Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life by Janet Hadda
Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life
by Janet Hadda
Oxford. 243 pp. $27.50
Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Poland in 1904 into a world of Jewish religious and cultural orthodoxy which no longer exists in Europe and of which there are only traces left in Israel and the United States. Despite his father’s conviction that secular writers were leading the Jews into heresy, Singer, like his older brother Israel Joshua, opted to pursue a literary career. Troubled though he was by the doubtful future of the Yiddish language, resentful of the tradition that a Yiddish writer must be not merely an artist but a spokesman for his people, and distressed by his brother’s public assertion that to write in Yiddish was to debase oneself as an artist, Singer was undeterred from his vocation.
He quickly established himself as a distinctive presence among the Yiddish writers of Warsaw, not only for his single-minded dedication to his craft but for his conviction that literary truth was to be found not in philosophy, psychology, sociology, or any of the other tools of modernity, but rather in folklore, dreams, and fantasies. His first story, “In Old Age,” appeared in 1925. His first novel, Satan in Goray, was published a decade later; the tale of a deranged would-be messiah in 17th-century Poland, it is the perfect emblem of Singer’s indifference to the literary and political fashions of the time.
In 1935, Singer bade farewell to his mistress, their five-year-old child, and his mother and younger brother, and left the “hell” that was Poland to join his older brother in New York. For the first time, he had to contend with the formidable problems of a Yiddish writer cut off from his native resources. Though he found employment as a writer and a journalist with Der Forverts (the Forward), the largest Yiddish-language daily in America, his creative work languished. On English-speaking soil he found his characters dead, his language silent, and, with the coming of World War II and the annihilation of Jewish Poland, the artistic foundations of his work destroyed; henceforth he could draw only from memories. As he was to recall later, he came close to being struck dumb:
In Poland, Yiddish was still very much alive when I left. When I came here it seemed to me that Yiddish was finished. . . . The result was that for five or six or maybe seven years I couldn’t write a word. . . . [W]riting became so difficult a chore that my grammar was affected. I couldn’t write a single worthwhile sentence. I became like a man who was a great lover and is suddenly impotent, knowing at the same time that ultimately he will regain his power.
Regain his power Singer certainly did. Emerging in 1943 from his five-year silence, he published two important essays arguing that the future of Yiddish literature lay, paradoxically, in the past, in the effort to recreate the world the Nazis had destroyed. He also reissued Satan in Goray along with five new stories. In 1945, the Forward began to publish in serial form Singer’s massive chronicle of prewar European Jewry, The Family Moskat. When this novel appeared in English translation in 1950, it sold 35,000 copies, giving Singer a first glimpse of the large audience that awaited him outside the Yiddish world.
Singer’s rescue was complete when he was “discovered” in the early 1950’s by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, then at work on their groundbreaking A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, and by the editors of COMMENTARY and Partisan Review; the latter published Saul Bellow’s translation of his now-classic story, “Gimpel the Fool,” in 1952. The ensuing acclaim extended far beyond what any Yiddish writer had ever received in non-Yiddish literary circles, and thereafter, Singer went from triumph to triumph.
His output was enormous—short stories, novels, children’s books, many of them distinguished by his trademark preoccupation with the folkloric and the occult—and he was given every major literary award. After two decades of abject poverty, he grew rich as well as famous. In 1978, Singer became the first (and will surely be the last) Yiddish writer to receive the Nobel prize for literature. He died in 1991, old and full of honors.
For Janet Hadda, who teaches Yiddish at UCLA, this tale of a writer’s progress is, however, far too simple. At the center of her psychobiographical study of Singer’s life and work she finds a deadly conflict: between “Bashevis”—the worldly-wise, modernist Yiddish writer—and “Isaac Singer”—the transplanted grandfatherly figure, beloved in America as a simple, old-fashioned sprite.
This division Hadda traces deep into his family roots, placing special emphasis on his ill-mated parents. Singer himself saw the problem of his parents’ marriage as a clash of ideas—his mother, Basheve, was a rationalist, while his father was a hasid who emphasized the spiritual and mystical in Judaism. But Hadda, a practicing psychoanalyst as well as a scholar of Yiddish, is confident that the real source of their difficulties resided in a confusion of gender roles, a malady she diagnoses in Singer’s grandparents as well and which she blames for stymieing the young Isaac in his search for a parental “role model” and depriving him of calm, safety, attention, and love.
On the basis of her view of Singer as a troubled neurotic, Hadda interprets Satan in Goray as a work largely about “inadequate parental care” and The Family Moskat as an expression of Singer’s “guilt” over having departed Poland and survived while the members of his family whom he left behind were murdered. When she comes to his early literary success in the 1950’s, Hadda suggests, more ominously, that the writer was beginning to succumb to impersonation and distortion, emphasizing certain qualities in his divided soul and de-emphasizing others:
Consciously or not, he had learned that Bashevis, the enfant terrible, would never capture the heart of an American audience. . . . [He] correctly, if intuitively, perceived that for readers of English, an Eastern European Jew had to be old-fashioned, mild-mannered, even naive in order to be believable.
At the Forward, Singer wrote under several names and in several different voices: Yitskhok Bashevis for serious literary work, Y. Varshavsky (the man from Warsaw) and D. Segal for popular journalism. Far from seeing this as an artful means of accommodating different audiences, Hadda views it as a foreshadowing of the larger internal conflict which expressed itself, at times, in outright duplicity. When writing in Yiddish, she asserts, Singer was a “harsh and conservative” social critic, while in English he took pains to come across as apolitical and unworldly. As the years passed and the temptations of fame grew, Hadda charges, so did Singer’s “two-faced insincerity”; to find a place in America, he relinquished part of his essence.
In writing this short biography, the only serious one of the writer thus far, Hadda has made good use of the Singer archives at the University of Texas and of interviews with Singer’s family and colleagues. And it should be said that when she dismounts from her psychologizing hobbyhorse, she can be a good critic, as she shows in her discussions of “Gimpel the Fool,” “The Little Shoemakers” (a dazzling nightmare-like summary of the whole of modern Jewish experience), and “Short Friday.”
But dismount she rarely does. The problem is that, in Hadda’s reading, Singer’s formidable qualities of mind are often reduced to battles played out in his childhood home; his prodigious literary labors are but substitutes for psychotherapy; his cultural and political opinions are evidence of mental imbalance resulting in moral imposture; and his art, the work of a great master, amounts to little more than a case study, and an abnormal one at that.
Singer, a writer who surrendered himself thoroughly to the life of the imagination, possessed in high degree the quality that Keats called “negative capability”—the capacity to entertain “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” He deserves a biographer with something of the same capacity.