When Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, not everyone was gratified. Clive Sinclair begins The Brothers Singer with a quotation from a BBC radio interview broadcast minutes after the award had been announced: the ‘astounded’ interviewer suspected that ‘some kind of American Mafia’ was at work in the Nobel Committee, while the ‘serious’ Professor Bradbury, discounting this theory, ascribed Singer’s triumph to ‘the domination of American writing in the world today’. Neither seemed to feel that Singer’s work, in its own right, deserved such an honour: both, in fact, appeared rather vague as to what sort of work the new laureate had done.
The Swedish Academy of Letters was much clearer on this point, citing Singer not as an American writer but as the master of an ‘impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings the universal human condition to life’. Singer himself put it more simply: ‘I am nothing more than a storyteller,’ he informed the Associated Press; and in his prize lecture he shared the award with the genius of his native language: ‘The great honour that the Swedish Academy has afforded me is also a recognition for Yiddish, a language of exile, without a country, without frontiers, that is not supported by any government.’ Though he has been an American citizen for forty years, Singer’s deepest identification is with a culture deprived of place and time – a curious particularity that makes him universal.
He must be universal because he fits into no other category. His favourite subject, the Jewish Poland of his youth, has vanished; and his language, Yiddish, despite a recent resurgence of interest among college students, is understood by a steadily shrinking public. Alone among popular contemporary writers, Singer reaches the vast majority of his readers exclusively in translation; they have no direct access to his original text. He is also almost the only authority on the truth of his writing; most readers can verify Singer only by comparison with Singer. He is, as his admirers never tire of repeating, our last link with an obliterated culture – a culture about which we know little beyond what he chooses to tell us.
Singer’s position in the world of letters bristles with oddities, not the least of which is that, in the Yiddish-speaking community, his stature is far more doubtful than it is among the public at large. Setting the tone for The Brothers Singer, Sinclair cites a letter from D.L. Berman of the Friends of Yiddish, according to whom Isaac Bashevis’s overblown reputation is due simply to prolificness and longevity. Berman seems to speak for the majority of conservative Yiddish readers when he asserts the superiority of Bashevis’s elder brother, Israel Joshua Singer, who died in 1944 at the age of 50. For readers ignorant of Yiddish, even the brothers’ names are confusingly similar; Sinclair distinguishes them as ‘Bashevis’ and ‘Joshua’, in which I’ll follow him. Most people, however, will still be unable to compare their merits: all of Joshua’s novels have been translated into English, but only one, The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), has a British publisher at present.
To make such comparison possible, and to advance a case for Joshua, are primary aims of The Brothers Singer, which even apes one of Joshua’s (and Dostoevsky’s) titles. Generous intentions may help to excuse the fact that a good quarter of Sinclair’s short book is devoted to summarising – for some reason, and disconcertingly, in the past tense – the plots of Joshua’s novels. It is assumed that we know enough about Bashevis’s work to get along with glancing references, though ten pages are spent on a precis of his first novel, Satan in Goray (1935). Plot-summary, indeed, is the special vice of those who write about either Singer; it also forms a large part of Paul Kresh’s fatuously adulatory Magician of West 86th Street (1979), which for all its faults has yet to be superseded as the fullest biography of Bashevis and an indispensable source on Joshua. It may be that both Singers are so unrelated to the average reader’s experience that retelling is the only way of domesticating them.
Joshua, however, is far more easily placed than Bashevis: he wrote in the venerable European tradition of long, thickly-peopled, densely-plotted novels that attempt to portray an entire society caught in the web of history. At first glance, two more disparate novels could hardly be imagined than Middlemarch and The Brothers Ashkenazi: but both George Eliot and Joshua Singer believed that life was rationally intelligible and could be mirrored in rational form. Bashevis does not share this faith. His novels and stories teem with ghosts, demons and hallucinations; his characters are driven by forces that neither they nor their storyteller can pretend to understand. Joshua stresses the economic and political sources of human motivation, while Bashevis goes in for the instinctive and supernatural. For this reason, despite Bashevis’s frequent portrayal of remote settings and unfamiliar customs, modern readers would probably continue to find his work more congenial than his brother’s, even if Joshua had lived.
Bashevis is also typically modern in his consistent emphasis on the erotic, a trait which has brought adverse criticism from his more staid Yiddish readers, though it fails to damage his popularity in any language. Of all the unknowable urges that move Bashevis’s characters, enigmas of love and desire rank first. A good example is his most famous short story, ‘Gimpel the Fool’ (1953), in which the credulous Gimpel spends 20 years married to whorish Elka, foolishly accepting paternity of ten children who cannot be his. Both are enslaved – Elka to indiscriminate lust, Gimpel to an equally overmastering love. In the end, the slavery of love wins out: long after Elka’s death, as Gimpel is about to commit the first evil deed of his life, her tormented shade appears to him, warning him not to stray from what the world calls foolishness. ‘You fool!’ she cries. ‘Because I was false is everything false too? I never deceived anyone but myself.’
I wish I could say that the many provocative contrasts between Bashevis and Joshua were satisfactorily explored in The Brothers Singer, but they are not. At best, here and there amid pages of grey exposition, Sinclair manages a perceptive paragraph or two; mostly, however, he just points to interesting issues, letting us draw what conclusions we can. For instance, although Bashevis’s characteristic preoccupations were apparent in Satan in Goray, his first novel after his brother’s death, The Family Moskat (1950), is very much in Joshua’s manner. It might be an act of homage, of imitation, or of rivalry: such matters can never be finally elucidated, but some informed speculations would be welcome, and Sinclair gives us none. The Brothers Singer is disappointingly patchy and uncertain in tone: it starts out brashly, as if preparing to whittle Bashevis down to size, but Sinclair gradually softens and ends up merely adding his own small voice to the monotonous chorus of praise that has been serenading the younger Singer for the last thirty years.
This is unfortunate – not only because unmitigated praise grows wearisome, but also because Bashevis remains, paradoxically, among the most inscrutable of modern writers. He is dauntingly prolific, turning out a novel or a volume of short stories virtually every year; he is an indefatigable lecturer and seminar guest, willing to answer even the most impertinent questions; he is a highly visible figure on the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lives; until he won the Nobel Prize, his telephone number was even listed in the local directory. Yet, though he seems to bask in publicity, he slips away from all attempts to pin his thinking down. It is impossible to tell from reading his works, either fiction or non-fiction, exactly where he stands in regard to the issues that he himself has raised. This persistent elusiveness might be only another sign of universality, but it also has the effect of hamstringing criticism.
Bashevis’s latest novel, The Penitent, nicely illustrates the problem. For one thing, it isn’t new: as Der Baal Tshuvah, it was first published ten years ago in Der Forverts, the New York Yiddish paper which prints most of Bashevis’s work. As he has regularly done in recent years, Joseph Singer, Joshua’s son, translated the book into English soon after it was written. The delay in English publication, however, is extraordinary. According to Paul Kresh, Bashevis held back The Penitent on the advice of ‘some of his literary counsellors’, who evidently felt that though certain readers of Yiddish might respond favourably to this ‘sermonic novel’, his larger public would find it unappealing and unflattering to its author. For whatever reason, the ban has now been lifted. In an ‘Author’s Note’ Bashevish implies that he has acted in the interests of a wished-for constant reader ‘who follows everything I have published, even things I have said in interviews’. But Sinclair suggests another motive that would account for both the suppression and the eventual change of heart – that in The Penitent we hear, with unprecedented clarity, the voice of Pinchos Mendel, the Singers’ father.
Like many of Bashevis’s recent stories, The Penitent is a long monologue enclosed in a slight and simple frame. Visiting the Wailing Wall, a first-person narrator (who exactly resembles Bashevis) encounters Joseph Shapiro, a baal tshuvah dressed in the traditional regalia of velvet hat, long gaberdine and fringed ritual garment. Shapiro greets Bashevis as if the two were old friends, though Bashevis doesn’t recognise him:
Whenever you lectured in New York I was in the audience. I was a fervent disciple of yours. True, you didn’t know me. I had to introduce myself to you each time anew. But I knew you. I read everything you wrote. Here, I’ve stopped reading all that worldly stuff.
Though he no longer reads Bashevis, Shapiro is willing to become his subject: ‘You once wrote that you like to hear stories. I have a story for you, something unusual.’ Bashevis spends his next two afternoons listening to Shapiro: with minimal interpolations, the rest of The Penitent is the words of the penitent himself.
Shapiro’s story is a tawdry one. During World War Two, with his childhood sweetheart Celia, he flees from his native Poland to Russia and eventually to the United States, where, in New York City, he sets up a realestate business that soon becomes prosperous. Though his wife satisfies him completely, his fast-paced world is so full of incitements to adultery that he comes to suffer from a perverse sort of guilt – the guilt of faithfulness in an environment which announces at every turn, especially in plays, films and television, that promiscuity is the norm. So Shapiro takes a mistress, a ‘respectable’ woman since he can’t stomach a self-admitted whore. In company with her slatternly daughter Micki and Micki’s rapacious boyfriend, Liza does her best to milk Shapiro dry. After a particularly ugly late-night scene with Liza and Micki, Shapiro runs home to Celia – whom he finds, like a character in some old farce, at the back door hastily bidding goodbye to her own illicit lover. Shapiro packs his bags and liquidates his assets; he makes his way to Israel, where he divorces Celia, marries a good woman, and devotes his life to repentance.
Insofar as The Penitent has a plot, that summarises it. Far more significant than the plot, however, is the novel’s unremitting condemnation of every product of past and contemporary Western culture – not excepting Israel, which Shapiro finds to be only another Gehenna. Even the best-disposed reader is likely to be repelled by his repeated diatribes:
All the heroes in worldly literature have been whoremongers and evildoers. Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Raskolnikov and Taras Bulba are the typical heroes and heroines of literature. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Goethe’s Faust, right down to the trash aimed at pleasing the street louts and wenches, are full of cruelty and abandon. All worldly art is nothing but evil and degradation. Through the generations writers have glorified killing and debauchery and they have all kinds of names for it – romanticism, realism, naturalism, New Wave, and so on.
For Shapiro, the only books worth reading are the Talmud and other Jewish commentaries: ‘What important things did Eliot or Joyce have in mind when they were writing their empty phrases? What did they want? One page of The Path of the Righteous contains more wisdom and psychology than all their writings.’ Shapiro’s fanaticism is pure and complete; he spares absolutely nothing, including the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, which are thoroughly ‘worldly’ as Shapiro uses the term. The Penitent is unique among modern novels for seeming to damn not only its author’s other books but itself as well, since except for its dire tone, Joseph Shapiro’s story is just as ‘worldly’, just as obsessed with sex and money, as the fiction he rails at.
No devotee of Bashevis’s novels and stories will be ready to believe that the opinions expressed by Joseph Shapiro in any way reflect his author’s. And in the ‘Author’s Note’, speaking at last in his own voice, Bashevis assures us that indeed they do not. Writing The Penitent seems to have been for him an exercise in therapeutic reminiscence: ‘I often discussed with my brother the lack of dignity and the degradation of modern man, his precarious family life, his greed for luxury and gadgets, his disdain of the old, his obeisance before the young, his blind faith in psychiatry, his ever-growing tolerance of crime’ – judgments which Shapiro would emphatically endorse. But Shapiro gives up on the rotten modern world and seeks refuge in the most hidebound, hermetic form of Judaism, into which neither Bashevis nor Joshua would follow him. Bashevis offers as his actual world-view a resigned irrationalism: ‘As long as we dwell in the body, vulnerable to all possible variations of suffering, no real cure can be found for the calamity of existence.’
If it weren’t for the ‘Author’s Note’, however, The Penitent would provide no clue that Shapiro is expounding something other than his creator’s ideas. He makes no Jamesian self-betrayals; except for the obsessive fury of his monologue as a whole, only one passage in it suggests that perhaps we should treat him sceptically. In the process of ridiculing the Big Bang theory, Shapiro trots out a hoary analogy as if it were new: ‘If someone found a watch on an island and said it had been made by itself or that it developed through evolution, he would be considered a lunatic. But according to modern science, the universe evolved all on its own. Is the universe less complicated than a watch?’ This, of course, is an almost exact echo of the ‘argument from design’ in William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity (1794) – an ironic authority for a fanatical Jew to call on, especially since Paley has been thoroughly refuted by Darwin and his evolutionist successors. Yet The Penitent fails to grant the slightest hint that either Shapiro or Bashevis remembers Paley, or that the reader is expected to do so. This outburst, like all Shapiro’s outbursts, is presented as transparent and innocent: if there is irony here, the reader is supplying it.
Possibly it was an extraordinary effort of the imagination such as the greatest writers are said to be capable of that enabled Bashevis to think his way completely into a mind remote from his own. Or it may be, as Sinclair suggests, that Shapiro actually speaks ‘the voice of Pinchos Mendel’. Thanks to his talented children, we know a great deal about this obscure Polish rabbi: Bashevis wrote about him in In My Father’s Court (1966) and A Little Boy in Search of God (1976), Joshua in Of a World that is No More (1946; English translation, 1979), and their sister Esther in her thinly-veiled autobiographical novel Deborah (1946). The whole Singer family seems to have been deeply, ambiguously marked by Pinchos Mendel; he is variously blamed for embittering his wife and daughter, driving his sons away from religion, and compelling them all to live in a misery brought on by his incompetence. Yet he also, if only in reaction against him, inspired his children to create.
As Joshua describes him, Pinchos Mendel was never ‘plagued by uncertainty. He believed in people and, even more, in God. His absolute faith in God’s Torah and in saints was boundless. He never questioned the ways of the Lord, he nursed no resentments, he suffered no doubts.’ Gimpel the Fool, along with Bashevis’s other holy innocents, shares this blithe trust – an attitude very different, it would appear, from Joseph Shapiro’s fierce disillusionment. But if one takes Pinchos Mendel’s state of mind as a goal rather than a starting-point, if one uproots him from turn-of-the-century rural Poland and thrusts him into present-day New York, one can easily imagine him recoiling as Joseph Shapiro does.
Seen in this light, The Penitent becomes more than an uncharacteristic, distasteful act of ventriloquism. It is a double dialogue with the dead – with Joshua, whose death set Bashevis free to exploit his own genius, and also with Pinchos Mendel, whose world and way of life exist today only in Bashevis’s memory. The brother died 40, the father 55 years ago: yet Bashevis, now approaching 80, still argues with them. Neither Sinclair’s uneven study nor Bashevis’s off-putting novel can be redeemed by reflections like these, but both books may serve to remind us how mysterious, both as a writer and as a man, Isaac Bashevis Singer remains.