Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 15)
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.)
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...
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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)
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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.),...
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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...
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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...
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