Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 11)
Singer, Isaac Bashevis 1904–
Singer is a Polish-born novelist, short story writer, translator, and journalist who writes primarily in Yiddish. Much of his fiction deals with his East European Jewish heritage, and magic, mysticism, and peasant folk traditions are frequent motifs in his work. A master storyteller, Singer does his best work in his novellas and short stories. Winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature, Singer is generally conceded to be the greatest living Yiddish writer. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Singer's] stories have taken him out of category altogether since the time … when he could still be considered a Yiddish modern primarily concerned with the life of the shtetl. In Passions, as in A Crown of Feathers, postwar and contemporary settings predominate. In these collections, and in Enemies, [a] novel, Singer has marked a period in his work. And though he is careful to maintain, as always, an appeal from his art to the life and experiences of medieval Polish Jewry, Singer's obsession with the memory "of a world that is no more" has shifted into a new key.
Passions seems to deepen the new tendencies he has discovered in his work. He notes the expansion of his subject, which now includes all the Jews of Eastern Europe, "specifically the Yiddish-speaking Jews who perished in Poland and those who emigrated to the U.S.A." But we get no further than his lead story before we discover that the quick don't mingle any the less with the dead here than in his earlier work…. [In] a shtetl story, "Two Corpses Go Dancing," in which the Evil One warned that "the world is full of dead ones in sable capes and fur coats who carouse among the living." Singer vindicates him right away in Passions, leading off his collection, and sounding its common chord, with "Hanka," which records his discovery of a dancing corpse in contemporary Argentina. But the terms of the discovery have been adjusted. Hanka traces her death-in-life to the physical confinement she endured as a girl in hiding from the Nazis—"if you lie in a grave long enough, you get accustomed to it and you don't want to part from it." And so, to anyone at all familiar with the pressures and stresses of the "survivor pathology," Singer's tale will seem as plausible as a case study. Where once he used his narrative wit to question the old world picture, he tends increasingly to transvalue the shtetl...
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Isaac Bashevis Singer picks up [in "A Young Man in Search of Love"] where his previous memoir, "A Little Boy in Search of God," left off: with the young author in the tenacious arms of his much older lover (and landlady), Gina, and with him trying, through a bit of starvation, to duck the draft. Here again, we are in the world of prewar Yiddish Warsaw, which, we know, is about to be obliterated by history. And we are also, of course, in the exhilarating good company of Mr. Singer, churning with restless skepticism, moral passion and erotic preoccupation….
Mr. Singer's companions and loves, responding to a master's slightest nudge, bound out of his memory and onto the page. He fills his account with gentle humor, capturing quite wonderfully a young man's extravagant self-absorption and urgent need for answers. (p. 59)
Andrew Bergman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 30, 1978.
Isaac Bashevis Singer's new books, a memoir [A Young Man in Search of Love] and a novel [Shosha], are two more rescue operations in his ongoing literary raid on the vanished world of prewar Poland. Although A Young Man in Search of Love follows the conventions of autobiography, and Shosha, those of fiction, the impulse behind both narratives is to recapture a lost world, to render the rich interior and exterior lives of people responding to unique circumstances. In the foreground of each book, an ambitious young author … encounters a heterogeneous blend of worldly and unworldly Jews. In the background, a heavy German blade hovers overhead. Singer writes from the other side of that fallen Nazi knife; it has been his remarkable achievement to penetrate its steel surface, to capture the uncapturable. (p. 34)
In both life and art, Singer is seeking "tangled situations and genuine dilemmas." His search for love has also become a quest for God: "For me, religion and love, even sex, are attributes of the same substance."
This central spiritual quest, revealed in a wealth of tangled plots and moral dilemmas, has infused Singer's most important work….
Shosha is filled with the usual Singer questions about demonic possession, free-floating souls, an archive of spirits, a world rife with secret powers and occult mysteries. But mostly it is a testament to the haunting power of the past. (p. 35)
Edward Hirsch, in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), July 8, 1978.
[In "Shosha"] many Singers appear in one way or another—the journalist, the rabbi's son, the children's writer, the European refugee. (p. 1)
There is a nice variety of characters in "Shosha." Singer's method of narration, moving from one small dramatic scene to another, encourages such variety. This method … demands fast-paced plot, simple story line with ingenious reverses and character sketched in broadly. Reading Singer is an easy experience, something like reading the bare outline of a Bellow novel, without the latter's intense fleshing out….
Besides amusing character, there is convincing setting, Warsaw, 1930's. The Warsaw scenes are drawn with a knowledge of place and atmosphere lacking in Singer's recent ventures into the American scene, and they hark back to his finer work, as in the memoir "In My Father's Court." Here the hectic street life of the Polish ghetto, with neighborhood interplay of Jewish gangsters and prostitutes mingling with Hasidic families and workers, is effectively done…. There is much dialogue here. When the talk involves the adventures of everyday life it is alive with humor and irony; when it travels to the upper airs of metaphysics and occultism—the existence of God, good and evil, the transmigration of souls—it is solemnly uneventful. Singer's Warsaw scenes are resonant with a felt reality and capture poignantly a real, if provincial, culture. When it comes to transforming shtetl life into serious art, however, Singer does not have the wit of Sholem Aleichem or the force of Babel….
Happily, [the protagonist's] Aaron Greidinger's swarm of women, his benevolent harem, takes up a good part of the book and is part of an erotic theme—or dream—obviously dear to the old patriarch's heart (Singer's). With a father who stands at the lectern all day saying, "It is forbidden," it is not surprising that Greidinger seeks transgression, wherever possible. This particular erotic pattern, with its convenient precedent in the Bible, is a favorite of Singer's, dramatized best, to my mind, in the energetic novel "The Magician of Lublin."… [There] is more passion in descriptions of food and eating in "Shosha" than there is in the descriptions of sex. One gets the sense that the play of the erotic—so...
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[In Enemies: A Love Story Singer created a masterpiece of Jewish amatory surrealism that] painted the madness of the flesh against a backdrop of imminent world destruction…. [Shosha is] a quintessential tale of the Jewish soul in perpetual exile. [Like Enemies, it] portrays lust roaming through a decaying world, specifically, prewar Warsaw—only this time with such intense attention to realistic detail that we are transported into the realm of caricature.
The characters here—as in the author's previous works, are haunted by dybbuks of their own choosing, avatars of their own worst selves. And their tragedy is that their fate never seems grand or heroic enough for their...
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"What can one do? How is one to live?" the narrator of Shosha asks, and though the setting of this novel is Warsaw of the Twenties and Thirties, before the war had given shape to the modern world, the existential dilemmas of philosophy and love behind these questions seem entirely modern. Love is so confusing that Tsutsik, the narrator, conducts affairs with five different women at once, and when he does settle down, it is with Shosha, the moronic and physically stunted sweetheart of his childhood, as if in demonstration of love's inner illogic. Matters of philosophy, which are closer to Tsutsik's heart, prove even more troublesome. He wishes he could find some universe of value and meaning in religion, wishes...
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Shosha is Isaac Bashevis Singer's most personal novel….
A blurb-writer might say that Shosha "recaptures" the Warsaw of Singer's youth, but the book has no nostalgic softness because it is so consciously a novel about the process of remembering—remembering as the source and perhaps the justification of all literary activity, remembering as the mind's intimation of time stopped or time reversed and thus a token of performance in a violent chaotic universe. The cast of significant characters is limited, but in many scenes … Singer conveys a sense of the teeming particularities of Polish-Jewish life reminiscent of the best things in his two compendious family chronicles, The...
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[Singer's] fables and stories, the inspired characters, rabbis, charlatans, whores, so good, so evil, are out of a world that can never be parochial, a world out of our childhood legends, out of medieval romance, out of episodic sagas. They are the stories that were once told to sustain life and community of an evening in any house, any town.
But being at least partially literary in origin, Singer's tales are also more sophisticated than we first imagine. It's astonishing how difficult it is to construe his work. As we read, we may conjure up Freud, the archetypal meanings of sudden death and transfiguration. But we are left, more than with any contemporary writer except perhaps Borges, with the...
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Singer the novelist has always seemed much less accomplished than Singer the writer of short stories. The novels have been shapeless, even slovenly, and Shosha is no exception. Not the stories, however. These are uncommonly vigorous and carefully fashioned…. [The collection entitled Gimpel the Fool] contains Singer's best work, his boldest and liveliest inventions. And it belies at once his familiar disclaimer that he is only a storyteller. He is not. His tales are thick with speculation and prejudice, and both are damaging.
Singer's fiction sets out always from the experience of suffering. Theodicy is its plot. His people seek reasons for their pain, and—save for the somewhat...
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[The] wide appeal of Singer's stories among readers ignorant of, and indifferent to, Jewish religion, Jewish history, Jewish peoplehood, is a literary fact of the first importance because it disproves the fashionable literary prejudice which holds that writing about Jews is an insuperable obstacle to universal appeal. Critics who have blithely assumed that it is the natural destiny of the human race, or of that part of it which reads books, to puzzle over Blake's Zoas and Yeats' gyres and Pound's socio-economic ravings, are invariably brought up short at the prospect of reading books about Jews because, they maintain, the concerns of Jews are not those of universal humanity. (p. 8)
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