Thursday, September 1, 2016
Isaac Bashevis Singer ; An Intimate Portrait
Heartaches & limitations: A portrait of Isaac Bashevis Singer By Al Sundel ( Guest)
Isaac Bashevis Singer at home | Photo credit: Al Sundel
Parts of this feature about Polish-born Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer first appeared in the now-defunct Partisan Review, under the title “Heartaches and Limitations: Isaac Bashevis Singer.” The piece is written by New York-based writer Al Sundel who knew Singer personally.
Singer was a leading figure in the Yiddish literary movement. He believed there was still an audience who longed to read stories in Yiddish. “I would not call myself the last Yiddish writer but I am certainly one of the last,” he told The New York Times Book Review in 1972. Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. He died in 1991.
I first met Isaac Bashevis Singer shortly before he was mugged. He was then known as an ethnic writer only to a rather small circle of readers; the grand scheme of his writings was not yet apparent. He lived on Central Park West just above 100th Street, where the avenue starts a downscale dip. He entered his lobby elevator behind a black woman. As the door closed, her man inside put a gun to Singer’s head, speaking in dialect muddled by drugs. The woman lifted Singer’s wallet only to find a few dollars. The doper pushed the muzzle in Singer’s face, demanding more. He was flying so high his trigger hand tremored. In his own thick accent, Singer told him he didn’t have any more. It sounds comic, accents and all, but it was extremely life-threatening to a rare man who would, in time, win a Nobel Prize. The gun did not go off. Singer left the elevator in his usual shuffling style and the elevator door closed.
The next day Singer shopped for a new apartment. He resettled on West 72nd Street, before it became a gay zone, less than a block and a half from where John Lennon would live and be shot and killed. It was from this 72nd Street apartment that Singer came to know a wider international audience for his uniquely Jewish writings. The young Isaac Bashevis Singer began as both a Hasid and a modern-day Bruegel the Elder who gave us panoramic verbal folk tales. Entire communities came alive on his typewriter, mainly of a forgotten people in the past. Rural Hasids were not simply second-class citizens of Poland, in the gloom of their medieval caftans they were often looked down upon by more worldly Jews. Thus, Hasids were often not only beyond the pale in Christendom, but of mainstream Judaism.
The young Singer became a Hasidic vox populi, perhaps more than any predecessor. He wrote in his mother tongue, Yiddish. This living language was fed to the ovens, too, during the Holocaust. Once in America, the middle-age and elder Singer well knew he was writing of an obscure culture in a dying language. Yet his daily grind kept piling up more reams of fiction than Dickens or Dostoyevsky in a language that was breathing its last. He badly needed translators, even amateurs. Good ones in Yiddish were scarce; the money wasn’t there even to pay for indifferent ones. For beginners to translate Singer into English was akin to entry-level archaeology without boots.
Book publishers often helped with his numerous novels. But in order to move his voluminous short stories (well over 100), Singer had to draw on young admirers willing to put in the time. A friend of mine briefly took it on. He asked me to come along as he didn’t know Yiddish well and struggled with Singer’s metaphorical flights. The three of us sat close, hunched over a first-draft translation. Singer would explain what he meant by a paragraph troubling the translator. Then we took liberties to shape it into better Anglo. Multiple visits were needed to put a story to bed, while his wife Alma served coffee. As I didn’t know Yiddish and could not make all the visits necessary, I shot film and gave Singer blow-ups [enlargements of photographic images] to kind of pay my way.
Photo credit: Al Sundel
Singer was disappointed with a contact sheet from his publisher’s photographer. The man had taken him to Central Park on a wintry day in a dark coat. The shots made Singer look like a rebel priest sitting chilled on a St Stephen’s Green bench in Dublin, angry at God. Singer chose one of mine, more homey. Years later, I came upon a second photo I took of Singer that I’d given him. It appeared in the NY Times Book Review running full page with the wrong credit line and no check. I didn’t bother to complain.
Coming from a Hasidic rabbinic background, the young Singer was familiar both with the backward countryside and the booming city of Warsaw. The Hasidic movement reached its apogee in Poland in the 18th century, a time when roving Cossack armies raided defenceless Jewish villages with the vilest savagery. Why didn’t the Poles do more to stop them? Nationalistic Poles like to say that Poland is the Christ among all nations. Behind the hype stands a shameless record of Christian anti-Semitism reaching to this day (e.g., the horrors of the Jedwabne pogrom, in which half a Polish town in 1941 murdered the other half for being Jewish). Shtetl Jews were caught between the heinous crimes of Cossacks, the express hostility of Poles and the disdain of worldly Jews.
The rural Hasids formed a populist Jewish sect characterised by clannish fundamentalism, a deep strain of mysticism, and often medieval apparel. Singer chronicled the transition of the rural 17th-century Hasids, through the generations, to urban positions of wealth and power in 20th-century Warsaw. His own life would in time come to exemplify the varied transitional stages from shtetl insularity in Poland to displaced person on bustling 72nd Street off Broadway. Early on, Singer wrote in Hebrew, then switched to Yiddish. As a transitional Hasid, he obviously also spoke Polish in Warsaw. In his twenties, he knew Western culture and German well enough to translate Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun and future prize winner Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain, no less) into Yiddish. English appears to be his fifth language.
Medieval times came to an end in Western Europe circa 1492. But not for much of the planet. Eastern Europe stagnated in superstition (e.g., Dracula, wolf men, fertile ground for Frankenstein, exorcist magic, sightings in the sky, etc), especially in the outlying villages. It remained ‘Brueghelian’ well into the 20th century, as large parts of the world remain today; that is, eat, drink, fornicate and be superstitious. In Warsaw, the Jewish ghetto was more porous to the advances of Western culture. From Warsaw, Singer made 300-year leaps backwards to shtetls and forward again to the vims and vigours of urban intellectual life. In his shtetl stories, he juggled grassroots superstitions. He was not pushing his own occult beliefs. He was reporting what the country folk believed. In his Warsaw stories, he abandoned the supernatural and leaned more to transitional Jews whose mojo was rising in Western culture. This trend increased in his American stories, set in modern New York, Tel Aviv, Miami Beach, about uprooted East European Jews living banal middle-class lives without Cossacks, Poles or Nazis savagely attacking them.
Singer’s American stories remained at a far remove from the norms of American Jewish fiction. He did not write about the immigration experience (cf Henry Roth), or the assimilated Jew whose vestigial Jewishness resembled the human coccyx (cf Saul Bellow), a tail that had lost its tailness. He wrote about displaced persons. His Jews were displaced in rural Poland, displaced in New York City, displaced in Miami Beach. When they got to the big city, and especially in America, they metamorphosed. They got ‘melting-potitis.’ Singer’s characters were descended from biblical heroes. But they had schlepped their kitchen problems and heartaches with them, in multiple displacements from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Canaan and Judea. They had lost much of their timeline heritage along the way, except some high falutin’ parts. Though half the planet has read the Hebrew Bible, are there even 36 sages who truly understand the long view of 4,000 years of displacement? If sages could not comprehend it, what could you expect of the rest of us? Singer focused on human kitchen problems and heartaches. He tapestried 300 years of Jewish life from rural Poland to Warsaw to America almost as biblical addenda. He can be compared to a Babylonian Jew in the time of Ezra writing about centuries of exiled Jewish life in Assyria and Babylonia, only in far greater quantity than ever survived to our time.
Photo credit: Al Sundel
The sheer amount of lonely sitting a prolific writer must put in is beyond most people’s endurance. You look up from the writing machine to the window at times as if to say, “Hello. Is anybody out there?” Aside from two Partisan Review stalwarts who early translated a story each of his, Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld, Singer was the most isolated of writers, a Yiddish Napoleon at Elba. He had minimal contact with fellow travellers of literary fiction. His folk past was his most trusted companion. Singer would in the end publish a lot because he wrote more than most important writers. Sometimes, as he was writing, he simultaneously conversed with his wife, a kind of soft marital babble as his fingers flicked over the keys. When several young people visited him, he might get a little giddy coming out of a writer’s self-imposed isolation. Yet he was formal. He preferred to be called “Mr Singer.” He usually wore a funeral dark suit, shiny from overuse, and a dull tie. On sultry evenings in the summer, if someone asked to remove a jacket, he rose and said, “We will all remove our jackets.” To receive you in his shirtsleeves, he had to know you well.
He lived at the bourgeois extreme from long-haired Greenwich Village types holed up in tenements with cracked bathtubs in the kitchen from 1912. He once showed me a five-foot painting sent by a female fan. It revealed a nude in a blue-speckled field that struck an emotional high note, like Munch’s “The Scream.” Singer said he didn’t know what to do with it. He kept it facing the wall, but his eyes glittered with a stifled giggle when he showed it.
Singer took deeper pleasure in his beloved pets, yellow parakeets, who might flutter around the living room or alight on him as if he were a tree. At these times, the briefest resemblance to a St Francis kindness to animals might light up his eyes. At his suggestion, Singer and I began to meet for lunch. He was cue-ball bald with soft white down behind the ears and ceramic-blue eyes that could shift from penetrating to waggish. He struck me as so grandfatherly, I imagined this aspect began prematurely at 45. He suggested I read Knut Hamsun, despite Hamsun’s having been a Nazi sympathizer during World War II (what good advice!).
We generally took a brisk walk to a hopping-busy cafeteria on Broadway in the 80s or else lunched in a coffee shop on 72nd Street. Here, amid fork-and-knife clatter, over matzoth brei, he might open up a little. Isaac Bashevis Singer had been burnt in his best years from having too much sensibility and not enough taste of life, love or money. To write a lot means to live little, to let the sun shine for others while you stay holed up in your cell. For decades, he feared he might one day grovel like Hamsun’s character in Hunger, eating his own shoe leather while a woman’s shapely image faded from the retina of his mind. His concept of dread was to suffer the fate of Poe. His main earning stream came from The Jewish Daily Forward, which published his briefs and fiction to an ever-dwindling Yiddish readership. His wife, Alma, held a not-so-fancy job in a department store. While he later claimed she didn’t need to work, I suspected it was just the opposite when I first met him. They were comfortable, but not yet secure.
For his first forty years, he lived in the long shadow of his brother, Isadore Joshua Singer, almost ten years older. Isaac Bashevis Singer (born Yitzak Hersh Singer) was the third child behind a sister, Esther (who also wrote fiction), and he had a younger brother, Moses. I J Singer shot out of the blocks in the early ’30s to become known locally as a natural talent that flowed like the Vistula. He was quickly discovered by The Jewish Daily Forward, who brought him to America.
To this day, some readers prefer I J Singer to I B Singer. I J Singer was published in the US in the ’30s by Liveright and Knopf, then the two most prestigious American publishers. He wrote socially conscious novels about what life was really like behind ghetto and shtetl walls, tales that Sholem Aleichem was too Broadway and schmaltzy to handle. Here was a different voice than Yiddish literature had heard before, and a completely different kind of Hasid who shucked his medieval caftan and looked like the rest of the modern world. He wrote with bite. I J Singer spoke in the detailed and humane-conscience tone of Dreiser, an American Catholic. Both I J and Dreiser tied in to the prophetic tradition of Judaism, borrowing a little from Jeremiah, but in softened tones of muted outrage. I J Singer dug deep into the psychic vein of characters and society. It is not a stretch to describe I J Singer’s vision as Tolstoyan (though he preferred Stendhal) and his talent as huge. Were he mainstream Christian instead of subset Hasid in the Jewish ghetto in anti-Semitic Poland, he would have been an overnight international sensation. Water the flower and it will grow. He was on drip irrigation.
Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote more like a rational mystic, in itself a contradiction. The two sides warred in him. He was deeply intelligent yet avoided showing it, preferring a humble voice and simple characters. Yet he could peer over the precipice and see the murk below. He leaned a little toward the black humour of the regional champion, Gogol (e.g., in Gogol’s short story, “The Nose,” where a man wakes up one morning, discovers his nose missing and goes looking for it, to find it parading about the streets in the man’s cloak with a bluster of a VIP). Above all, Bashevis Singer’s fiction teemed with characters harried by the myriad slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, including life’s many spear thrusts of deceit. (A man climbs in the window of a woman late at night, convinces her he is a ghost who should not be disturbed, gets into bed with her, then leaves — to return on an as-needed basis.) His rural characters seem to float willy-nilly in a timeless stream that included the ether around them. Did it make any difference whether they lived in Bruegel’s era or today in Miami Beach? Not really. The same things happened to them, but far less brutally and superstitiously in America. Only after his death could we fully appreciate what Isaac Bashevis Singer was doing: chronicling the Hasidic saga inside the Wild West (East) of Christendom. In doing so, he rendered the chicken fat of the worldwide human heart.
Al Sundel is an author and writer based in New York. He has published six ebook novels and two non-fiction books. He has written for Partisan Review, Nation and Sewanee Review. Al has produced taped seminars on Shakespeare, Kafka and Dostoyevsky. He has also worked on a number of medical/psychiatric advertising projects for companies such as Merck, Roche and Pfizer. Al is president of Al Sundel & Associates.