Commentary Magazine


The Brothers Singer, by Clive Sinclair

Joshua and Bashevis

The Brothers Singer.
by Clive Sinclair.
Allison & Busby/Schocken. 176 pp. $14.95.

The publication of The Brothers Singer by Clive Sinclair, an English novelist and critic, brings some welcome attention to the work of Israel Joshua Singer, one of the greatest of Yiddish novelists and the man whom Isaac Bashevis Singer called “my older brother and master.” Both were born into the pious household of a hasidic Polish rabbi; as young men, both rebelled against a life of Orthodoxy; and both moved to Warsaw to become part of the Yiddish literary life there.

The success of I.J. Singer’s first collection of short stories, Pearls (1922), led to his association with the New York-based Jewish Daily Forward, and his enormously popular novel Yoshe Kalb brought him to America on the invitation of Maurice Schwartz, who produced the stage version. Singer stayed in America to write his masterpiece, The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), about the rise and fall of rival Jewish magnates in Lodz. This was followed by East of Eden (“Comrade Nakhman” in the original Yiddish title), an ironic study of a true believer in Communism who has transferred his early religious allegiance to a secular messianism.

In his youth Singer had welcomed the Russian Revolution—until, living in Kiev after World War I, he witnessed its effects close at hand. A few years later he returned to Russia as a correspondent for the Forward; his critical reports were collected into a book entitled The New Russia (1927). Singer’s last completed novel, The Family Carnovsky, traces the progressive effects of assimilation on a family of German Jews. He died suddenly at the age of fifty in 1944, at the height of his fame and in the midst of writing his childhood memoirs, posthumously published as Of a World That Is No More.

I.J. Singer’s literary influence on his younger brother Isaac was profound, despite the differences in their styles and temperaments. He has been called the last of the 19th-century novelists, a writer of long family sagas in the realistic manner, in contrast to I.B. Singer, who, although capable of writing novels in that vein (The Family Moskat, The Manor), is regarded primarily as a master in the realm of fantasy and in the form of the short story or moral fable.

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While there is a good deal of truth to this general view of the differences between the brothers, there are also striking resemblances in their oeuvre. The line between realist and fantasist, indeed, becomes blurred when one compares their two successful short novels, Joshua’s Yoshe Kalb (1933) and Bashevis’s Satan in Goray (1935). As Sinclair points out, both novels are based in part on the Jewish life the brothers observed in their own home and in the town of Bilgoray, the scene of their grandfather’s rabbinical court. Both works rely heavily on Jewish folklore, and both portray communities torn apart by the violence of repressed passions in conflict with the prohibitions of traditional Jewish life. In dealing with belief in the wondrous and supernatural, both writers maintain a neutral tone. As a result, we are plunged into their world in all its strangeness and immediacy, without any attempt on the part of the author to interpret, moralize, or rationalize it.

Equally evident is the resemblance between the brothers’ longer novels, concerned as they are with the fate of European Jewry as it is embodied in the history of a single family. Joshua, who died before witnessing the full extent of the Holocaust, describes in his novels the impending destruction of the Jewish community from forces within as well as without. Less tolerant than his younger brother of hasidic mysticism, he saw shtetl life as intellectually stifling and physically oppressive, rife with poverty, filth, and superstition. Yet once the Jews put the shtetl behind them, and abandoned Orthodoxy for “enlightenment,” they seemed to him to find no place for themselves in Western society. Certainly none of the modern political ideologies they encountered—nationalism, fascism, Communism—promised anything but evil for the Jews, and those deluded assimilationists in his fiction who think otherwise are inevitably disillusioned.

This predicament is at the center of Joshua’s The Brothers Ashkenazi and The Family Carnovsky and of Bashevis’s The Family Moskat and The Manor (first published in English in two volumes as The Manor and The Estate), all of which describe the breakup of traditional Jewish family life over several generations as it falls under the influence of modern ideas. The difference, as Sinclair and others have pointed out, is that Joshua is more interested in portraying the social and political milieu, and in characters who act out the drama of vast impersonal forces of history. Bashevis, more concerned with the individual’s internal dilemmas, depicts characters torn between Orthodoxy and what they regard as its only alternative, a life of sinful licentiousness. (Thus in Bashevis’s novel The Magician of Lublin, Yasha Mazur is literally and figuratively a tightrope walker, spanning both the Jewish and Gentile worlds; when finally forced to choose, he abandons his profligate ways and immures himself as a penitent, becoming a kind of holy man to visiting pilgrims.)

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The more one compares these two writers, the more one sees in each of them. From this perspective Clive Sinclair’s book has many useful things to say. It is especially good in the first chapter, which recounts the early life of the Singer family by collating the accounts of Bashevis and Joshua, in their respective memoirs, with the forgotten autobiographical novel by their sister Esther Kreitman, entitled Deborah. (Sinclair has recently written an introduction for a new English edition of this book.) The author elegantly traces the autobiographical roots of characters, situations, and themes in each of the brothers’ work, and in later chapters points to the abiding concerns of each by comparing telling details of their fiction.

Unfortunately, despite many astute observations and intelligent generalizations, this book is not as good as it should be. Part of the problem lies in its method of organization or, rather, lack thereof. Sinclair trudges resolutely through Joshua’s five novels in chronological order, with discussions thrown in of Bashevis’s novels Satan in Goray (in conjunction with Yoshe Kalb), The Manor (in conjunction with The Brothers Ashkenazi), and The Family Moskat (immediately after a discussion of The Family Carnovsky). Treating them in this way gives Sinclair the opportunity to make interesting cross-comparisons, but all too frequently the discussion degenerates into mere summary of the individual plots, which are recounted in stupefying detail. In the absence of some large general point, some argument or thesis, one comes away from this book all too aware of the trees but still looking for the forest. Significantly, Sinclair offers neither an introduction explaining his aims and methods nor any conclusion; instead, like many a student term paper, the book simply stops abruptly when it reaches a certain number of pages.

The Brothers Singer is also hampered by the author’s evident lack of Yiddish scholarship. His almost exclusive reliance on English translations of the brothers’ books and English-language works about them prevents him from introducing any new biographical or bibliographical information, or from examining the style of the works in detail. He is also precluded from discussing works of I.J. Singer that have not yet been translated, such as his journalism and short stories, or from assessing his role as an editor of Literary Pages in Warsaw during the 1920’s. What is more puzzling is that Sinclair has also chosen to omit any discussion of Joshua’s short stories, long available in the English-language collection The River Breaks Up (1938; reprinted 1975). In fact, Sinclair has nothing whatever to say about Joshua’s four volumes of collected short stories, including Pearls, which first made his literary reputation.

Another minor but very irritating deficiency in the book is the great number of punctuation errors which disfigure the text in such systematic profusion as to suggest authorial ignorance rather than merely careless proofreading.

In short, The Brothers Singer, skimpy and diffuse at the same time, promises much more than it delivers. Devoted admirers of the Singer brothers will probably want to read it anyway, in the absence, so far, of anything better.

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