Writing in Yiddish about Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities in Poland, Isaac Bashevis Singer established the reputation that in 1978 won for him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although later works about Holocaust survivors in the United States have won high praise, The Magician of Lublin, in setting, plot, and characterization, is typical of the fiction that brought Singer his initial fame and ensured his lasting popularity.
The plot of The Magician of Lublin is not as simple as it seems. It begins as a picaresque novel; Singer establishes an interesting character and then follows him on his travels, pointing out how, through trickery, his protagonist manages to survive, though not always unharmed. However, there is a second story line in the novel, a second journey involving the same character. Even while he pursues fame, fortune, and Emilia, without realizing it, Yasha is traveling in quest of God.
The historical setting of the novel also involves a duality of perspective. The villages Singer describes appear to be self-sufficient, insulated from the outside world. Within them, the characters may quarrel and reconcile, suffer and survive, but actually their lives move in a pattern as inevitable as the seasons, as old as their religious heritage. Even a rebel like Yasha knows this; he counts time not only by the coming of spring but also by the coming of Shabuoth.
However, The Magician of Lublin contains reminders that this apparent permanence is an illusion. When the villagers talk about the power of czarist Russia, they are not aware of what Singer’s readers know: that, within a few decades, there will be no czar in Russia. When they arrange marriages and plan the futures of their...
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