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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 writing in his novellas and short stories. Winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature, Singer is generally regarded as the greatest living Yiddish writer. He has resided in the United States since 1935. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
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Looking over [Singer's] novels in their chronological order (the stories are written in and among, but they belong with the novels) the first apparent thing is the enormous and one might say successful development of his vision. Vision seems to be the right word for what Singer is conveying. The most important fact about him, that determines the basic strategy by which he deals with his subject, is that his imagination is poetic, and tends toward symbolic situations. Cool, analytical qualities are heavily present in everything he does, but organically subdued to a grasp that is finally visionary and redemptive. Without the genius, he might well have disintegrated as he evidently saw others disintegrate—between a nostalgic dream of ritual Hasidic piety on the one hand and cosmic dead-end despair on the other. But his creative demon (again, demon seems to be the right word) works deeper than either of these two extremes. It is what involves him so vehemently with both. It involves him with both because this demon is ultimately the voice of his nature, which requires at all costs satisfaction in life, full inheritance of its natural joy. It is what suffers the impossible problem and dreams up the supernormal solution. It is what in most men stares dumbly through the bars. At bottom it is amoral, as interested in destruction as in creation, but being in Singer's case an intelligent spirit, it has gradually determined a calibration of degrees between good and evil, in discovering which activities embroil it in misery, pain, and emptiness, and conjure into itself cruel powers, and which ones concentrate it towards bliss, the fullest possession of its happiest energy. Singer's writings are the account of this demon's re-education through decades that have been—particularly for the Jews—a terrible school…. His work is not discoursive, or even primarily documentary, but revelation—and we are forced to respect his findings because it so happens that he has the authority and power to force us to do so.
Up to 1945, this demon in Singer's work shows itself over-powered. Satan in Goray and The Family Moskat give the story of its defeat. In some way these two books belong together, though they are ten years apart. Satan in Goray seems to me his weakest book—important, and with a stunning finish, but for the most part confusingly organized. Perhaps we wouldn't notice this so much if we weren't comparing it with his later works, where the inspired rightness of his technical inventions are a study in themselves. Satan in Goray recounts the effects of the Sabbatai Zevi Messianic hysteria on a small Hasidic community in seventeenth-century Poland…. The Sabbatai Zevi psychic epidemic is an accurate metaphor for a cultural landslide that has destroyed all spiritual principles and dumped an entire age into a cynical materialism emptied of meaning. Which is why the sufferings of Netchele, the bride of the leader of the Sabbatai Zevi sect in Goray, in whose brain the general eruption of infernal license finally concentrates, belong to this century and not to the seventeenth. And why we can say her sufferings are perhaps an image of what Singer's own muse, representative of the Polish Jews, has undergone.
The key to Singer's works seems to be an experience of the collapse of the Hasidic way of life under the pressure of all that it had been developed to keep out. Something like this is a usual moral position among poets who come at some revolutionary moment, but who need to respect order. Singer comes at the moment when the profound, rich, intense Hasidic tradition, with the whole Jewish tradition behind it, debouches into the ideological chaos of the mid-twentieth century…. [When] the hosts of liberated instinct and passion and intellectual adventure and powers of the air and revelations of physical truth are symbolized by Satan, as they must be for a Hasidic Jew, and the old, obsolete order is symbolized by the devotion and ritual that are a people's unique spiritual strength and sole means of survival, the position must be a perilous one to manage. We can trace the workings of the whole conflict much more definitely—though without the symbolic impact of Satan in Goray—in Singer's next book, The Family Moskat.
Coming ten years later, The Family Moskat is radically different in style from the earlier book, cast in panoramic Tolstoyan mould, 600 pages long, covering the fates of the rich, patriarchal Moskat's large family and—in suggested parallel—of a whole people, from the beginning of this century up to the first Nazi bombs on Warsaw. The protagonist is one Asa Heshel, a young, precociously freethinking but, to begin with, outwardly orthodox Hasidic Jew, the son of a provincial rabbi, who arrives in Warsaw seeking life and the divine truths. He becomes entangled with Moskat's family. Thereafter, it is the story of the moral disintegration of the Polish Jews.
It is a monumental, seethingly real picture of Warsaw Jewish life, without a mistimed paragraph…. All the moral and intellectual consequences of his people's loss of faith, and their pursuit of the new, chaotic world, seem to have concentrated in [Asa Heshel's] brain. Behind his coldness, he is suffering the death Netchele suffered, in Satan in Goray, possessed and out of her mind, and perhaps this is the connection between the two books.
Adele, his second wife, on the point of leaving him to escape to Israel from the first rumors of Hitler, finds the words for Asa Heshel: "He was one of those who must serve God or die. He had forsaken God and because of that he was dead—a living body with a dead soul." It is from this situation of Asa Heshel's that the general moral implications of Singer's vision radiate. Asa Heshel, after all, is not only a Hasidic Jew. He is a typical modern hero. Remembering that Singer writes in Yiddish, for a primarily Jewish public, we can still see that he writes out of such essential imagination that he raises Jewishness to a symbolic quality, and is no longer writing specifically about Jews but about man in relationship to God. And his various novels and stories—with a few exceptions among the stories—describe the various phases and episodes of this relationship, though in concrete Jewish terms. This is pretty near to saying that, in Singer, the Jew becomes the representative modern man of suffering, and understanding, and exile from his Divine inheritance, which of course isn't altogether Singer's own invention. (pp. 8-9)
The forsaking of God, the rejection of the life of Holy Disciplines, is a crime, as it turns out, without redemption, and, as history in this book seems to demonstrate, draws on itself the inevitable penalty: anonymous death—whether symbolic or actual hardly matters—in a meaningless wasteland of destruction and anguish….
Singer is at a point … where he has every sane and human reason to rebuild an appreciation of the Faith it was death for him to lose. So here again the Jewish Hasidic tradition takes on a Universal significance, as a paradigm of the truly effective Existential discipline, which perhaps it always has been…. So it is not surprising if Singer, in his books, gravitates back towards it as a way out of the modern impasse, salvaging at the same time the life of spirit and all the great human virtues.
The Family Moskat is the matrix from which Singer's subsequent work grows. His next two novels, The Magician of Lublin and The Slave are like dreams out of Asa Heshel's remorse….
[In The Slave] one of Singer's deep themes comes right to the surface. Singer implies—and seems to build his novels instinctively around the fact—that there is an occult equivalence between a man's relationship to the women in his life and his relationship to his own soul—and so to God…. On the mythical or symbolic plane, these women are always at the core of everything Singer is saying about his hero. And it's on this plane that we can best see what an achievement The Slave is, and perhaps why it comes to be such a burningly radiant, intensely beautiful book. Singer is answering his age like a prophet, though what he is saying may seem perverse and untimely. If the world is Gehenna, it is also the only "Laboratory of Happiness," and in The Slave Jacob and Sarah achieve a kind of Alchemical Marriage, a costly, precarious condition, but the only truly happy one. So what are we to understand? The dynamics of man's resistance to demoralization and confusion, the techniques of "creating" God and Holy Joy where there seemed to be only emptiness, never change, but they demand a man's whole devotion. And they can be abandoned in a day, whereon the world becomes, once more, Gehenna.
His stories fill out these guiding themes, or exploit situations suggested by them, in dozens of different ways, but they give freer play to his invention than the novels. At their best, they must be among the most entertaining pieces extant. Each is a unique exercise in tone, focus, style, form, as well as an unforgettable re-creation of characters and life. A comic note, a sort of savage enjoyment that scarcely appears in the novels, more or less prevails, though it is weirdly blended with pathos, simplicity, idyllic piety, horror. There is some connection here, in the actual intensity of the performance, and the impartial joy in the face of everything, with traditional Hasidic fervor. In substance, these stories recapitulate the ideas and materials of Jewish tradition. Intellectually their roots run into the high, conservative wisdom of the old Jewish sages. Yet it is only a slight thing that prevents many of them from being folk-tales, or even old wives' tales, narrated by a virtuoso. They all have the swift, living voice of the oral style. Some of them are very near a bare, point-blank, life-size poetry that hardly exists in English. "The Black Wedding," in the volume titled The Spinoza of Market Street, is a more alive, more ferocious piece of poetic imagination than any living poet I can think of would be likely to get near. Likewise "The Fast," and "Blood," in Short Friday. The stories often turn on almost occult insights—as the connection between blood-lust and sexual lust, in "Blood." It is his intimacy with this dimension of things that carry Singer beyond any easy comparison…. No psychological terminology or current literary method has succeeded in rendering such a profound, unified and fully apprehended account of the Divine, the Infernal, and the suffering space of self-determination between, all so convincingly interconnected, and fascinatingly peopled. But it is in the plain, realistic tales, like "Under The Knife" in Short Friday, that we can isolate his decisive virtue: whatever region his writing inhabits, it is blazing with life and actuality. His powerful, wise, deep, full-face paragraphs make almost every other modern fiction seem by comparison labored, shallow, overloaded with alien and undigested junk, too fancy, fuddled, not quite squared up to life. (p. 10)
Ted Hughes, "The Genius of Isaac Bashevis Singer," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1965 Nyrev. Inc.). Vol. VI, No. 6, April 22, 1965, pp. 8-10.
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The pursuit of freedom is the central experience of the modern world. Emerging from the Middle Ages, man sought the freedom to shape his own destiny as an individual. Intoxicated with self-sufficiency, he entered the 19th century, but by the time that century was over he had replaced the old authorities and institutions with new ones, becoming as enslaved to the new as he had been to the old. This is essentially the experience to which Singer's work addresses itself.
Singer begins by disposing of freedom as an end in itself. Man may strive for freedom, he may even attain it—but he quickly discovers that his freedom is empty and that he is ever on the verge of surrendering his life to the promise of some new meaning….
Singer portrays men who are between faiths. Having freed themselves from the bonds of God and community, they have also freed themselves from their very identities. With their God and their community, they knew who they were and what they were expected to do; now they know nothing as certain. They are disoriented, ambivalent; they feel a sense of inner fragmentation. (p. 171)
Now, it has long been fashionable to point to the Jew as the perfect symbol for this condition of exile and alienation. Perpetual exile and a ghetto-existence on the fringe of society were supposed to reflect perfectly this being in the world without belonging to it. Singer, however—and he is certainly not alone—sees the true experience of alienation and exile not in the ghetto Jew, but in the emancipated and enlightened Jew. Within his ghetto, as Singer portrays him, the Jew belonged. He enjoyed a highly integrated and coherent life; he was bound to his God and his community by the firmest of ties and his identity was whole. It was only after the Emancipation and the Enlightenment came along—those twin processes which purported to free the Jew from the restraints of his medieval life, processes which Singer describes as the new dish of kasha that Satan had cooked up for the Jews—that the Jew was sent out to dangle uncertainly in the modern world. In that sense, Singer argues, the freedoms of the Emancipation and the Enlightenment were, in many ways, neither emancipating nor enlightening.
Ezriel Babad, for example, of The Manor and The Estate, abandons the closed cohesive world of the old Jewish shtetl in order to taste the freedom of modern Warsaw…. Significantly, Singer has Ezriel specialize in psychoanalysis—a fitting discipline, he seems to say, for a generation that feels itself beset with schizophrenia. And it is finally through Ezriel, the specialist in "nervous diseases and mental ailments," that Singer gives voice to what it is that ails modern man. Alone, independent, free of any single influence or direction, modern man becomes aware of a chaotic world alive within him, a churning chaos of conflicting drives and ambitions that Singer usually reserves for his demonic fiction…. (pp. 172-73)
The problematic nature of modern freedom as presented through Ezriel Babad is not limited to Jews. Modern European society, the society into which the Jews are released, is itself trapped between two ages and two modes of life; it suffers its own schizophrenia and its own crisis of identity. But with The Family Moskat and with Asa Heshel Bannet certain aspects of the problem which are more uniquely Jewish come to the foreground. When Asa Heshel comes to Warsaw, all he wants to do is study. As a result of the intellectual freedom of modern times, the traditional Jewish devotion to the sacred texts becomes an infatuation with secular knowledge…. But what all this secular learning accomplishes, Singer shows, is to wean the Jews away from their traditional sources, the sources that had held them together as a religion and a people and had given them their identity. (pp. 173-74)
In the best Ecclesiastes manner, Singer's modern Warsaw attests to the unaging vanity of all man's efforts to impose a meaning on his existence. That this is so is not an accident. Singer considers Ecclesiastes his favorite Biblical author, and it is not surprising that he should describe the jaded glitter of modern Warsaw in terms that bring Ecclesiastes to mind. Warsaw's Jews also set out to discover the world and its treasures, only to find all of those early promises empty, so they lapse into a position which suspects and negates everything, and see vanity and folly everywhere. They are uncertainly poised between a past that they had already rejected and a future that they no longer want. They are, in other words, walking a tightrope.
This most exquisite metaphor for the state of their precariousness is presented in The Magician of Lublin and Yasha Mazur is the tightrope walker par excellence. Yasha, a magician, a performer on the tightrope, a chameleon of many colors and shapes, values his freedom. He is afraid to be fixed by a single and permanent identity…. He has no peace, he feels himself dangling; he is walking his tightrope, he feels, but always on the verge of disaster.
The tightrope appears and reappears in Singer's work with regularity, and in changing guises. In his autobiographical In My Father's Court it is a balcony attached to his father's sacred Bet Din and overlooking Warsaw's very profane Krochmalna Street. In his well-known story, "The Spinoza of Market Street" it is a garret-room suspended between an orderly heaven above and a chaotic marketplace below. For the heroine of "The Mirror" it is a mirror standing between her native shtetl Krashnik and wicked, modern Sodom. For Yasha Mazur, as the case in point, it is a tightrope stretching between the synagogue and the street. (pp. 174-75)
Walking the tightrope is charting an unsteady course between two alternative slaveries, trying to steer clear of both…. Walking the tightrope means living outside of everything; it means being anchored in nothing more substantial than one's own isolated, "free" and very precarious self. (p. 175)
In an abrupt and surprising epilogue Yasha Mazur abandons his tightrope and encloses himself in a doorless, brick cell…. If the tightrope is Singer's metaphor for the precariousness of freedom, the brick cell is his metaphor for the security of slavery. Not that the security is total; even within his cell Yasha's doubts continue. But now he is anchored in something, his cell is meant to stand for a certain context within which he lives, a framework which shapes his life. His self-enclosure in the cell is an act of self-limitation, a recognition that he is not self-sufficient. In his Jewish cell Yasha feels free. (pp. 175-76)
What Singer shows is that the result [of the secular ideologies of the Enlightenment] was not enlightenment or progress, but slavery to human misconception. At issue here is Singer's dualistic perception of reality. As he sees it, reality is fundamentally paradoxical. It does not meet man with a series of neatly separated alternatives, but with a blend in which the contraries exist together. Man, likewise, is a paradox. He dwells a little lower than the angels and a little higher than the beasts; both aspects of his nature, inextricably intertwined, are at war with each other, and only both together constitute truth…. [While] the Enlightenment extolled its rational man, minimizing or altogether ignoring the non-rational aspect of his nature, Singer labors to show that man does not live by his reason alone.
Over the years he has evolved a steadily expanding gallery of aging—and often hilarious—Jewish scholars who, having discarded religious traditions and formulations, spend their lives inventing rational equivalents and substitutes…. Perhaps best known of these theoreticians of rational religions is Dr. Fischelson—"The Spinoza of Market Street."… He lives high up in his room studying Spinoza by day, contemplating heaven at night, wishing to live his life sub specie eternitatis—and completely detached from the teeming life of the Jewish street below. But the world is not rational, it is thoroughly unSpinozan…. Human existence, Singer argues, cannot be coerced into an all-rational mold. Dr. Fischelson's rational truths are half-truths; to work, they would need to incorporate—to marry, if Singer's symbolism is borrowed—the realities of the street. (p. 177)
[The] central burden of much of Singer's work, certainly of his historical works, [is] that life and history make a mockery of the simplistic abstractions generated by men. Man a rational creature? "Europe is full of plans," observes Ezriel Babad, "but all of them demand human sacrifice." The rational concept of universal Man also proved to be an abstraction; in historical reality man appears in groups….
Singer's thesis is … that, left on his own, man succumbs to some simplistic misconception; that, while he deludes himself that he is self-sufficient, man plunges into deeper and deeper slavery. The Family Moskat demonstrates this thesis better, perhaps, than Singer's other historical novels. (p. 178)
The messianic tradition in Judaism, and especially the tradition of false messianism, has long fascinated Singer…. [To] tell the straightforward story of this century's redemptive delusion, Singer presented to his readers The Family Moskat. But to provide a profound insight into the perennial human drive "to create a better world," he reached back into the 17th century and, in Satan in Goray, he resurrected Sabbatai Zevi.
Goray, as Singer describes it, is a little Jewish town at the end of the world, always isolated from the world. The year is 1666, according to mystical calculations The Year of Redemption, and Goray is alive with apocalyptic expectancy: the Messiah is coming, the Exile is at an end. Meanwhile, two emissaries arrive to give more precise form to the coming redemption. The first, Reb Mates, a salesman of holy scripts and amulets, is utterly other-worldly, utterly devoted to the spirit. The second, Reb Gedaliya, the new ritual slaughterer, is all worldliness, utterly devoted to the flesh. The two emissaries, representing opposite poles, demonstrate what is fundamentally wrong with man's messianic impulse. Unwilling to endure the contradictions and uncertainties of human life, he strives for perfect and complete and final solutions. But this striving breaks open the dualistic center and sends him to extremes. (pp. 178-79)
The message, spelled out in The Family Moskat and made allegory in Satan in Goray, is clear: let the dangling and precarious Jew who expects to find his identity in the modern secular world know that the modern secular world is Satan's haunting-ground.
A word about Singer's satans.
Singer's satans and demons have come under fire from critics who see them as irrelevant, at best, and sensationalistic most other times. But to Singer they are a "spiritual stenography," symbols through which he expresses his view of the human condition:
The demons and Satan represent to me, in a sense, the ways of the world. Instead of saying this is the way things happen, I will say, this is the way demons behave. Demons symbolize the world for me, and by that I mean human beings and human behavior.
Singer takes his demons from folklore (sometimes, he says, he uses his imagination; but when he uses his imagination, he says, that, too, is folklore) because, like all folklore, the symbols and images that demonology employs convey innermost beliefs and attitudes of whose existence man's rational faculties are not even aware. The result is a mythicization and universalization of what would otherwise be isolated and particular events in history. The dilemma of freedom, for example, is not solely a modern one. Man has always aimed for freedom from what restrains and limits him. In Singer's demonic fiction it takes the form of freedom from the human condition, from man's position between the beasts and the angels…. And Singer's work abounds with those who surrender to demonic voices and become exclusively ascetic or exclusively sensual, exclusively devoted to the spirit or exclusively devoted to the flesh. Singer's demons, in other words, are those impulses in man's psyche which, when perspective and discipline are lacking, begin with a necessary half of a whole and push it to its outer limit until it usurps the whole; they begin with legitimate drives and make of them all-encompassing passions. And this, in Singer's historical fiction, is precisely the function of his messiahs. They come to a society no longer sustained by its traditional framework, a society lacking in firm roots and a firm definition, and they promise perfect and complete and final solutions. Again and again the same ingredients are present: a town, or a girl, weary of the past, of the intolerable present, striving for a different tomorrow; to such a town, or to such a girl, a mysterious stranger appears and promises deliverance; the town, or the girl, follows the stranger to greater and greater perversion; the stranger is unmasked to reveal Satan.
It is to guard himself against just this chain of events that Yasha Mazur, the magician from Lublin, decides to enclose himself in his brick, doorless cell. Walking his tightrope, always on the brink of disaster, Yasha knows that he could always be persuaded to surrender his freedom, the void of his life, to the lure of some satanic promise. Enclosed in his cell he at last feels himself protected from what was the greatest folly of the modern pursuit of freedom: the folly of not seeing that a single-minded drive for freedom and self-sufficiency already carries within it the seeds of a new slavery. (pp. 180-81)
The fundamental conflict … is not between Orthodoxy and secularism, but between genuine and false slavery, between genuine and false freedom.
To Singer, freedom and slavery, to be genuine, cannot exist apart from each other. A genuine slavery permits man his freedom, and genuine freedom is possible only for those grounded in a genuine slavery. To be grounded in a genuine slavery means to be grounded in something which transcends man and his formulations, to seek not peace and certainty but truth. It means, therefore, to accept the paradoxical nature of man's existence, to have faith that life's essence lies precisely in strain and conflict and a constant making and remaking of the self. Those, indeed, in Singer's world who fare best are those who carefully thread their way through a complex and mysterious universe in which—to name but a few—body is always bound up with soul, doubt with faith, and man with God.
The stories of these men afford marvelous insight into the dynamics of genuine faith. What they show is that of all of the contradictions and uncertainties that these men endure, the paradox of good and evil tests them most severely…. What is so instructive about their predicament is that these are men who were never swayed by the secularists' pronouncements on man's freedom, but who now must stop and consider the possibility that the secularists are right, that man is, indeed, alone. It is as if men to whom secularism—the major challenge to faith in modern times—posed no challenge at all, but who had to contend with its implications once—after the Holocaust—it became a possibility. (pp. 182-83)
In other words, freedom for Singer is not freedom from but freedom to: freedom to reject a false slavery and to choose for oneself a genuine slavery. This is the story of Jacob of Josefov, The Slave.
The Slave, one of Singer's finest works, might be retitled "The Varieties of Slavery Experience." Its protagonist, Jacob, passes through various conditions of freedom and slavery…. [His journey] may be said to resemble a man's journey through life. In Jacob's case, that journey is dominated by his one overiding slavery: to God….
[Jacob's break with faith in God and his subsequent] return signifies, first of all, that faith, to be faith, needs to be freely chosen…. Jacob had to break a wrong, naive, passive slavery, in order to choose for himself a right, sober, and active slavery. (p. 185)
Throughout The Slave, paralleling the events and situations in Jacob's life, Singer weaves Biblical events and situations, thus weaving Jacob into the fabric of ongoing Jewish history…. Jacob's journey through life is taken within the framework of God and people and history and, as such, it acquires shape and purpose and a strength beyond his own to meet what comes to meet him. Every event and situation that he meets is a challenge; it is an opportunity to exercise his freedom again and again, and to choose. (pp. 185-86)
Nili Wachtel, "Freedom and Slavery in the Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer," in Judaism (copyright © 1977 by the American Jewish Congress), Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 171-86.
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[Old Love] unfortunately makes one more conscious of [Singer's] limitations than of his achievement, and in some ways explicitly confirms the judgments … of those critics who have seen a certain falling-off in his recent work…. The weakest stories are first-person narratives in which the narrator is a thinly fictionalized version of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the plots would appear to be thinly fictionalized accounts of the author's travels and tribulations, or of his fantasies, chiefly sexual, about himself, without the imaginative weight and formal definition of realized fiction. The only stories in the volume that recall the artful poise of Singer's earlier fiction are "The Boy Knows the Truth" and "Tanhum."…
Another objection to Singer's recent writing substantiated by this collection is that his work has become, as Seymour Kleinberg put it in a review of "A Crown of Feathers" [see CLC, Vol. 3], increasingly "private, idiosyncratic and self-indulgent." There is a peculiar violence of imagination in Singer that in these recent stories seems to break through the narrative surface like the unmediated expression of an obsession, without the artistic distancing provided by the folkloric vehicles of his more traditional tales.
Despite the title of the new collection, the stories are for the most part about lust, not love, and a recurrent sequence of associations links concupiscence with some form of perversion or mental derangement … and then inflicts on the lustful parties some hideous variety of violence…. It is as though Singer the voluptuary and Singer the guilt-ridden moralist were allowed to collide repeatedly in these fictions without much governing artistic direction. (p. 26)
Singer has often been described as a modernist working with traditional materials, but modernism assumes complexity as a supreme value, both in the formal shaping of the literary work and in the realms of psychology and moral experience with which it deals. Singer, on the other hand, is a simple writer, both formally and thematically; and I think he is at his best when he consciously or intuitively takes advantage of this fact….
[For] all that has been said about Singer's greatness as a storyteller, what chiefly engages us in [the] most striking of his fictions is not the tale told since the plots themselves are secondary and sometimes sketchy or contrived, but rather the performance of the teller, the sure pacing, the wit, the vigor, the timbre of the narrating voice. Singer's vivid fictions of a vanished Polish Jewry are in a sense brilliant acts of ventriloquism. (p. 28)
Robert Alter, "Versions of Singer," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 28, 1979, pp. 1, 26, 28.
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When asked how much longer writers could spin love stories before exhausting the time-worn theme and genre altogether, Chekhov replied, "As long as there's 'he said,' and then, 'she said.'"
This deceptively simple truth is what continues to fascinate and challenge Isaac Bashevis Singer. To fathom the depths of being between those two pronouns—and, ultimately, their relationship to the divine Him/Her—is at the heart of all Singer's fiction. Nowhere, though, is it more skillfully explored than in his short stories, which, like Chekhov's, compress intricate dramas into a few single pages….
[In "Old Love"] Singer again investigates love's many guises and guiles…. [But] he slightly adjusts his focus. Of the 18 stories here, almost all detail the singular search for and expression of love among older characters….
Singer's characters divide into two camps: the Gimpels, the holy fools blessed and blighted by a fierce, unreflective innocence, and the Worldly, couples rent by destructive passions, condemned to scrapping and scuffling their way through eternity….
What have the characters in "Old Love" learned with time's passage? Perhaps that great love is but small deeds, simple pieties, sustained by kindness. Perhaps, too, that both the peaceful and the possessed must constantly reinvent their innocence. Without innocence, without an almost wilful wonder about life, love withers.
In its concern with these questions "Old Love" offers us more than just brilliant story telling. Faithful to Chekhov's dictum, Singer's short stories have stated the difficult question of love without necessarily trying to answer it.
Alexandra Johnson, "Beyond Brilliant Storytelling, a Tireless Search for Love," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1979 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), November 14, 1979, p. 17.
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Instead of venturing an estimation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's eighth volume of stories, one might just as well reprint some review of an earlier collection and change the names, so nearly identical are his stories in subject, mood and outlook. In Old Love, as in practically every novel and volume of stories since Satan in Goray, Talmudic scholars pore over their tracts by day and surreptitiously open the Zohar and dream of women's breasts at night…. Such mischief is all very provocative, and yet it palls, and one has to take frequent breaks from dutifully reading and appreciating Singer to rub the eyes, massage the neck and restore circulation to the brain.
In short, I'm not wholly charmed by this … book, and I imagine that Singer himself has grown a little weary of this private universe—this superimposition of the ghetto upon the spirit world—that he has cultivated so fervently for some forty-five years. The stories in Old Love repeat many of the familiar Singer formulas about the power of the erotic in human life and the irrationality of the universe, but without the extremity of example that used to cause some of his readers … to recoil in dismay, while prompting others to hail him as a modernist. The lurid and Gothic imagination that once made Singer a renegade to the Yiddish tradition of skepticism and compassion has lately been softened to the point where he now looks like a slightly deranged devotee. There is something a little tedious about Old Love, and I wonder how many other readers will share my experience of reading the book on a Saturday and finding themselves scarcely able to recall a line of it on Sunday.
It might be well, then, to skip the details of Old Love, which anyone acquainted with Singer can almost supply for himself, and use this opportunity to take up some issues raised by Singer's career as a whole, since the career itself now looms larger than any of Singer's books, even all of them together…. Singer is no longer just an impish teller of tales about an exotic Eastern European culture or a quaint remnant of a world that is no more. He is an American success story, a combination celebrity and industry, whose cachet at the moment is rivaled only by his fellow Jewish writers, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, both of whom lag behind him in sheer productivity….
[Singer is] mainly an anecdotalist and storyteller rather than a contemporary novelist, and has never written a completely satisfactory long novel. His best efforts, Satan in Goray and The Magician of Lublin, are essentially novellas. And his imaginative angle on life is both extremely narrow and, it seems, not very clearly thought. He is not an intellectual so much as a folksy homilist who, in the style of his own bedeviled characters, tends to get things wrong. Indeed, anyone who has looked into the flood of interviews Singer has granted over the past ten years and been uninspired, as I have been, by his haimish opinions on everything from Hegel and Kant to fiction and physics may be inclined to wonder if he knows what he's talking about on any subject at all. (p. 565)
Singer is not a man for snuggling up to; he is as fierce and determined a writer as there is in America, and his tireless outpouring of stories, novels and memoirs is an index of his single-mindedness. However one regards his writing at this point, one has to be a little stupefied by his sheer capacity to perform, even into his 70s. Here, if anywhere, is a model of the will fully harnessed to a sense of mission, to which Singer's insistent talk of dybbuks and demonic possession is not irrelevant, since he does give the illusion of being a vehicle for energies that could scarcely be his own. I find it convenient to think of Singer working under the direction of impersonal forces, so passionate and yet mechanically redundant is his fiction, especially the short stories. Though there may not be dybbuks in this world or any other, it is reasonable to invoke them in Singer's case as metaphors for the imagination. What is indisputable is that Singer's compulsion and the figures that haunt his imagination are of a piece; at the heart of his fiction, beneath the layers of folk myth, globalized eroticism and cabalistic lore, is Singer's homage to some very archaic forms of energy.
It is this glorification of energy and will, of which heightened sexuality is a part, that separates Singer from the Yiddish literary tradition and takes him dangerously close to someone like Nietzsche, though Singer would assuredly deny such a resemblance. (p. 566)
Singer is a writer who has chosen his obsessions and routines out of, he would say, a passion for them.
Though Singer is usually celebrated as a master storyteller, it is a characteristic of his stories of late that they slip easily from the mind and leave the reader with only a generalized image of their background of superstition and myth…. The prevailing myth in Singer's writing refers everything back to the small, humble world in which his imagination took root, and events, no matter how distant in the Ashkenazi diaspora … unite his characters with the magical world of the Polish Hasidim. Tel Aviv or Rio de Janeiro are no more than Warsaw or Krochmalna Street: remote ghettos where Jewish life, governed by the spirit world, goes on as before, and if Singer's Jews should ever get to the moon, they will find the unholy ghosts of Bilgoray, Leoncin and Radzymin lying in wait behind the nearest crater. (p. 567)
Mark Shechner, "The Rise of Chaim Yankl," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 18, December 1, 1979, pp. 565-68.
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[Isaac Bashevis Singer brings a] quirky vision, a cunning magic all his own, to traditional Jewish experience. He has only to venture out uptown on Broadway to encounter a witch, Jewish on her mother's side at least…. Mr. Singer's prancing Hasidic rabbis, his roistering yeshiva students, are unlike any I have ever known….
If a common thread, beyond rare quality, races through the eighteen stories in Old Love, it is the love of the old and the middle-aged. "Literature," Mr. Singer writes in an author's note, "has neglected the old and their emotions. The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience."
Grotesque loving, for the most part….
Not counting his many delightful tales for children, [Old Love] is Isaac Bashevis Singer's eighteenth book, his first collection of stories since Passions. Enviably prolific, unfailingly inventive, he remains a very special taste—one I, and an increasing number of grateful readers, have come to savor. A veritable Yiddish Scheherazade.
Mordecai Richler, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice: 'Old Love'," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 47, December 3, 1979, p. 112.
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In the process of bringing [Teibele and Her Demon] to the stage, a number of things have gone wrong. For one, Mr. Singer's marvelous concision has been lost; the play feels overly stretched-out. In a book, moreover, Mr. Singer's dialogue sounds like translated Yiddish, which it is, and that's fine; but he and his collaborator [Eve Friedman] have not securely found an idiom in which to write Teibele for the theatre. There are wonderful Singeresque lines—"She kissed me and bit me like a wolf-cub"—but no actress should ever have to say, "Your story made me tingle." And there is something the matter with the plot. Why does Alchonon not come clean until it is too late? Why in Gehenna's name does Alchonon persuade his friend Menashe to impersonate a demon and take Teibele and her friend Genendel to bed together? Why do the rabbi and the beadles break in on them? What's going on?
Worst of all, the play works to strip the story of its dignity. A certain indulgent condescension toward the shtetl, from which Mr. Singer's work has always been notably free, has crept in. Teibele has regressed, half-heartedly and ungracefully, to an essentially earlier period of shtetl consciousness. Teibele has a lot of tentative, uneasy comedy at the wrong moments…. Although Mr. Singer is given credit as coauthor the play feels as though it had been adapted by some show-biz type not entirely in sympathy with his work….
[Teibele comes to Broadway] vitiated by the great, traditional, characteristic Broadway sin and weakness: failure to respect its own material.
Julius Novick, "Devil in the Flesh," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission; copyright © 1979), Vol. XXIV, No. 52, December 24, 1979, p. 93.
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["Teibele and Her Demon"] is subtitled "A Fable," and I confess that the moment I encounter the word "fable" my heart quails, for in my experience it nearly always means that we are being asked to treat a work more gently and with less critical skepticism than we would normally feel inclined to do…. I found the Singer-Friedman fable highly unsatisfactory…. Like Nabokov, Mr. Singer is a master of literary sleight of hand, and, like Nabokov, he is in jeopardy on a stage, where the sleight of hand is physical as well as literary, and subject to a constant, intense scrutiny….
Brendan Gill, "Love in the Dark," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LX, No. 46, December 31, 1979, p. 47.
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Teibele and Her Demon is no Yentl, the previous dramatization of a fiction by Isaac Bashevis Singer. There was far more atmosphere, inventiveness, and tension in that enterprise….
It is not the easiest—or the soundest—thing in the world to turn a short story into a play. This adaptation … keeps some fascination in the shtetl tale….
But there is a problem with tales on the stage. A short story is essentially longitudinal; with sufficient forward-hurtling momentum, it can almost dispense with other dimensions. But a full-length play is longer; introduces us to palpable characters in a tangible locale; has, in sum, a breadth and thickness that a short story can forgo. It is the excessive linearity, or thinness, that causes some of my discomfort. Why don't we get more of the life of Frampol, a Polish village circa 1880, where the action is laid?
But there is also another problem. In a story, the speed of narration and incorporeity of the form help suspend disbelief. When the stage, however, confronts us with actual people, we begin to wonder what sort of imbecile is this Teibele who cannot tell that the creature she sleeps with, whether a beloved demon or a detested husband, is the same Alchanon? Of course, one could have developed the point that passion or prejudice can rearrange reality, but our authors are more interested in spinning folkloric yarns than in unraveling psychic complexities….
I have always considered I. B. Singer a writer of remarkably narrow range and endless repetitiousness; spotting him, I was demonically tempted to accost him and ask, "For this they gave you a Nobel Prize?"
John Simon, "The Corn Is Gray," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 1, December 31, 1979 and January 7, 1980, p. 70.
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Singer is a master storyteller, a weaver of tales and parables revolving primarily around European Jewish society. His characters live in a world of demons, dybbuks, harpies, incantations, ritual ablutions, amulets, yeshivas, mezuzahs, and Shibtahs. Many of them reside in the twentieth century but abide by customs, rituals, and superstitions as old as recorded time. And all of them are affected, in varying degrees, by one of man's basic instincts: lust.
[In the stories collected in Old Love], Singer evokes exotic and erotic images. In addition, there is always his undercurrent of humor—a light and subtle touch that displays his genuine affection for the common mortals he portrays and their common frailties….
Singer likes to entice his readers much like his characters entice each other. "Two Weddings and One Divorce" begins with a beautiful lure: "One day in autumn, a shoemaker's apprentice committed suicide on Krochmalna Street because his bride to be, a seamstress, betrayed him and married a widower." A short story in one sentence. But it is only a device, an event that gives three of the village elders the opportunity to relate similar, and lengthier, stories.
The eighteen stories in "Old Love" are all gems: witty, entertaining, philosophical, and most of all, highly accurate in their perceptions of our endless attempts to find happiness through love in a chaotic world.
Stan Houston, "Philosophical Gems," in The Lone Star Book Review (copyright © 1980 Lone Star Media Corp.), Vol. I, No. 8, January-February, 1980, p. 7.