Isaac Bashevis Singer Singer, Isaac Bashevis (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Milton Hindus

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Charles A. Madison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Irving Malin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Lothar Kahn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1258 words.)

Paul Kresh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Burgin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2245 words.)

Mark Harris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Helen Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 225 words.)