Isaac Bashevis Singer Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 9) - Essay

Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Singer, Isaac Bashevis 1904–

Born and raised in Warsaw, Singer was encouraged by his family to become a rabbi. Impressed by the literary talents of his brother, I. J. Singer, he instead decided to write. Singer's novels and short stories are usually written in Yiddish, poignant, and steeped in folklore and tradition. His popularity became international with the 1953 publication of Saul Bellow's translation of "Gimpel the Fool." He is considered by many critics the most significant living Yiddish writer. He currently resides in the United States. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

A Crown of Feathers provides yet another convincing body of evidence to support the late Edmund Wilson's claim that I. B. Singer warrants serious consideration for the Nobel Prize. He is, without doubt, our greatest living storyteller. And the short story continues to remain his most congenial turf. It is here that the economy of style and the deceptive simplicity of his vision can be most richly felt….

Singer is as appealing as he is protean: both shy yeshivah boy and urbane sophisticate, he balances curiosity against skepticism, temporal obsessions against an eternality that looks, suspiciously, like faith. But most of all, Singer reminds us of that mysterious power that genuine stories always have. The typical Singer persona may wink with one eye, but the other is wide open. In "The Captive," for example, a visit to Israel prompts the following observation: "In the paper before me I read about thefts, car accidents, border shootings. One page was full of obituaries. No, the Messiah hadn't come yet. The Resurrection was not in sight. Orthopedic shoes were displayed in a shop across the way."

It is to such a world of maimed bodies and even more severely maimed psyches that Singer brings the ordering function of Art. As one character (in "The Briefcase") puts it: "What could a fiction writer add to the naked facts? Sensationalism and melodrama had become our daily diet. The unbelievable was all too believable." (p. 311)

[To] Singer, the bizarre is as much a continuing surprise as it is a constant expectation. In "Lost" a character may claim that demons could not exist in New York ("Demons need a synagogue, a ritual bathhouse, a poorhouse, a garret with torn prayer books—all the paraphernalia you describe in your (i.e. Singer's personal stories"), but A Crown of Feathers is full of evidence to the contrary…. Fixed ideas—wherever they may reside—lead to the sort of compulsive behavior Singer loves to chronicle…. [It is Singer's] amazement with man's capacity to both spin illusions and be trapped inside them that makes Singer a darker writer than his ever-growing readership may have imagined. (pp. 311-12)

John Lawrence Abbott, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1974 by Newberry College), Summer, 1974.

Isaac Bashevis Singer has lately become a figure in his own stories. He comes on as an embarrassed celebrity, awkwardly trying to fend off readers who regularly break in on him because they find him a link to their long suppressed Jewishness. The situation is inherently comic, problematical, unsettling to all parties concerned. For Singer's own "Jewishness" is unsentimental, occult, faithful in its own way to his rabbinical youth. But as in "The Admirer," the best [selection in Passions and Other Stories], Singer's confused American fans breaking in on him tend to be even more confused about what they are looking for. They introduce complications that more than cancel out any pleasure their homage gives this Warsaw-born Yiddish writer who, after long struggles, acquired a wide American audience. Singer is amazed by his new readers. In some way he feels himself to be their captive.

It is these "confusions" that give such characters their invincible craziness and thus their human interest. Singer writing about a wholly Jewish world recognizes in his "admirers" that to be Jewish is to be driven by forces that Jews understand no better than others do. The "mystery" of Jewish religion (and of Jewish persistence) may be especially a mystery to those who have suffered most for it.

Singer consciously unsettles his reader, for his stories are all written within the compressiveness of magazine style…. But Singer's sly provocations of style are also an artistic necessity. There is so much material in Jewish lore, so much continuation into our day of the Jewish past, so much horror and unreality in the endless stories-within-stories of the Holocaust, that there is a too-enormous gallery of people to write about, a hall of mirrors to walk through. Singer's sentences have to speed through millennia of experience and human feeling…. (pp. 24-5)

Alfred Kazin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 25, 1975.

It is not for literature, or for writing, that Singer cares most, but for "a group of people who are still a riddle to the world and often to themselves—the Jews of Eastern Europe, specifically the Yiddish-speaking Jews who perished in Poland and those who emigrated to the U.S.A. The longer I live with them and write about them, the more I am baffled by the richness of their individuality and (since I am one of them) by my own whims and passions." ["Passions"], though hardly Singer's best book, is marvelous testimony to Singer's willingness to be simply baffled by that richness.

In many of these stories Singer himself has helped someone else out with the translation. His English is excellent, but he would not think of not writing in Yiddish, that language not quite of a people or of a country, but the source of Singer's need and love. In many of these stories he is openly reporting on his experience, being the middle-aged writer named "I."…

He doesn't even need, in the usual sense, to write short stories. He tells what happened to him, or a tale he has heard from someone else. The lives he describes seem to shape themselves, their stories to go on until they are over. While it is true that the two "best" in this collection, the two one would submit for prizes, "Old Love" and "The Witch," are more impersonal, more apparently imagined and consciously shaped, than the others, one could never ask that Singer discover art. He has mastered the art he needs. If a tale is very short, or slight, why then it is, and Singer will simply throw it in with two or three others and call the group "Errors" or "Passions." (p. 7)

Singer seems to be more truly read and enjoyed by the non-literary than the literary, to say nothing of the Jew more than the Gentile…. [His] art is not only traditional but oral, and within that tradition it is life, not an author, that does the essential shaping. Since life is both rich and baffling, characterization is strictly a matter of saying what happened to someone, no explanation being possible, no context more than minimally helpful. Which is why he writes such good stories for children, why all his stories are children's stories. (pp. 7-8)

Roger Sale, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 2, 1975.

Singer draws most of his fictional material from the Polish shtetl (Jewish village community) as it existed at the turn of the century and even earlier. Against a backcloth of tremendous physical deprivation, poverty and superstition his tales frequently use the traditional strategy of a garrulous narrator who keeps interjecting asides and gossipy irrelevancies which all screen the actual events from the reader. In fact in such tales the reader is drawn to listen to the narrator's voice as much as attend to the narrative. (p. 73)

Singer rings many changes on his narrators which vary from conventional eye-witnesses to a cock and a devil, often for broad comic effects. 'Cockadoodledoo' is a light-hearted burlesque of the gradations of village society (even imitated by the fowls). And 'Two Corpses Go Dancing' begins as a joke on how briefly the dead are remembered and shades into a macabre paradox when two corpses decide to get married.

Occasionally however, Singer achieves powerful psychological intensity. 'The Black Wedding' is an example which uses the superstitions of the village peasants. A rabbi and his wife die mysteriously (killed 'by demons') and on his deathbed he swears his daughter Hindele to silence. Framing the narrative in her consciousness Singer establishes a very claustrophobic perspective….

'The Black Wedding' gains force from its matter-of-fact description of demons and illustrates an important characteristic of some of Singer's fiction. In 1917 he went to live in his grandfather's home in the little Polish village of Bilgoray. He was there six years and this period had an enormously strong and lasting effect on him. For the first time Singer experienced shtetl life and met people who literally believed in black magic, and whose superstitions dated from the Middle Ages. This fascination with the ancient helps to explain why, in many of Singer's tales, the reader is never sure of the exact period and is often displaced backwards into a legendary past.

It was also during this stay in Bilgoray that Singer began to read widely in the 'forbidden' literature of the Cabala, and these two interests came together in his first novel, Satan in Goray. (p. 74)

The novel's biblical language constantly depresses the fantastic events within the narrative itself. Here, as in many of his other tales and novels, Singer has evoked a landscape densely populated with dybbuks and other supernatural spirits, and it is partly this emphasis on the demonic which has led the American critic Irving Howe to argue that Singer is a modernist. Be that as it may, one of his richest veins of material is traditional and demons and spirits play an integral part in the texture of his fiction….

Often the causality of Singer's plots is severely biblical. In 'The Destruction of Kreschev' (narrated by none other than Satan) a young couple marry and begin delving into the Cabala; and then—and the two are frequently linked in Singer—indulging in unnatural acts. The end result is that fire and plague strike the village in succession and destroy it completely. But the moral perspective is more complex than this outline suggests. There is a strong implication that the villagers have driven the girl to suicide, so fierce was their condemnation of her. And the plague is a punishment of the community's self-righteousness as much as the couple's sinfulness. (p. 75)

[Typically Singer's] communities are under pressure from outside (from social upheaval or the Jewish Enlightenment) or from within. His most recurring figures are isolated, unworldly, or obsessed; the failed scholar appears again and again as does the monomaniac, and the result is that our image of the village community in Singer's fiction is always precarious and often hostile.

At times this implicit subversion of communal values becomes stronger than Singer's narrators admit, and sets up a tension with the overt perspective which we are given. (pp. 75-6)

The excellence of [The Magician of Lublin] is its consistent focus on [the protagonist] Yasha and its correlation between the physical and the psychological. During his crisis Yasha sees filth everywhere but, while this suggests his inner state, it is also literally true. The muddy chaos of the Warsaw streets where sewers and telephone cables are being laid, remains physically actual as well as psychologically appropriate. Speculation and an attention to different moral possibilities are embedded in the narrative itself (particularly as to the nature of guilt and freedom) and in the character of Yasha who is a compulsive questioner. It is certainly one of Singer's most concentrated and unified works. (p. 76)

[In A Friend of Kafka] a definite thinness becomes noticeable. Firstly the tales have lost the easy confidentiality which Singer's more traditional narratives have. Instead they are 'set up' by an obvious surrogate of Singer himself (usually a Yiddish writer) who only exists to trigger off an-other character's narration. Since these are based on chance meetings they seem particularly contrived and unconvincing.

Secondly the tales have lost their cultural base. Although they are located in America they deal with first-generation emigrants and the key emotions registered are either sheer confusion when faced with American life … or simple nostalgia for Europe. Even more important, the tales turn into parables which assert the values of tradition and continuity….

Faced with a purely contemporary culture the characters in these American tales never get a purchase on their new lives. Family pieties dissolve and the narratives seem incapable of coping with the characters' diverse experiences. The geographical area seems over-extended, stretching from America to Eastern Europe and Palestine, whereas Singer's best fiction is intensely regional in spirit and texture. Only occasionally does he counteract this attenuation. In 'Shloimele' we are given a comically satirical portrait of an emigrant who is trying to make it on Broadway. He is a constant source of schemes and has reduced his 'Jewishness' to a handful of Yiddish proverbs and kosher cooking. The characterization has real bite, hinting as it does of the problem of a Jewish-American identity. Put in general it really seems that Singer needs a European society to give his narratives body.

Singer has repeatedly stated that he writes in two modes. One—discussed above—is a narrative which uses primitive superstition and the supernatural; the other is a more usual realistic mode. (p. 77)

The … novels The Manor and The Estate are later examples of [the narrative characterized by superstition and the supernatural] type of fiction, and they deal quite explicitly with many of the concerns which are only latent in Singer's other tales and novels. The broad historical theme is the emergence of the Polish Jews out of medieval village life into modern industrial society and this process covers the period from 1863 (the year of the abortive Polish rebellion against Russia) up to the first years of this century. (pp. 77-8)

We are given very little detailed physical description in these two novels. Instead our sense of place comes from the characters themselves and the events which surround them. Singer has a fundamental impulse to chronicle the destinies of the Jacoby family and the people they come into contact with, but unfortunately this makes the novels very difficult to follow at times because we are faced with such a multiplicity of characters. (p. 78)

The two novels raise various theoretical issues (usually in explicit discussion) and one of their central themes is the notion of progress. In The Manor characters use Darwin's name to underpin their crass optimism about human destiny, but in The Estate the evolutionary sequence seems to go into reverse. Material prosperity guarantees no real happiness; Ezriel's wife goes insane; characters die from painful illnesses; Lucian (one of the Jampol nobility) degenerates into a murderous melancholic and then shoots himself. The tone closes in as death grows more and more prominent and as the forces of unreason come to the surface. (pp. 78-9)

The most interesting character in the novels is Clara…. She is right outside the rather rigid moral categories which tend to cramp many of the others. She is promiscuous, cynical, and a hard-headed business woman, but is psychologically complex in the quite contradictory attitudes she can sustain and in her sense of freshly discovering her experience as it happens to her. But even she turns back to her original faith once she realizes that she is fatally ill. Indeed the final perspective of the novels becomes more and more religious, ending on a note of mystical transcendence with the death of the Marshinov rabbi. The return to origins is complete. (p. 79)

David Seed, "The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer," in Critical Quarterly (© Manchester University Press), Spring, 1976, pp. 73-9.

To present the irrational in the clearest and most disciplined of styles is one of the aims of this great short story writer. And more and more Singer shows us [in Passions] the irrational in a modern context whose meaning is shadowed and deepened, of course, by the East European background of many of his characters. Thus Singer, like Nabokov, is a great spanner of wildly different cultures—and this makes him very modern and very American. He is also a survivor in a savage age who never renounces the boon and the burden of life. (p. 58)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring, 1976).

[Isaac Bashevis Singer] is an artist born into a tradition of folk narrative, a craft whose old practitioners he salutes in these pages [of Passions and Other Stories] by citing their titles and making new use of their techniques…. The old folk-tale device, whereby the stratagem which first procures happiness ends by marring it, serves Singer to show up the contradictions in the successful New Yorker who both does and does not want to be like his father and the pious Jews of his youth. Other traditional contrivances—the use of witches, ghosts, visions and memories which become incarnate—prove useful for building bridges between old Jewish Poland and the places where its scattered population comes to rest….

Singer's purpose is not to solve but only to marvel and make us marvel at the riddle his people present…. To reconcile the irreconcilable would be a sham. Instead, the author aims to show life as high coloured, strange, incorrigibly plural. Characters are driven to eccentricity, even frenzy by the spur of passion, and 'Everything', as one of them says in the title story, 'can become a passion, even serving God'. So too, of course, can writing stories….

The art of these stories is an ancient, sly art bent on shaking the scepticism out of its readers. Assurance is undermined by a revelation of the chaotic fearfulness of the world. Once we see how far passions can drive men and how capricious is the fate which determines destiny, an appeal to order becomes implicit, for where, the fearsome scenes lead us to wonder, would we be without it? Order and perhaps supernatural order? Singer does not make a direct plea for belief in this but it has an obsessive fascination for him. Story after story touches on the theme: some sceptically, some apparently using it as allegory, others presenting it baldly and leaving us to make of it what we may. Singer is like a cat who tosses a half-dead bird in the air to see will it fly and, seeing that it won't, eats it but then feels a flutter in his stomach….

[He] has harnessed his own passion for the supernatural and made it work for him technically. Ghosts obliterate time and space. A witch can change a man's beliefs in a few hours. Sceptics are reminded that 'In the war the whole human culture crumbled like ruin. In the camps … all shame vanished …'. Beliefs, laws, morality are precarious. The world changes at a dizzy rhythm and these stories speed after it, catching odd, lurid images. Sceptics need time to disprove miracles. 'Wait', they say. 'Let me think.' But Singer won't wait. He wants to leave us baffled, and he does. (p. 59)

My pleasure in Singer's work comes from no fact he imparts. The virtue is in the tale itself and the tale is his response to those riddles which excite such passion in him that he had to elaborate a narrative method for dealing with it. It is his own method and fits his themes. In other words, he has a voice of his own. (p. 60)

Julia O'Faolain, in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London W1V 5LE), June, 1976.