It’s the centennial of his birth, and the Library of America has published Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected stories in a three-volume set. Articles about Singer are everywhere, and his influence is on the rise. A lot of prominent young Jewish American writers seem to be looking to his mystical world for inspiration: Think of Jonathan Safran Foer and the magical shtetl in Everything Is Illuminated, or some of the stories by Nathan Englander, the ones with Yiddishy rhythms and settings in the Europe of the first half of the 20th century. Judy Budnitz, author of Flying Leap, has identified “a new sort of shtetl story,” and has explained that in prelude to writing one she studied Singer. Perhaps all this is a reaction against the more agonized relationship with Jewishness that characterized the previous generation of Jewish American writers—think of Alexander Portnoy’s dream of being “just a centerfielder” as opposed to being a Jewish center fielder. Maybe the younger writers are reaching away from (or, more accurately, through) Philip Roth and Grace Paley toward Singer for a more unapologetically Jewish model. Singer has become a talisman of Jewish tradition and authenticity.
This is odd, because even if Singer is unapologetically Jewish (“too Jewy,” said Saul Bellow), he is radically so. His irony, his mysticism, and the overt sexuality of his stories mark a sharp break from his contemporaries’ Yiddish storytelling, storytelling he scorned as so much sentimentality. When he was young, “he rarely saw himself as representative of anything,” says Morris Dickstein, one contributor to the useful, if oddly organized, companion volume the Library of America has put together, Singer: An Album. No one should cast Singer as the voice of naive tradition; he was a sophisticate. Before arriving in America he had already translated Dostoyevsky (an enormous influence) and Knut Hamsun into Yiddish. (It’s mind-boggling to consider Singer’s Yiddish Crime and Punishment, the early work of a master, comprehensible now only to a dwindling few and useful to an even smaller number.) Rather than as a traditionalist—or even a modernist—Singer might best be considered in the company of the great postmodern magical-historical writers like Toni Morrison or Gabriel García Márquez. Singer’s Frampols and Shidlovtzes are constructed along similar lines to Morrison’s Bottom or Márquez’s Macondo; the combination of realistic detail and fantastical subject matter re-creates and interrogates lost histories, reanimating a vanished world and undermining conventional understandings of that bygone place. Singer is a subversive, and as a recent New York Times article pointed out, the followers of more traditional (some might say hidebound) Yiddish writers still revile him.
It’s no accident that so many of his stories are told in the voices of devils, that he’s obsessed with heresy and apostasy, infidelity and divorce. He is fascinated by laws and their violations, the way one makes the other real. If “Singer is a moralist,” as Cynthia Ozick avers in Singer: An Album, he is ironically so. Consider the final line from “A Crown of Feathers”: “If there is such a thing as truth it is intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers.” The moral here is, Beware of morals. Singer is no partisan. He is a Jewish writer, but not in the way that Bernie Williams is a New York center fielder. Singer is not playing for the team. His finest stories work through multiple accelerating ironies, double, triple, and quintuple subversions.
Take “Gimpel the Fool,” which starts with townspeople fooling Gimpel. But Gimpel, the narrator, is fooling them: He is playing the fool, so he tells us; he knows he is being fooled. So the town marries him to a whore, who betrays him—Gimpel knows she’s a whore and loves the children she bears as if they were his own. At one point he divorces her, undermining that marriage, but in Singer even divorce must be undermined—Gimpel goes back on it. The story climaxes not when he seeks vengeance and decides, angrily, to fool the town by baking his bread with piss instead of water—no, the climax comes when he decides not to fool them, when he buries that pissed-in bread, and in the great denouement, departs town and becomes a new kind of fool, a wandering teller of fantastical tales. At the close, we are forced to wonder: Was this one of those stories? Was the narrator, from the start, fooling us?
There’s no bottom to it, and I think this epistemological slipperiness came naturally to Singer, who lived in a world whose bottom had dropped out. Dickstein talks about the way that Singer was haunted by the Holocaust; in the later stories Eastern European Jews wander the world, trying to make the best of the second half of the century. In “One Day in Coney Island,” the narrator, an autobiographical figure, wonders at his own displacement: Who in this new world needs stories in Yiddish about spirits and spooks in vanished Polish towns?
Apparently, we do: Englander, Foer, Budnitz, and all the authors influenced by Singer not only remind us of what is lost, but show how impossible such things are to recapture.