Isaac B. Singer: A Life by Florence Noiville, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23
Isaac Bashevis Singer, the last great Yiddish writer, used a dying language of exile to recreate a lost world. A descendant of seven generations or more of rabbis, he was born in 1904 into a poor, austere family in which, Singer later said, “the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper.” His father convened a rabbinical court at home, crowded by yeshiva students, simpletons, beggars, and penitents seeking advice or wanting a marriage or divorce.
Life outside the apartment, meanwhile, was not less exciting for the red-headed boy. Singer grew up on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, a teeming place where he could take in the din and clamor of a culture in its twilight. Even more than the books, sacred and profane, that came to nurture him—the Torah, the Talmud, Spinoza, Tolstoy, Knut Hamsun, Edgar Allan Poe—it was the exuberance of his surroundings that would nourish the future storyteller. “In this world of old Jewishness,” Singer wrote, “I found a treasure trove.”
And yet, as Florence Noiville shows in her excellent new biography, Singer did not merely curate this treasure; he greatly contributed to its riches. Singer immigrated to America in 1935, leaving behind a mother and younger brother (both were later deported by the Nazis and killed), a wife, and a son he would not see again for 20 years. Upon arrival, he suffered years of writer’s block. (“Who needs Yiddish in America?” Singer has one of his autobiographical characters ask himself.) He married Alma Wasserman, who knew no Yiddish, and moved to the Upper West Side, where he lived for more than four decades, lunching with cronies in Broadway cafeterias. After the early death of his talented older brother, the writer Israel Joshua Singer, Isaac increasingly contributed to the Forward, the largest Yiddish daily, where most of his novels were serialized.
In 1953, Saul Bellow translated Singer’s short story “Gimpel the Fool” and got it published in Partisan Review, whereupon Singer was “discovered” by an English-speaking audience and soon feted. There followed invitations to publish in mass-circulation magazines like Esquire, Playboy, and The New Yorker; a lucrative deal with the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux; successful movie adaptations of Yentl and Enemies, a Love Story; and, in 1978, a Nobel Prize.
But until his death in 1991, Singer always claimed surprise that anyone would be interested in his stories and the unsettling grotesquerie that peopled them: evil spirits, dybbuks, imps, demons from Gehenna, false messiahs, reincarnated souls, and corpses who do not realize they are dead, not to mention the harlots, heretics, charlatans, philanderers, and lecherous widows.
In fact, some readers weren’t all that interested. His first editor complained: “Why write about thieves and whores when there were so many decent Jewish men and devoted Jewish wives?” Other Yiddish writers regarded Singer with suspicion—no doubt tinged with jealousy—for his pagan subjects, the frank carnality of his characters, and the ways he sacrificed authenticity to pander to his American readers. The Yiddish journalist Heshl Klepfish called Singer’s stories “filth.” Elie Wiesel was offended by Singer characters who were “morally deficient . . . sex maniacs.” The great Yiddish author Chaim Grade went so far as to call Singer’s Nobel “a great tragedy for the Jewish people.” (Cynthia Ozick wonderfully captures this bitterness in her story about Singer, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.”)
Singer, in turn, was contemptuous of his colleagues’ whorled syntax, their rootlessness, and their socialist, utopian politics; he thought vast tracts of Yiddish literature were “godly without a god, worldly without a world.”
Bitterness also characterizes some of the biographies and memoirs about Singer (including those by his son, Israel Zamir, and his nephew Maurice Carr). But Noiville’s foremost virtue in this brisk, engaging biography is that she chooses generosity instead. She does not dwell too much on her subject’s well-known womanizing, misanthropy, egoism, or ingratitude toward his translators and editors. Noiville avoids reducing Singer’s work to the products of a troubled neurotic, a temptation indulged by Janet Hadda in her 1997 biography, for instance. (Hadda takes Satan in Goray, Singer’s first and perhaps finest novel, to be largely about “inadequate parental care.”)
Noiville is especially good on the ruptures—with religion, with Warsaw, with his son and brother—that characterized the life of a man who remained faithful only to Yiddish, a language scorned by emancipated German Jews and Zionists alike. Despite the excellence of his children’s books, and for all his skill with memory, Singer had trouble with the future. He could neither embrace his son nor mentor younger writers; in a sense, Singer immured himself in the past.
Yet oddly, Noiville, a literary editor at Le Monde, has not much to say about Singer’s stories themselves. What, indeed, makes them so vivid, simple, taut, evocative, and entertaining?
The answer begins with Singer’s mastery of the inflections and accents of Eastern European shtetl life—and the poignancy of its death in the Holocaust. The critic Irving Howe once said, “What concerns Singer most of all is the possibilities for life that remain after the exhaustion of human effort, after failure and despair have come and gone.” Singer, who called himself “the son of a people who received the worst blows that human madness can inflict,” is a virtuoso of catastrophe and calamity, of disintegration and decay—and of resignation.
He is also a master of effortlessly blending the real with the supernatural, the apocalyptic, the fantastic, and—in a century of unreason—the irrational.
But his best stories—like “Gimpel the Fool,” “Taybele and Her Demon,” “The Spinoza of Market Street,” “A Crown of Feathers,” “The Gentleman from Cracow,” “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” and “The Little Shoemakers”—are animated by a still deeper kind of blending. Reading them, one often cannot distinguish the old-fashioned from the transgressive, the miraculous from the skeptical. One cannot decide whether they are archaic or original, mystical or disenchanted, traditional folktales or modernist allegories. To achieve this doubleness, Singer raised to art the condition of Yiddish itself, a language tensed between its Hebrew and German elements, and spoken by Jews, like Isaac Bashevis Singer, poised between the ancient and the new.