wiped out."
The occult presences in Singer's work represent that belief in another world which Singer grew up with, but which no longer necessarily represents "God's" world. There may very well be a God, since we are in the grip of forces so clearly beyond our power to understand and change them. But His, Its, inscrutability is the only attribute. Singer has transposed the terms without abandoning them….
In English "translation" that was often adaptation, writing to Jews and non-Jews alike who could not read Yiddish, Singer became the fictional historian of the whole Jewish experience in eastern Europe because his extraordinary intelligence and detached point of view turned the heart of the tradition—acceptance of God's law, God's will, even God's slaughter of His own—into story, legend, fantasy. And Singer himself believed in acceptance: of human nature, the world's wickedness, God's total mysteriousness, the peculiarity of Jews themselves….
He was the only American Jewish writer who knew the tradition so thoroughly that it was in him, and so he could simulate the credulity, the innocence, the timorousness, above all the unworldliness. Was it possible that in the twentieth century whole masses of people should have believed that whatever happened was God's will? Singer the storyteller had his own version of this: the wickedness of the world is never an "historical" accident, and what is happening has always happened. Things are as they are. The evidence of this world is to be accepted. Singer could thus make his characters real as Jews: they were the people of acceptance.
With such characters there would seem to be missing the decisive element in modern fiction—the indetermination of one's own existence to oneself, freedom as one's only heaven and hell. Unlike the many Jewish personae in modern American fiction, for whom a wholly willed, insistent claim on existence is the very theme of their striving and suffering, Singer's characters live in relation to God as the Power in and behind everything. They lived, the East European Jews were as a matter of fact the last generation to live, wholly in the eye of God—they lived to be responsive to God alone.
This mysterious fidelity, total obligation, meant that not individual characters but their way of life is the real matter of a Singer story. What the reader sees is never the individual's effort to determine his own life, but the fact that he is constantly being acted on—like the poor cuckold and unconscious saint in Singer's best story, "Gimpel The Fool"—by the whole force of his culture….
[What] Singer's many damaged and insatiable characters in America feel as the real force in their lives is still the Jewish tradition—because they cannot come to terms with it. The world is twice wicked because they cannot understand it. It has done everything to them, and still they do not live in it. They live in their imagination, as they did when they were believers.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 157-62.
Enemies, A Love Story, is Isaac Bashevis Singer's eighth and latest novel. It is not only the story of Herman Broder's simultaneous love affair with his two wives and his mistress, but, also, one more attempt to grapple with a very serious problem for the Jew that Spinoza posed centuries ago. What precisely is the Jew's relationship to historical time and to the supernatural? Until Enemies, A Love Story, Singer has concentrated on pinpointing the historical significance of Polish Jewry in his novels with urban settings, while restricting his treatment of demons, imps, and dybbuks exclusively to his short stories and novels that have shtetl settings. His synthesis of these two divergent streams of thought in his newest novel is evidence that Singer has finally resolved Spinoza's problem, at least to his own satisfaction….
For Singer, the supernatural and the historical exist simultaneously, each part of God's grand design. With faith, a Jew is able to restrain his libidinal desires and to live within society safe from the demons and imps that Singer sees as both literal and psychological manifestations. For Singer, a man who assimilates and loses his Jewish faith also loses his link with historical time and, thus, drops out of history. He becomes a demon philosophically, psychologically, and artistically. It is not surprising that Herman Broder disappears as Singer's novel concludes; he belongs in the static world of dybbuks and demons and not in the fluid world of New York City.
Stanley Schatt, "The Dybbuk Had Three Wives: Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jewish Sense of Time," in Judaism, Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 100-08.
Singer has always moved between … two beliefs. For Singer the writer there are no lies; for Singer the moralist, it cannot be that there is no truth. Again and again in his fiction Singer evokes the destruction of a community, the crumbling of a whole social edifice, because people, one way or another, have averted their faces from a truth they used to know. In the ruins of these structures, in the midst of these derelictions, a devout man prays, and however much Singer's imaginative sympathies, as a writer, may go to rebellious, lapsed, and liberal Jews, the simple, stubborn question remains: if the sheep had not strayed from the safe, strict fold, how could they have perished? Or as a character in one of Singer's new stories [in A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories] says, with a great deal less solemnity, "There is only one step from false teeth to a false brain."
The question often comes out as ordinary, old-fashioned conservatism, sometimes parodied, sometimes not. But more often it comes out as a question. The fallen are not judged; paradise was a confined space anyway. Nevertheless the Fall has visibly taken place, the once single cloth of a unified social life has been torn into scattered strips. The demons themselves are a part of this old order, they were the intellectual equipment that went with being Jewish in those towns and villages in Singer's Poland: Yanov, Shebrin, Turbin, Tishevitz, Krasnobród, Bilgoray, Kreshev, Lublin, Zamość, Rejowiec. Poland itself in Singer's writing is less a place than an elegy composed of names like those and their associations, the vanished home of a life no longer lived except in memory.
Singer's unastonished interest in the modern world's variety, in the profusion of its lies, saves him from simple nostalgia. His horror at its restlessness, its profound estrangement from the truth, drives him back into that grim, comic, dogged, bouncy Polish pastoral which accounts for so much of Yiddish literature. It is important, then, that more than half of Singer's new stories leave stetl life behind and deal with émigrés. Singer is thus forced to find in isolated individuals what he formerly found in the re-created memories of small East European communities: an image of the ongoing Jewish enterprise, a mark of the indefatigable persistence of the past….
Some of the stories in this new book are very slight indeed, even perfunctory, but the volume as a whole shows a remarkable range of styles and tones, from farcical to macabre, through mocking and tender and earnest…. Singer understands as few writers understand the distances that can separate men from men, men from women, children from parents, children from grandparents. Distances: not quarrels or bitterness or fixations, but moral and cultural space.
Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), February 7, 1974, pp. 10-11.