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Isaac Bashevis Singer 1904–

Polish-born novelist, short story writer, translator, and journalist.

Singer writes primarily in Yiddish. Much of his fiction deals with his East European Jewish heritage; magic, mysticism, and 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, 15; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; Something about the Author, Vol. 3; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

Irving Howe

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[The Spinoza of Market Street] raises a difficult problem in criticism, and I should like to be candid in facing it. Singer is probably the most brilliant, though far from the most characteristic, living writer of Yiddish prose. Devoted as he is to the grotesque, the erotic, the demonic and the quasi-mystical, he is something of a sport in the communal tradition of Yiddish writing. Simply in terms of native talent—by which I mean his capacity for winning our quick and total assent to the bizarre world of his fictions—there cannot be a dozen living writers in any language as fortunate as he. Yet after reading his work over the past seven or eight years in both Yiddish and English translation, I find myself uneasy. I remain under his spell, admire his virtuosity, respond to his cast of imps and devils, but fail to see any principle of growth in his work. Singer seems almost perfect within his stringent limits, but it is a perfection of stasis: he plays the same tune over and over again, and with a self-confidence that is awesome he keeps modelling his work largely on … his own work. (pp. 19, 22)

The title story of [The Spinoza of Market Street turns] upon ordinary life—that of a rationalist Jewish scholar in war-time Poland who, after decades of barren philosophizing, finds a taste of paradise by marrying an old crone. But Singer's treatment, while it begins with realism, keeps steadily edging away from it. The power of this fine story depends, almost as much as in his direct engagements with the grotesque, upon his taste for strangeness and his gift for yoking together a number of discordant tones: the mundane and exalted, the lyrical and perverse, the transcendent and demonic.

Within his narrow limits Singer is a genius. He has total command of his imagined world; he is original in his use both of traditional Jewish materials and his modernist attitude toward them; he provides a serious if enigmatic moral perspective; and he writes Yiddish prose with a rhythmic and verbal brilliance that, to my knowledge, can hardly be matched….

Yet, Singer seems to be mired in his own originality. There are times, as in some of the lesser stories in The Spinoza of Market Street, when he displays a weakness for self-imitation that is disconcerting. Second-rate writers imitate others, first-rate writers themselves, and it is not always clear which is the more dangerous.

Still, can one regard the absence of "development" as a legitimate critical judgment? Is the criterion of "growth" one that can be properly applied to a writer who has mastered his chosen form and keeps producing work often distinguished and always worthy of attention? For if Singer moves along predictable lines, they are clearly his own, and no one can accomplish his kind of story nearly so well as he. (p. 22)

Irving Howe, "Stories: New, Old and Sometimes Good," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1961 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 145, No. 20, November 13, 1961, pp. 18-19, 22-3.∗

Milton Hindus

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["The Slave"] is a tempestuous love-story set against a background that has engaged the imagination of [its] Yiddish author deeply—the aftermath of the Chielnicki Massacres in Poland in 1649. As in his previous novel "Satan in Goray," he seems interested in extracting myth, legend and parable from a mass of actual facts—in composing a story stripped down to almost Biblical simplicity while trying not to violate the contemporary reader's expectations of fiction too radically.

The hero, Jacob, though he is only 29 when the story opens, is positively patriarchal in his dignity and moral character. The heroine is a Polish peasant girl, Wanda, the daughter of Jacob's master. After her clandestine conversion to Judaism, Wanda assumes the matriarchal name of Sarah and becomes Jacob's second wife. (His first wife and children had perished in the Cossack invasion which had resulted in his enslavement.) Since such a conversion is equally against the Christian and Jewish laws of the period, much of the novel is connected with the complications resulting from it….

Singer's vision has always been of a world, perhaps like that in Ecclesiastes, in which there is nothing new under the sun. In "The Slave," even more than in his earlier books, it is an eternal landscape that he draws and archetypal figures that move across it….

The author is fascinated by the unchanging quality of Jewish experience in particular. The warnings of the Prophets are never out of date. A philosopher has said that those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and the writer knows that the moral laws of the universe are as inexorable as the physical ones. For Jacob, ritual observances and spiritual sensitivity and rectitude are indissoluble. For other characters—notably the villainous Gershon—they are worlds apart. The book as a whole shares the prophetic emphasis upon the primacy of ethics in religion rather than the priestly one upon ceremonial ordinances.

Mr. Singer is a first-rate writer, but I do not find "The Slave" his best book. Despite the simplicity he has striven for, he seems to me to have overburdened his characters and episodes with too much allegorical suggestiveness. On the positive side, there is a lovely lyricism in some of the descriptive passages which makes them partake of the quality of expressionist paintings….

Milton Hindus, "An Upright Man on an Eternal Landscape," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 17, 1962, p. 4.

Charles A. Madison

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Isaak Bashevis Singer grew up with little of his brother's insurgence and social idealism, and therefore never experienced the latter's bitter disillusionment. More cynical than romantic, and with a firmer grasp of the postwar world of the 1920's, he proceeded surefootedly toward his lifework as a writer by training as a journalist. He made no effort to enter the mainstream of literary fashion, but wrote about what he knew best—the Hasidic aspects of Jewish life. At a time when Yiddish literature had reached maturity and was concerned with the grievous events of the day rather than the pious medievalism of the past, young Singer devoted his first major work [Satan in Goray (1935)] to the spectacular and psychotic aspects of 17th-century Jewish life—and not as certain other writers, with a view to extolling the faith in survival but, on the contrary, to expose and satirize the psychopathic messianism of the time. (pp. 479-80)

Intentionally or not, Singer in this book employs his obvious literary talent not to soar spiritually or depict the tragic situation sympathetically, but to destroy illusions and satirize the potency of faith. He presents the epoch of Shabbati Zevi in its extreme superstitious grotesqueness: its depression of reason and exaltation of unreality, its asceticism and eroticism. He hardly dwells on the pathos which led to the madness but stresses instead the childishness, even foolishness, which this madness revealed. His cynicism is all the more devastating because it is barbed with the sharp-edged refinement of fictional art. His preoccupation with hysterical and knavish characters to the near exclusion of sane ones—he kills Rabbi Beinush early in the narrative—gives the book an aspect of negativism which tends to weaken its undoubted literary merits. As a novel, moreover, it does not hold together, consisting mostly of a number of decorative scenes. (pp. 482-83)

Publishing only short stories, [Singer] remained relatively obscure until 1950, when his second major work, The Family Moskat, was first serialized…. (p. 483)

Covering a half century of Jewish life in Poland during the break-up of its traditional piety and its grievous persecution, the novel depicts its various aspects with masterly familiarity and a firm grasp of essentials. The range in personalities—and a number are vividly portrayed—is from the extremely pious Hasid to the complete skeptic, from the wealthy businessman to the hapless poor, from the philosophical rationalist to the self-indulgent sophist; in events it covers the traditional town in the process of disintegration and destruction as a result of intellectual emancipation followed by war and massacre, the city ghetto in all its poverty, grime, bustle, intellectual ferment, and individual aspiration, overwhelmed by social cataclysm and world chaos. With magical literary power, Singer brings alive a host of human beings struggling and suffering in a world they never made, loving and hating, believing and doubting, dreaming and planning and quashed as they play their miniscule parts in the arena of human existence. In the process one overlooks the partial artifice of plot and the actions of certain characters which accord less with their inner logic than with the author's particular purposes. To give one instance, Asa is made not to remember Hadassah's correct address, so that she remains unaware of his escape—which leads to her marriage to Fishel and Asa's to Adele. These and other flaws of construction do not, however, detract from the major significance of the novel as a work of fiction: it is an intensely conceived narrative pulsating with human life and revealing the inner emotional recesses of the individuals involved.

Singer is not only a fine novelist but also a master of the short story. In his first collection, published in 1957, the title story, "Gimpel the Fool," has similarities to Peretz's "Bontche," but with Singerian differences. (pp. 486-87)

[The] stories in the volume are written with sprightliness and skill, but with a mischievousness bordering on antipathy. Fully aware of human weaknesses and the ease with which most men are tempted, Singer seems to enjoy depicting and disclosing their individual foibles. For all his rare insight and masterly description, he tends to yield the quality of sympathy to the temptation of clever disparagement.

The Magician of Lublin (1960) is the piquant story of Yasha Mazur, an ingeniously clever acrobat, magician, and lock picker. The loving husband of Esther, a good and devoted wife, he is also the paramour of Magda, his acrobatic assistant, and Zeftel, a lively grass widow; in addition he courts high-born Emilia, a professor's attractive widow. A man of 40, at the height of his "hidden powers," an agnostic and inclined to reflection, he enjoys his various involvements. (p. 489)

Much more limited in scope and conception than The Family Moskat and less intensive and meaningful than Satan in Goray, [The Magician of Lublin] has a lustiness and psychological overtones that keep it from becoming mere picaresque fiction. Yasha is not a conventional philanderer and rouge; even when he commits wrongs he suffers from pangs of conscience and wishes he had not become so involved. Moreover, he has the moral courage to admit his misdeeds and to atone for them with a self-punishment reserved for the ascetic and saint. That his singular behavior, which would normally seem queer, appears plausible is due to Singer's powers of exposition and characterization. Yasha in particular, but also the others in the novel, are portrayed realistically, without affection or sympathy, but also without manipulation and artfulness. One has the feeling, indeed, that Singer enjoys depicting the Yashas of the world more than the Asas.

In 1961 Singer published another volume of stories, The Spinoza of Market Street…. (pp. 490-91)

[These stories] are similar in character and quality to the previous group. They are very well told, and the moral in them is implicit—Satan and his minions are again shown to succeed in tempting man and causing him to falter and fall. Singer effectively employs traditional Jewish legends and superstitions to demonstrate man's littleness and weakness, doing it with sardonic humor and a mastery of the genre.

The Slave (1962), like Satan in Goray, has its setting in 17th-century Poland shortly after the devastating massacres of 1648–1649. (p. 493)

For all its melodramatic content, the novel is an intense and passionate love story in a setting of medieval Jewish life. Jacob and Wanda are perhaps the most appealing characters created by Singer; their simple, pure hearts and keen suffering give them an engaging and palpitating reality. Equally attractive is the primitive background: the pagan peasants on the mountainside, living close to nature and unrestrained in their fears and brutishness; the medieval town steeped in piety and superstition, ridden by fear of the Polish squire and his constables; and the passions, jealousies, and greed generated by human beings in close association. All of this folklore, exotic atmosphere, and genuine emotion is depicted with an intimate knowledge and artistic sensuousness that combine to give the book major status as a work of fiction.

Short Friday (1964) is Singer's third volume of short stories, and in content and effect they are again similar to the earlier collections. Many deal with witches, demons, and evil spirits—all titillating human beings to sin and forbidden pleasures. (pp. 495-96)

In all these stories Singer exploits the taboos, legends, and superstitions in Jewish folklore, and weaves his narratives out of the beliefs, fears, and abnormalities of the characters he delineates. His remarkable talent as a writer of exotic tales and Hasidic life imbues the volume with a literary charm that tends to favor it with a significance greater than it really has.

In the fall of 1967 Singer published The Manor, which he had written some years earlier, the first of two volumes in which he provides an epic account of life in Poland during the last third of the 19th century. (p. 497)

As in his earlier novels, Singer deals at length and significantly with the events and salient thoughts and ideas of the time in which his characters live and function. Moreover, the protagonists have a [very complicated and tangled existence]…. Love and lust, piety and enlightenment, serene and stormy cohabitation, the problem of Jewishness in a gentile environment, and the miserable individual decline of haughty and romantic Poles after 1863—all of these aspects are treated in vivid detail and with artistic zest. As in his other works, Singer here also tends to overstress the traits and egocentricities of his characters, giving their personalities a somewhat uneven reality; nor is any protagonist endowed with the imaginative universality of great fictional art. Yet the narrative as a whole has real magnificence. (p. 499)

Charles A. Madison, "I. Bashevis Singer: Novelist of Hasidic Gothicism," in his Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers (copyright © 1968 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1968, pp. 479-99.

Irving Malin

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[In The Magician of Lublin, Yasha, reckless adventurer and lover turned penitent] commits himself to [seclusion]; he no longer wants to be on the road (as he did at the beginning of the novel) or, for that matter, to fly above his kind.

Although I am not surprised by Yasha's decision—he is, after all, as "obsessive" here as he was about his magic talent—I am disturbed by the ease of his new performance. It is true that his faith wavers in his prison—that he sometimes goes to the edge of madness as he disputes his past with himself—but he nevertheless manages to remain unconvincing. He is manipulated by Singer (and we, in turn, are manipulated by both of them). Perhaps there is intended irony. Are we supposed to condemn his seclusion? Doesn't he neglect others (as he did before) for the sake of his religious performance? Consider the thought: "One could not serve God amongst other men even though separated by brick walls." Yasha is denying the relevance of humanity; he is attempting to play God—to be a Messiah…. I am unsure about Singer's view of his hero. It seems to me that it is somewhat ambivalent.

It is revealing that Yasha does not entirely remove himself from other men. He looks with love at Esther [his wife] when she brings him food. He listens to her gossip. In this respect he goes against the bleak thought which I have just discussed. He is self-contradictory. This quality not only demonstrates that he still needs an audience—Esther is a spectator of his actions (at least part of the time)—but it also humanizes him again. Yasha is neither Penitent nor Magician—he is not bound by titles. He is what he is (or does). He moves beyond abstractions.

So does Singer. He concludes the novel with a letter sent to Yasha by [Emilia, a former lover]…. Two sentences are especially important: "In my fantasies I always pictured you in America in a huge theater or circus, surrounded by luxury and beautiful women. But reality is full of surprises." Emilia, like Yasha, admits that because reality is so surprising, it inhibits our freedom—we can function only within the limits of surprise. Not knowing what will come next, or what our audience looks like, we must somehow commit ourselves and perform "naturally." How magical if we succeed! Emilia and Yasha share this hard-earned knowledge. We admire their wisdom. (pp. 57-9)

Irving Malin, "The Closed Novels," in his Isaac Bashevis Singer (copyright © 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. Inc.), Ungar, 1972, pp. 41-68.

Lothar Kahn

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Although by the 1920s it had begun to flirt with socialism and even communism, Yiddish literature remained provincial and backward. Singer was at a loss to understand why Yiddish had avoided the great adventures inherent in Jewish history, the false messiahs, the expulsions, forcible conversion, Emancipation and Assimilation.

Despite the occasional use of historical settings, Singer is in no sense a historical novelist. What interests him is human nature, and human nature is everlastingly the same. Above all, what unites all his fiction is the perennial struggle between good and evil that rages ceaselessly in the human heart. From Satan in Goray (1955), the first novel he wrote,… to Shosha (1978 …), man serves as the battlefield for this struggle. The good intentions of men and women are disturbed by the devils and passions which upset their stable world. In The Manor (1967) Singer wrote that existence had always meant the same chaos; the ego had always wanted everything for itself: money, fame, sex, knowledge, power, immortality. The traditional Jew had striven to dam the pressing demands of this ego, but the modern Jew had let go. The dominant passions in Singer are not wealth or fame, but all the more sex and, to a lesser extent, knowledge. His major characters seem powerless in resisting the flesh; others aspire to be what no human can hope to be.

Out of the ensuing difficulties and conflicts arise what Singer has called the eternal questions: the wherefores of existence, the inscrutability of God's will, the injustices which keep men interrogating God…. Religious protest and rebellion are constants of Singer's distinct literary landscape. (pp. 197-98)

[Among] the Talmud students and their wives and daughters there are some who are not contented, who doubt God, who are tormented by secret desires. They know what tradition demands; they refuse to act on it or are unable to do so. These are Singer's protagonists. Singer rarely delves into their past to seek out the causes of their behavior; motivation is often a given. The most common problem is the lure of modernity, the breaking away from a safe, proven course, the floundering which results—until his heroes plumb the very depths of despair. Singer remains detached from his characters; he observes them, describes them in every minute detail. Those perhaps closest to gaining his implied approval are the pious characters, integral people remaining true to themselves and to tradition.

Even they suffer, not only for their own shortcomings, but for the havoc they see wrought all about them. Fathers in the family novels watch their children and grandchildren ravaged by fragmentation and breakup. In the more intense novels the protagonists themselves often exemplify fragmentation and floundering. Thus Yasha the magician of Lublin, Broder the escapee from the holocaust in Enemies: A Love Story and Aaron Greidinger in Shosha find themselves trapped in the net of their own obsessive passions of the flesh, symbol of the turmoil and confusion of modernity. Singer's women are as sexually active as the men, but their headlong tumble to disaster is usually aided by their frenzied embrace of some social or political "ism." Desperately these adventurers of the body and soul strive to gain new meaning for their lives in a world from which old meanings have been eliminated. Many die in their futile quest, but … even in their manner of dying Singer's characters seem to be swept away by storms of passion.

Few indeed fare well with the choices before them. Singer's apostates are as lost as his revolutionaries, his assimilationists no better off than frantic Zionists, his hedonists no happier than those engaged in their philosophic searches. The failure of these choices reveals beyond a doubt his fundamental skepticism.

Singer is both a skeptic and a pessimist. He is dubious about human nature which can so quickly succumb to lusts and savagery. He is even more dubious about man's ability to know God or the ultimate secrets of the universe. His characters may crave virtue and selfless faith in God, but they fall prey to sin, lust, greed and doubt, casting serious doubt on Free Will. He is attracted to a past world which never doubted the moral importance of life, but he knows the clock cannot be turned back. Like other modern greats, he sees a world of absurdity in which the good are not rewarded and the bad not punished. God may not be dead, but He is silent, unresponsive to man, who in Singer's world wants a relationship with God perhaps more than with his fellowman.

The prime source of this skepticism is reserved for the political arena, especially radical ameliorationist schemes. Communism is a favorite target…. Singer's essentially apolitical stance leads him to a clearly conservative position. While he regrets poverty and would like to see it removed, it clearly does not represent for him the ultimate evil. Many of his poor and humble characters have enjoyed more inner peace and satisfaction than those in possession of material wealth. What human contentment is attainable can be found on the individual, not the social level, in the moral and spiritual and not the sociopolitical sphere, in man's quest for self-improvement more than in dicta and programs from above and for all. (pp. 198-99)

Another aspect of his conservatism is his implied belief in deracination. The further his characters have removed themselves from the roots that nurtured them, the greater the fall…. [The] degree of insanity increases with the amount of rootlessness. Singer does not advocate rootedness …; he advocates nothing, but the misfortunes befalling his uprooted characters hint at the high cost of deracination….

His language is simple, direct, spare, lean, evocative; his tone that of a storyteller who expects to be understood and who refrains from extensive explanations. His writing has nothing of the synthetic, the artful or the contrived. Whatever his characters do has about it the aura of total authenticity, as though the reader can taste and smell the food of the Sabbath meal, experience the pain of a character's illness or anguish. When Yasha Mazur, after years, reenters a house of worship, the reader partakes of his awe and confusion. Above all, Singer has the rare ability to use objects masterfully as a means of illuminating character, a state of mind, a change of locale, time and place. In Singer's hands they also become effective devices for quickly stepping into a story. (p. 199)

Singer is indisputably a master of the short story…. Similarly, within the novel as genre he is more impressive with the shorter, more intense works than with the sprawling family novels. (pp. 199-200)

Singer's ultimate reputation must rest on his short stories. Here his narrative quickness and philosophic depth show to best advantage, not marred by the structural flaws of some of the novels…. [Perhaps] the best series of stories, nearly perfect and highly distinctive Singer, fill the third volume of collected stories, Short Friday. (p. 200)

[Clearly] Singer's chief failure—and it is a noble one—is the excess of his questions over the answers he is capable of giving. Skepticism, conservatism, humanistic balance, a poetic vision appear to be modest responses to giant questions. But the great theologians have also failed to find meaningful and sustaining answers to the same questions. The fact that Singer could even convincingly raise them in fictional terms is in itself a tribute to his enormous talent. (p. 201)

Lothar Kahn, "The Talent of I.B. Singer, 1978 Nobel Laureate for Literature," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 197-201.

Paul Kresh

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Isaac [Bashevis Singer] sounds a theme that is fundamental to his views on writing: "A writer must have roots. The deeper a writer's roots, the greater his capacity for achievement…." (p. 30)

In the pages of [In My Father's Court] Isaac recounts anecdotes about [his father's beth din, a blend of court of law, synagogue, and house of study], along with other tales about his childhood in Warsaw, with typical economy and a fierce attention to physical detail. Never cluttered with historical notations or explanations, these episodes hold up the bright illumination of a modern understanding to the events of a vanished past…. Each episode is a self-contained unit with its own story line and denouement. For Isaac is above all a storyteller, never a mere reporter. Yet even where he has altered or reordered the events of his childhood in fashioning these miniatures, it is certain that they—like everything he has ever put down on paper—are faithful to the essential truth of actual experiences.

And what experiences they were. All Krochmalna Street [where Isaac lived as a boy] is there to see, hear, smell, and touch. As in Isaac's novels and short stories, there is a kind of chorus on the outskirts of the action, a motley assortment of gossips, boasters, busybodies, and troublemakers whose function is to carry tales back and forth and make malicious observations—often quite penetrating—on the actions and motivations of the protagonists, like a chorus in a Greek play or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. It is the chorus that supplies the comedy and the ironic perspective on recollected events; the author himself keeps out of it. (pp. 37-8)

In his first novel, Satan in Goray, Isaac's preoccupation with mysticism, his grounding in Hasidism, and his admiration for the works of Dostoevsky and Poe converged in the creation of a Gothic tale of demonic possession unlike any other in Yiddish literature. (p. 113)

Satan in Goray is a universal parable, to which all readers everywhere can respond. Its moral? Isaac, who is never to do so again, spells it out clearly on the final page: "Let none attempt to force the Lord: to end our pain within the world: the Messiah will come in God's own good time." (p. 115)

Much has been made of the symbolism in [this] first novel, but the magic of the tale is less in its symbolic meaning than in its telling. Through the skillful use of evocative detail the author has transformed what might have been an abstract fable into an experience. Not only is Satan in Goray rich in vivid, convincing descriptions of things, places, and people—characters … who are fully human from the waist down as well as from the waist up; it is haunting in its imagery: Long after the reader has forgotten the plot, he will remember the smell of poverty,… the odor of death in a graveyard, and the perfume of nature on a summer evening…. Satan in Goray is enriched by fantasy. While the fantastic phenomena in the novel might well be the products of the deranged minds of its characters, Isaac makes it clear that they are to be understood as objectively real events…. (pp. 115-16)

Before he could fling open the tight-shut windows of Yiddish literature and let in the air of his unique originality, Isaac had first to put himself through an apprenticeship … the fabrication of mammoth family novels that in length, if not in power, would rival those monuments to the sufferings of Poland's Jews…. (p. 177)

The Family Moskat concerns three generations of Polish Jews during the years 1912 to 1939. The book boasts a huge cast of characters….

"All my books are about me," Isaac has confessed. "They are myself. The events in my stories are not always what did happen but always what might have happened." And this is true especially of The Family Moskat, where his hero, Asa Heshel Bannet, is the son of the rabbi in a provincial town called Tereshpol Minor, which bears a striking resemblance to the Bilgoray of Isaac's adolescence…. Asa Heshel comes to Warsaw with a copy of a book by Spinoza in his pocket. He is at once worldly and unworldly, enlightened and ignorant, boldly amorous and abjectly shy. (p. 178)

The theme of The Family Moskat is the dissolution and ultimate destruction of Warsaw's Jews. The events of the plot symbolize decline and deterioration…. [Symbols] are never thrust upon us; they remain implicit, between the lines. And Isaac, ever the storyteller rather than the historian, pursues his account through the details of daily existence, of personal aspirations, appetites, desires, struggles, and defeats. The story itself unfolds mechanically; the book is a mosaic of episodes as contrived as any in a soap opera. But no soap opera was ever peopled with such lifelike characters pursuing their lives in so realistic an environment. The members of the Moskat family are in some ways almost larger than life; in their relentless emotionality, for example. They rail at one another, give one another no quarter; even love scenes are riddled with bitter exchanges and recriminations. But beneath this surface truculence we see them for the vulnerable, susceptible characters they are. We know, when they walk down a boulevard, how precarious their very safety is because they are Jews. The women are victims of masculine selfishness; the men grapple blindly with entangling nets of guilt. Only the old and the pious … are able to transcend their own petty lusts. By the time we are through with him Asa Heshel, staggering through the streets of Warsaw after a bombing, with the Nazis about to invade, has become somewhat preposterous as well as oppressive in his melancholy, mumbling about Spinoza and making lists of philosophical notions while he neglects his wife and son, wrangles with his mistress, and deserts them both to join the army. Asa's wintriness and Warsaw's ubiquitous snowscape eventually numb us. (No one describes the physical sensation of cold more effectively than Isaac.) And it is not only the reader who suffers from the pervasive, chilling bleakness of the book; the characters themselves … seem overcome, even as they cling to the promises of the Enlightenment, by the unrelieved tragedy of their lives…. Only later would he temper his tragedies with wit and joy—though even in The Family Moskat scenes of festivity abound…. They are complex, multidimensional people, and the penetrating descriptions of their psychological states enable us to identify with their emotions as well as their circumstances. (pp. 180-81)

[In The Family Moskat his] characters, driven to insanity by the constricting hold of their faith, fall prey to their own lusts and ambitions—even more the victims of their own humanity than the mere symbolic figures who people the Gothic scenery of Satan in Goray. They all are punished by their own passions, while the tide of history pushes them ever closer to death.

Isaac never allows a public event, be it battle or bombing, to obtrude into the foreground, yet the reader is always conscious of the backdrop of the historic events that jostle the lives of individuals as would the callous, earthshaking footsteps of an indifferent giant. And Isaac knows better than any of us that this giant must catch up with these fleeing pygmies and crush all the desire and hunger and selfishness out of them. For they have deserted the ways of their fathers, which, for Isaac, are the only source of strength in adversity….

One ingredient is conspicuously absent from The Family Moskat: the extra dimension of the fantastic with which the author had experimented in Satan in Goray and which would later free his writing from the tyranny of nineteenth-century realism…. Isaac was to become [the Chagall of Jewish letters]. (p. 181)

In 1953 Isaac wrote the short story that many critics regard as the capstone of his achievement. This was "Gimpel Tam" ("Gimpel the Fool")…. (p. 203)

The story itself is Isaac's world in microcosm, containing the lowly lie that turns out to be a higher truth; caricature as characterization; the critical moment when a man must decide whether to take the false step and forfeit Paradise; the mockery of the mob; the untrustworthiness of women; the deception that is so often the portion of those who love. Like so many of Isaac's short stories, it is set down with supreme economy and all the seemingly artless art of a folktale. (p. 204)

Isaac is in no sense a one-book writer. Each of his novels represents a tremendous leap forward from the last, a daredevil's attempt to accomplish what he has never accomplished before, to explore new territory, always matching the form of his work to the demands of its subject. Yet his subject remains the same—the lives and experiences of Polish Jews. He will go back through time to the sixteenth century or as far forward as the day before yesterday. He will write about the lives of his people in Poland or trace their migrations to Israel or the Americas, but his characters are always Polish Jews, whether they are kibbutzniks in Beersheba or refugees in The Bronx….

[By the time he wrote The Magician of Lublin he] had freed himself of the restrictions of the sprawling "family" novel and begun to adapt this form successfully to his own literary needs. (p. 210)

[In this novel the] focus is on a single life rather than an entire village or clan; the action takes up a few weeks, rather than decades. And all is seen through one man's eyes—Yasha's….

Yasha is a personable and good-hearted fellow, whose scruples somehow keep him honest in spite of every opportunity, and he continues to be likeable even as we follow him on his philandering from the arms of one woman to another. (p. 211)

Now Yasha, whose ambition it has been to perform his magic before the princes of Europe … realizes he has "reduced others to dirt and did not see—pretended not to see—how he himself kept sinking deeper into the mud."… (p. 212)

The final pages of The Magician of Lublin are devoted to Yasha's prolonged atonement. He locks himself in a cell where he is to stay until he feels that he is worthy again to live in the world with the pious woman who loves him. Meanwhile, however, he has driven [one lover] to suicide and hastened [another] on her way to life in a brothel.

Merely to sum up what happens to Yasha is, of course, to do the book an injustice, for in The Magician of Lublin Isaac has portrayed the inner life as well as all the adventures of a man in trouble. As with most fables, the energy of the tale relieves the austerity of its moral. Yasha may ride his horse and wagon through a gaslit land of the past, yet he is a thoroughly twentieth-century hero, a bright fellow whose mind is full of windows open to the world, a Faust with whom we can easily identify today…. Still, in the end, Isaac leaves Yasha to suffocate in a stifling cell. But the endings of Isaac's novels are seldom satisfactory, and this is not merely a matter of construction. The fact is, Isaac's protagonists, with so much of Isaac in them, are always so large, so alive, and so awake to the world that their repentance and atonement are merely disappointments for us. If this is redemption, the Gehenna in which they serve out their sentences would probably be a better place to spend eternity than that institutional heaven where the pious reside in celestial study houses. (pp. 212-13)

[In The Slave, the protagonist Jacob] seeks fulfillment in romantic love with a Christian woman [Wanda], but he also can find redemption only in piety and finally surcease in death.

From the sprawling complexity of the family novels to the harrowing nocturnal suspense of The Magician of Lublin to the silken lyrical beauty of The Slave there is a constant stylistic and thematic progression, and in some curious way, an increasingly modern expression of sensibility. The coarse, vital women, the greedy sensual men, who dominate the earlier books are gradually replaced by more reflective characters more attuned to mystery and wonder. Although The Slave has its full share of meddling minor characters, and the brutish mountaineers of its early pages are truly terrifying monsters, Jacob and Wanda are not grotesques, not caricatures, not freaks, but sensitive innocents in a harmonious natural setting…. Jacob and Wanda do not waste their substance in bickering or self-pity. They do not lust for wealth or knowledge or power over others, but only for each other. Their story is tragic, but it is a tragedy of submission, not defiance. (p. 217)

The dozen stories in The Spinoza of Market Street are set in Poland; Isaac has not yet crossed the Atlantic in his imagination. But the Polish landscape offers plenty of variety and a cast of caricatures as fascinating as any in the Singer gallery. (p. 230)

In this second collection of stories Isaac proved his power to transmute the stuff of provincial folklore and simple faith into works of art of great beauty and universal appeal. (p. 233)

[After a quarter of a century in America Isaac had begun in Short Friday and Other Stories] to write about Jews who, like himself, were creatures of the Old World transplanted to the New. (p. 240)

The narrator [of one of the stories, "Alone"] is staying at a hotel in Miami Beach that suddenly closes. The atmosphere of the place is rendered with as much power as the Lido and the resort hotels in Death in Venice. And the story itself, though neither as complex nor as profound as Thomas Mann's, has the same delirious quality. The narrator finds another room in a rundown seaside inn, aimlessly rides by bus through the humid city, returns in the midst of a storm to his damp, suffocating room, where he spends a strange and sexless night with a witchlike hag from Cuba. While the rest of the world seems to be tranquilly sunning itself, the hero's thoughts are still with the Cabala, with Spinoza, with truths "impossible to grasp in a northern climate: the eternal questions tapped in my brain: Who is behind the world of appearance? Is it Substance with its Infinite Attributes? Is it the Monad of all Monads? Is it the Absolute, Blind Will, the Unconscious? Some kind of superior being has to be hidden in back of all these illusions." (pp. 240-41)

[Another short story collection, A Friend of Kafka, is] revealing of Isaac—less as the detached narrator than as an actual participant in modified treatments of his own adventures. The title story is an amusing yet touching vignette about a former actor in the Yiddish theater who claims to have known Franz Kafka, in fact, to have discerned the Czech writer's genius before anybody else had ever heard of him. Set in the Writers' Club in Warsaw in the thirties, "A Friend of Kafka" provides pungent caricatures not only of the aging actor with his monocle and threadbare pretensions, his dubious though vividly detailed anecdotes about love affairs with countesses and wrestling matches with the "tough angel" who is his heaven-sent adversary, but also of the other habitués of the club, with their woolly ideas on philosophy, literature, sex, and the danger that man might end up as a "word machine" who will "eat words, drink words, marry words, poison himself with words." (p. 268)

"The Key," is one of Isaac's best. It is a compassionate portrait of a suspicious old lady who locks herself out of her upper west side apartment and has to spend the night on the side-walk…. As is always the case in the strongest of Isaac's tales, pathos and comedy mingle in these pages to keep the reader teetering on the thin boundary between tears and laughter. (p. 271)

[In Enemies, A Love Story] Herman Broder is a refugee from Poland whose entire family has been annihilated in the Holocaust. Out of gratitude to Yadwiga, a Polish woman who hid him from the Nazis in a hayloft in her village, he agrees to live with her in Coney Island. Herman makes a living ghostwriting for a pompous and fraudulent New York rabbi. However, he tells Yadwiga that he is a book salesman, as a pretext for his prolonged visits to a neurotic, overwrought divorcee named Masha Tortshiner, who shares an apartment in The Bronx with her mother, an embittered concentration-camp survivor. Suddenly, as if life weren't complicated enough for poor Herman, he finds out that his real wife, Tamara, who he thought had perished in Poland along with their children, is living in New York. This complication elevates Herman's normal state of anxiety to fever pitch and sets in motion this tragi-comic tale of love and hate. (p. 274)

[Masha] who has also survived the camps, is as fierce and passionate a creature as Isaac has ever drawn, a woman of wild, irrational moods, hating Herman as much as she loves him: lover and enemy. Shifrah Puah, Masha's mother, never stops bewailing her plight and despairing over her volatile daughter. Yadwiga only wants to hold on to Herman; she converts to Judaism and in the end bears him a daughter. Yet for all the life in them and the lust that courses in their blood, these people are as dead as [corpses]. (p. 275)

Although once again in Enemies there seem to be too many fatalities in the final pages and Herman's weltschmertz seems to vacillate uneasily between self-pity and cosmic despair, the book hangs together uncommonly well. Isaac has not shrunk from describing the horrors of the Holocaust and its legacy of despair, yet he never permits history to detain the progress of his story for long. History lives in the very marrow of his characters' bones. Above all, Enemies is a love story. And, at sixty-one, Isaac had learned to pare away all digressions and concentrate on the lines of force that bond his characters together, ironically, angrily, passionately, even though life has done everything to deprive them of their illusions and their appetites.

Are they all frauds and fools, these heroes of Isaac's? Frauds in the sense that they lie and scheme to evade the consequences of their selfishness, certainly. Satan in Goray is the story of a spurious messiah. Asa Heshel in The Family Moskat deceives his wife and deserts his mistress…. Yasha the Magician lives his whole life by sleight-of-hand chicanery. Jacob in The Slave compels his wife to live a life of silence and deceit. Herman Broder of Enemies has to disappear in order to disentangle himself from the net of dishonesty he has woven. Yet how sweet they are, deep down, each of these prodigal sons who has "wasted his substance with riotous living" but in the end desires only to return to his father's house and atone for his sins until he is forgiven. They seek to give pleasure to others, they lie to spare the feelings of their women, and they often wound themselves precisely through their involved efforts to avoid causing others pain.

It must be remembered that Isaac is a comic tragedian. To look at his characters without humor, without appreciation of the ironic jokes played on them by their invisible, silent God, is to miss the point of all their agonies. Yes, they are all fools—all Gimpels as well as frauds—stumbling into the elaborate snares they set for others, punishing themselves for the evil deeds they have not committed, converted by their own passions, seduced by their own lusts on dark empty streets that lead nowhere, driven by their mortal hungers and thirsts into comic cul-de-sacs of disappointment and frustration. The deceivers are themselves deceived, the worldly repent in dust and ashes, the thinkers are betrayed by their own thoughts, and the lovers by those they love most. Only the patient ones who avert their eyes from the vanities of life—the innocent sages, the pious, all whose ways are the ways of prayer—escape the mocking, grotesque images that appear in the impious man's mirror. In each of Isaac's novels there comes the pivotal moment. And almost invariably the false step is the one taken, and Paradise is lost. Isaac's heroes may evade Chmielnicki or Hitler or the Warsaw police with exquisite cunning; they are still pursued by the laughter of God. (pp. 275-76)

In Isaac's later novels even as in his short stories and memoirs it becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle autobiography from fiction. In Shosha … the narrator is a struggling writer named Aaron Greidinger who has returned to Warsaw to take a job as a proofreader and translator after teaching in "muddy villages" in the Polish countryside…. The title character is the same Shosha who appears in In My Father's Court and several earlier stories, Isaac's childhood companion…. (p. 293)

On Krochmalna Street, as the end of Jewish life in Poland looms on the horizon, Aaron finds Shosha and her mother, Bashele, living in abject poverty in a tenement…. Shosha is a dull and artless girl, as the other women in Aaron's life never tire of pointing out to him, but she is superbly drawn as a creature of innocence, and her fascination for Aaron is made utterly credible. She is the Virgin of Krochmalna Street, drawing Aaron inexorably back into his own past. He marries her, although we know from the start that he will abandon her at last; everything in her character and in her circumstances seem to make this betrayal inevitable. Shosha exists at the still point of a world spinning toward extinction—an unforgettable, fey creature with, at the same time, a kind of peasant canniness that roots her, like all Isaac's best fantasies, in the rich loam of reality….

Aaron's struggles to find himself as a writer parallel Isaac's own early failures. Aaron even writes a novel about the false messiah Jacob Frank that sets him on the road to literary achievement. (p. 296)

Shosha is a powerful and important work. The minor characters are emancipated Jews of Warsaw who have left the ghetto to live out the last days that remain, like bright ephemeral mayflies. They are familiar enough from earlier books, but Shosha casts a fresh light on them, making their story one of the most poignant Isaac has ever written. In his seventies, he proves himself here to be still at the height of his powers. To the old ironic tone has been added a certain calm perspective that it might not be too much of an exaggeration to call wisdom, so that even in its blasphemies the voice of Isaac talking through his characters in Shosha remains devout…. (p. 297)

He is a writer who looks at reality unflinchingly but whose most realistic tales are leavened with fantasy and whose fantasies are firmly rooted in the world of fact. His stories and novels are interwoven with the real experiences of his life; his memoirs revise reality to heighten experience and make the story of his own life readable. His most pragmatic characters are susceptible to the occult, while even his imps and demons and witches have a practical streak in their makeup. He is indeed, as Picasso defined the artist, a liar who tells the truth.

He is an American with a European turn of mind, a citizen who preserves the objectivity of a foreigner, a Jew who regards himself as a full member of the human race but never lets himself forget that he is fundamentally an outsider.

He is an iconoclast who has broken all the traditional taboos of Yiddish fiction—and an innate conservative who believes that traditional Judaism and traditional politics offer greater rewards in life than rebellion and self-indulgence; an atheist who believes in God; a religionist who resents the dogmas and closed systems of organized religion; a mystic with a healthy respect for science; a philosopher with strong reservations about the value of cold philosophy. He is the most suspicious and the most trusting of men.

He is a sensualist with an ascetic turn of mind, a sophisticate who still retains a singular innocence—an aging man who knows that inside he is still "a little boy."… He is an experimenter wary of experiments, a modern man who mistrusts modernity…. (pp. 388-89)

He is a splendid man and a great writer, certainly the greatest Jewish writer of our time, a Janus-faced observer with antennae tuned to the past as well as to the present and the future—which he turns, by the alchemy of his prose, into the lasting stuff of literature. (p. 389)

Paul Kresh, in his Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West 86th Street (copyright © 1979 by Paul Kresh; reprinted by permission of The Dial Press), Dial Press, 1979, 441 p.

Richard Burgin

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2245

Without being a literary theoretician, or ever wishing to, Isaac Bashevis Singer has found himself embroiled in various controversies concerning the aims of fiction. He is, for instance, aesthetically at odds with those fictionists who feel the urge to impart an "important" social, political, or philosophical message in their work. As he has said, "The moment something becomes an '-ism' it is already false."

More importantly, perhaps, his commitment to character, plot, clarity, to as Henry Miller said, "returning literature to life," has informed all his fiction from Satan in Goray and his first major novel The Family Moskat, to his recent collection of stories Old Love, and dramatizes one of contemporary fiction's central debates which is being rather furiously waged in universities and journals across the country. Summed up briefly, we have those writers (and the critics sympathetic to them) who constitute the so-called avant-garde and essentially conceive of fiction as a great chain of being (or, in a sense, as a branch of science) in which the writer believes that fiction is a constantly evolving entity and that if one is not contributing to its evolution then that seriously undermines the validity of the writer's work. There are, of course, writers who are ambivalent about this issue or consider it a pseudo-issue, but increasingly one feels a sense of polarization between the experimentalists and those writers who continue to work with plots, character development, and a strong sense of the mechanisms and operations of society.

Curiously one of the principal literary and spiritual progenitors of the experimentalists, Jorge Luis Borges, could scarcely be more conservative in his literary tastes. Not only has he read none of today's avant-gardists (his very poor eyesight may have something to do with this) but he considers Joyce and Beckett not of the first rank, and Kafka much inferior to Henry James…. More importantly he feels that since we live in a world of infinite or at least indeterminate Time, the concept of an avant-garde is illusory, a misnomer based on a misunderstanding of man's relation to Time. Though one can scarcely imagine a more different writer, Singer's metaphysics are quite close to Borges's and are crucial to understanding his work and its sly modernism.

Sartre noted in an essay on Faulkner that every writer's style reveals his metaphysics, and in a less than obvious way this is also true of Singer. Consider his prefatory note to Passions (1975) in which Singer precisely and simply states his aesthetics:

While obscurity in content and style may now be the fashion, clarity remains the ambition of this writer. This is especially important since I deal with unique characters in unique circumstances, 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.

In Singer's case we are dealing with a writer who adheres religiously to the goals of clarity and specificity, writing about only what he knows through some form of direct experience. This is a seminal reason why there is some degree of confusion on the question of his modernity or his contemporary relevance. For Singer is a writer, in an age of cultivated ambiguity, who wants us to perceive the epiphanies, doubts, and ambivalences of his characters. The other key term in his brief statement of aesthetics is "riddle"—for that is finally what the universe is for Singer. What he wants us to understand about his characters are their attempts to comprehend the structure and modus operandi of a universe that resists understanding. It is one of his special strengths that his characters are not disembodied creations who merely represent metaphysical problems, or their author's obsessions, but are invariably imbued with exceptional vitality and credibility…. The apparent contradiction, then, is of a writer who composes lucid, direct sentences about people and situations he knows, but whose metaphysics like Kafka's and Borges's are rooted and have never escaped from the interminable riddles of the modern world. It is clarity, then, in the service of illuminating our essential riddle of existence. Let us not forget that Kafka and Borges employ very similar techniques.

One other reason why Singer has adopted many of the stylistic features of nineteenth century fiction is that he feels the work of that period is vastly superior to that of the twentieth. He therefore adopted as his masters Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Flaubert, who expressed their social, psychological, and philosophical conceits in a "natural" way through their characters' relations to each other, and their particular situations in a concrete social milieu. Yet Singer's sensibility is more "modern" than these writers', to whom he is frequently compared.

To understand this more fully we must return to the notion of social structure, which the avant-garde often treats negatively or else with the assumption that there simply isn't any structure to be negative about. For these writers, the family, society's first structure, is generally fractured and uncommunicative at best, and more often a procession of horrors; a never-to-be-reconciled nightmare…. What distinguishes [Singer's] fiction from the work of many experimentalists is that man is always seen in a definite context of family and society that even world war (and Singer has written about both of them) does not destroy. This sense of continuity ultimately forms a basis for the deeper mystery of human character that clarity always provides.

When Singer moves from the family, or from man in society, and considers our cosmic structure, his contradictory attitudes are even more difficult to unravel. Though he has characterized our knowledge of the universe as "a little island in an ocean of non-knowledge," Singer nonetheless affirms his belief in God (here he may differ slightly from Borges for whom this question, like infinity itself, is beyond our attempts at description). But Singer has nonetheless described his God as, "a silent God … perhaps a petty God, an amnesiac, perhaps a cruel God." In the last analysis he is certain only that we have too little information to know or even to criticize this God who speaks in a language of incomprehensible deeds.

In Old Love Singer pursues these concerns while broadening his thematic range, dealing explicitly for the first time with homosexuality and bi-sexuality in "Two," with sado-masochism in "Not for the Sabbath," even with incest in "The Bus." Despite his emphasis in Old Love on the sexually aberrational aspects of his characters, as well as the exotic locations of his stories (Spain, Brazil, Israel, Miami), we are firmly rooted in Singer's fictive world populated by demons and imps, resonating with the author's fascination for detail liable to deliquesce in a moment into other worldly visions.

The darker side of sexuality has always been one of Singer's preoccupations; thus, this current collection is more of an extension of an ongoing investigation than an exploration of completely new terrain. Most importantly, not only are Singer's style and point of view consistent with his life's work, so are his aesthetics. A closer look, for example, at "The Bus," the last, longest, and most fully developed story in Old Love, may help us understand the sly modernism of Singer I mentioned earlier.

The story begins … in the middle; that is we are immediately in a crisis the narrator finds inexplicable…. (pp. 61-4)

In these opening lines the reader is confronted with what we might call two fields of tension: the continuity of concrete detail and the world of deception, ambiguity, and misconception. The concrete information given the reader includes chronological time, around three in the afternoon in 1956; a definite place, Spain, and a vivid description of Madame Weyerhofer, one of the story's protagonists. But every time information is given it is immediately undermined. The narrator knows he is on a bus, but does not know why. He is pointed to a seat next to a woman flaunting an ominous sign (the black cross) and everything about this woman's appearance seems elusive, at best, or perhaps completely meretricious (dyed hair, rouged face, a use of German that seems suspect).

Though she wears a cross, Celina Weyerhofer soon discloses that she is Jewish, in fact a former inmate of a concentration camp. Her husband, a Swiss bank director who is sitting across from her, compelled her to convert to Christianity because, as she explains, "He hates me."

Since the rules of the bus require passengers to exchange seats daily, he soon gets to know her husband whom his wife has characterized as a pathological liar and latent homosexual. He, in turn, describes his wife's pathology to the narrator.

As the tale grows more dense, it also becomes more bizarre. We soon realize that "The Bus" is not going to be a study of the Weyerhofers, for the narrator meets a Mrs. Metalon from Istanbul whose adolescent son Mark, a genius who could do logarithms at the age of five, is scheming to get her married again, this time to the narrator. With a minimal degree of structural complication, Singer artlessly increases the complexity of his story without sacrificing any of its narrative thrust. (pp. 64-5)

What the narrator is dealing with is a set of truths or realities represented by the Weyerhofers and the Metalons, each of whom denies the other's credibility and assures the narrator that his or her truth is the one in which to believe. This is a recurring, indeed, almost archetypal situation in contemporary fiction from the masters of undermined or contradicted truth; Conrad, Faulkner, Kafka, Borges, Beckett, Calvino—to their numerous disciples. What makes this theme unique in "The Bus" is that Singer has built it unpretentiously through the personalities and detailed situations of each of the characters. Like Kafka, the more he elaborates, the more clearly he writes; and the more mysterious his situations become. Even the narrator's own motives and passions are unknown to him. He yearns for Mrs. Metalon one moment, but when he has a chance to sleep with her his passion cools. Effortlessly the bus begins to assume symbolic dimensions, but like Kafka's castle it's a multiple symbol or, one might say, an overdetermined one. The bus is at once a symbol of human desire, consciousness, a search for reality, and also an escape from it. Of course, these categories are hardly mutually exclusive; indeed, a central theme of the story is their interrelationship. Consciousness must always desire and when that fails … one begins the inevitable progression of self-doubt, of looking for solace in faith, one becomes in effect like Beckett's Watt who relentlessly tries to rationalize the inexplicable. In just this way Singer's narrator in "The Bus" confronts man's essential dilemma here discreetly raised to metaphysical proportions: the problem of not knowing.

As Beckett's characters wait for Godot uncertain if he will ever arrive, Singer's characters, like Kafka's land surveyor in search of the Castle, are always moving. In the case of "The Bus" there is a clear destination for the narrator's trip, as there is for the land surveyor, but it is a place Singer treats with far less importance or mystification than Kafka does his Castle. It is, in fact, completely demystified, simply a place one can find on a map. Nevertheless, the narrator never reaches it, for, unable to unravel his own tangled motives, he ultimately gets off the bus and takes a train to Biarritz. (pp. 65-6)

Singer's bus, then, is another "little island in an ocean of nonknowledge." In fact it is far too elusive to constitute even a tiny island, and accordingly the narrator vacates it. Both the theme and its treatment reveal Singer to be spiritually akin to Borges, Kafka, Beckett, and Nabokov, for whom the problem of knowledge itself replaces the essential concerns of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Flaubert. This theme and its particular kind of modernism, or, if you will, post-modernism, are not unique to "The Bus." We find it in the novels Enemies, A Love Story, Singer's most recent novel Shosha, and to a substantial degree in The Magician of Lublin. Moreover, we find it in many of his stories from "Gimpel the Fool" to much of Old Love. Indeed the problem of knowledge, which I believe to be a crucial one for contemporary or avant-garde writers, is literally spelled out in the last sentence of the title story of A Crown of Feathers (1970): "… If there is such a thing as truth it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers."

This writer is somewhat baffled by those critics who relentlessly stress Singer's devotion to traditional literary and "moral" values while ignoring the meanings that are apparent behind the surface simplicity of his style, and his natural storyteller's gift. (Remember Joyce and Faulkner, Kafka, Borges, and Nabokov are all good, almost obsessive storytellers.) "The Bus," then, like most of the fiction in Old Love, reveals a writer who manages to dramatize eternal paradoxes in a wholly contemporary fashion without making us overly aware of it. To my knowledge few fictionists have this gift and have demonstrated it so often. (p. 67)

Richard Burgin, "The Sly Modernism of Isaac Singer," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1980 by Chicago Review), Vol. 31, No. 4, Spring, 1980, pp. 61-7.

Mark Harris

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[In "Lost in America" Isaac Bashevis Singer] makes his own rules—choosing to isolate one short span of his life and to revisit it in a form which will demand neither dramatic invention, as in fiction, nor facts not always worth knowing, as in autobiography. "I consider this work no more than fiction set against a background of truth. I would call the whole work: contributions to an autobiography I never intend to write."

Even so, this is Mr. Singer's third book of his kind of autobiography, following "A Little Boy in Search of God" and "A Young Man in Search of Love." His father, the author has told us in the earlier books, "lived like a saint and he died like one." And Singer himself is a saint—or anyhow saintly—which may be the reason why, to avoid speaking directly of his virtue, he evolves a form whose narrative he clouds: "I had to distort facts … dates … places … in order not to hurt those who were close to me."

His main intention is something larger than data. His father, he says, was a man "blessed with a faith in God, His Mercy, His Providence. My lack of this faith is actually the story I am about to tell." His faith resides partly in his writing, in the idea that something good must come of it.

Merging memory and feeling, defying form when form will not serve, he has made in the end this work of wisdom, regret and humor. (pp. 7, 28-9)

Mr. Singer's thinking begins to assume the form of negative speculations as we approach the end of the period of his life told in this book. "I was beginning to ponder a religion of rebellion against God's indifference and the cruelty of those whom He has created in His image."…

Here, for the moment, the young man's quest ends. Singer the man goes on, of course. If we are lucky we will have further volumes of this autobiography. (p. 29)

Mark Harris, "A Storyteller's Story," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 21, 1981, pp. 7, 28-9.

Helen Epstein

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About two-thirds of the way through Lost in America, the third volume of what Isaac Bashevis Singer calls his "spiritual memoirs," the writer is living in Brooklyn alternately contemplating suicide and the vision of spectacular success, and has given up writing fiction….

His book begins in Poland where the Holocaust is about to alter or end every life Singer describes, but the writer barely notes the machinations of government, political parties or the ideologues of the time. He dismisses Hitler, the Polish fascists, the state of Yiddish and Yiddish literature ("There was no way it could worsen") in a couple of sentences and moves on quickly to what matters most to him: the people in his life; their inability to understand themselves or each other; their innate, often comic helplessness no matter what is going on in the society they inhabit….

Singer's absorption in his own destiny—in his problems with women, his endless struggle with Providence and the "divine or Satanic forces" that skew his emotions and control his behavior—is so strong that it renders him immune to the terrors of the external world. His account of leaving Europe during Passover of 1935 (by train from Warsaw to Cherbourg, by boat from there to the United States) has a balletic, dreamlike quality, as if the world he is escaping is already dead. As the train rumbles through Nazi Germany, Singer is chewing matzoh; at a time when people are sacrificing all they own for a ticket across the Atlantic, Singer is worried about the possibility of having to share a cabin. Such monumental egotism might be repugnant in other contexts but here it becomes an ingenious survival skill, a stubborn insistence on the right to choose.

It also allows Singer to stop his narrative whenever he feels so inclined and to digress, usually humorously, on whatever suits his fancy. In New York, after the Forward has accepted and is about to print the first installment of his new novel, Singer finds that he can't finish it, and writes a passage that hundreds of writers will undoubtedly clip and tack above their desks: "I had marked down in my notebook three characteristics a work of fiction must possess in order to be successful:

"1. It must have a precise and suspenseful plot.

"2. The author must feel a passionate urge to write it.

"3. He must have the conviction, or at least the illusion, that he is the only one who can handle this particular theme.

"But this novel lacked all three of these prerequisites, especially my urge to write it."…

There are few contemporary writers who have lived as fully as Singer, who wish to share their experiences as candidly, and who can do so with such charm. This is the memoir of a 76-year-old Polish Jew whose life is of exceptional interest since it bridges the fissure between pre-war Eastern Europe and postwar America. It reflects the thinking of a man who has not found Freud or Marx or Herzl or Tolstoy particularly useful, who has chosen to negotiate the baffling business of life without a blueprint of any kind. His writing is magical; his vision refreshingly unsentimental.

Helen Epstein, "Isaac Singer in Pursuit of Love and Literature," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), June 28, 1981, p. 4.

The New Yorker

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 225

"At the onset of the nineteen-thirties, my disillusionment with myself reached a stage in which I had lost all hope." With these wryly self-mocking words Mr. Singer begins his third volume of memoirs [Lost in America] which takes him from Warsaw to New York by way of Paris, and then on a harrowing (illegal) train trip to Toronto to gain the permanent visa that will prevent his deportation to Nazi-occupied Poland. Many of the features of Mr. Singer's adventures as an up-and-coming writer will be familiar to readers of his novels and short stories: he shares lodgings with ghosts and dybbuks (and blames them for his chronic writer's block); girlfriends materialize wherever he alights; and old acquaintances bring him up to date on their marital troubles over coffee and rice pudding in kosher cafeterias. The author survives one crisis after another—often saved by a check or a document that arrives in the nick of time—but he refuses to rejoice in his reprieves. Toward the end, as he fumbles with hors d'oeuvres at a Greenwich Village cocktail party, he feels almost as miserable as he was on shipboard in mid-Atlantic, but we see that he has come, in just a few months, a very long way.

"'Lost in America'," in The New Yorker (© 1981 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVII, No. 26, August 17, 1981, p. 106.


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