In one of his more light-hearted books, Isaac Bashevis Singer depicts his childhood in one of the over-populated poor quarters of Warsaw, a Jewish quarter, just before and during the First World War. The book, called In My Father’s Court (1966), is sustained by a redeeming, melancholy sense of humour and a clear-sightedness free of illusion. This world has gone forever, destroyed by the most terrible of all scourges that have afflicted the Jews and other people in Poland. But it comes to life in Singer’s memories and writing in general. Its mental and physical environment and its centuries-old traditions have set their stamp on Singer as a man and a writer, and provide the ever-vivid subject matter for his inspiration and imagination. It is the world and life of East European Jewry, such as it was lived in cities and villages, in poverty and persecution, and imbued with sincere piety and rites combined with blind faith and superstition. Its language was Yiddish – the language of the simple people and of the women, the language of the mothers which preserved fairytales and anecdotes, legends and memories for hundreds of years past, through a history which seems to have left nothing untried in the way of agony, passions, aberrations, cruelty and bestiality, but also of heroism, love and self-sacrifice.
Singer’s father was a rabbi, a spiritual mentor and confessor, of the Hasid school of piety. His mother also came from a family of rabbis. The East European Jewish-mystical Hasidism combined Talmud doctrine and a fidelity to scripture and rites – which often merged into prudery and strict adherence to the law – with a lively and sensually candid earthiness that seemed familiar with all human experience. Its world, which the reader encounters in Singer’s stories, is a very Jewish but also a very human world. It appears to include everything – pleasure and suffering, coarseness and subtlety. We find obstrusive carnality, spicy, colourful, fragrant or smelly, lewd or violent. But there is also room for sagacity, worldly wisdom and shrewd speculation. The range extends from the saintly to the demoniacal, from quiet contemplation and sublimity, to ruthless obsession and infernal confusion or destruction. It is typical that among the authors Singer read at an early age who have influenced him and accompanied him through life were Spinoza, Gogol and Dostoievsky, in addition to Talmud, Kabbala and kindred writings.
Singer began his writing career as a journalist in Warsaw in the years between the wars. He was influenced by his elder brother, now dead, who was already an author and who contributed to the younger brother’s spiritual liberation and contact with the new currents of seething political, social and cultural upheaval. The clash between tradition and renewal, between other-worldliness and faith and mysticism on the one hand, and free thought, secularization, doubt and nihilism on the other, is an essential theme in Singer’s short stories and novels. The theme is Jewish, made topical by the barbarous conflicts of our age, a painful drama between contentious loyalties. But it is also of concern to mankind, to us all, Jew or non-Jew, actualized by modern western culture’s struggles between preservation and renewal. Among many other themes, it is dealt with in Singer’s big family chronicles – the novels, The Family Moskat (1950), The Manor (1967), and The Estate (1969). These extensive epic works have been compared with Thomas Mann‘s novel, Buddenbrooks. Like Mann, Singer describes how old families are broken up by the new age and its demands, from the middle of the 19th century up to the Second World War, and how they are split, financially, socially and humanly. But Singer’s chronicles are greater in scope than Mann’s novel and more richly orchestrated in their characterization. The author’s apparently inexhaustible psychological fantasy has created a microcosm, or rather, a well-populated microchaos, out of independent and graphically convincing figures. They bring to mind another writer whom Singer read when young – Leo Tolstoy.
Singer’s earliest fictional works, however, were not big novels but short stories and novellas, a genre in which he has perhaps given his very best as a consummate storyteller and stylist. The novel, Satan in Goray, written originally in Yiddish, like practically all Singer books, appeared in 1935 when the Nazi catastrophe was threatening and just before the author emigrated to the USA, where he has lived and worked ever since. It treats of a theme to which Singer has often returned in different ways and with variations in time, place and personages – the false Messiah, his seductive arts and successes, the mass hysteria around him, his fall and the breaking up of illusions in destitution and new illusion, or in penance and purity. Satan in Goray takes place in the 17th century, in the confusion and the sufferings after the cruel ravages of the Cossacks, with outrages and mass murder of Jews and other wretched peasants and artisans. The people in this novel, as elsewhere with Singer, are often at the mercy of the capricious infliction of circumstance, but even more so, their own passions. The passions are frequently of a sexual nature but also of another kind – manias and superstitions, fanatical hopes and dreams, the figments of terror, the lure of lust or power, the nightmares of anguish, and so on. Even boredom can become a restless passion, as with the main character in the tragi-comic picaresque novel, The Magician of Lublin (1961), a most eccentric anti-hero, a kind of Jewish Don Juan and rogue, who ends up as an ascetic or saint.
This is one of the most characteristic themes with Singer – the tyranny of the passions, the power and fickle inventiveness of obsession, the grotesque wealth of variation, and the destructive, but also inflaming and paradoxically creative potential of the emotions. We encounter this tumultuous and colourful world particularly in Singer’s numerous and fantastic short stories, available in English translation in about a dozen collections, from the early Gimpel The Fool (translated 1953), to the later work, A Crown of Feathers (1973), with notable masterpieces in between, such as, The Spinoza of Market Street (1961), or, A Friend of Kafka (1970). The passions and crazes are personified in Singer as demons, spectres, ghosts and all kinds of infernal or supernatural powers from the rich storehouse of Jewish popular imagination. These demons are not only graphic literary symbols, but also real, tangible beings – Singer, in fact, says he believes in their physical presence. The middle ages rise up in his work and permeate the present. Everyday life is interwoven with wonders, reality spun from dreams, the blood of the past with the moment in which we are living. This is where Singer’s narrative art celebrates its greatest triumphs and bestows a reading experience of a deeply original kind, harrowing, but also stimulating and edifying. Many of his characters step with unquestioned authority into the Pantheon of literature, where the eternal companions and mythical figures live, tragic and grotesque, comic and touching, weird and wonderful people of dream and torment, baseness and grandeur.
|Issac Bashevis Singer, born in Leoncin near Warsaw, emigrated 1935 to USA. He died in 1991.
In addition to the works mentioned above Singer’s writings include – in English:
|The Slave, transl. by the author and Cecil Hemley. New York: Farrar Straus, 1962; London: Secker and Warburg, 1963.|
|Enemies: A Love Story, transl. by Alizah Shevrin and Elizabeth Shub. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1972.|
|Shosha. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1978.|
|Reaches of Heaven. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1980.|
|The Golem. London: Deutsch, 1983.|
|The Penitent. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1983.|
|Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, transl. from the Yiddish by Marion Magid and Elisabeth Pallet. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1983.|
|The Ring of the Fields. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1988.|
|Scum, transl. by Rosaline Dukalsky Schwartz. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1991.|
|the collections of short stories|
|Short Friday, transl. by Ruth Whitman and others. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1964; London: Seeker and Warburg, 1967.|
|The Seance, transl. by Ruth Whitman and others. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1968; London: Cape, 1970.|
|Passions, transl. by the author in collab. with others. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1975; London: Cape, 1976.|
|Old Love. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1979.|
|The Power of Light. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1980.|
|The Image and Other Stories. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1985.|
|The Death of Metuselah and Other Stories. London: Cape, 1988.|
|A Little Boy in Search of God: Mysticism in a Personal Light. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.|
|A Young Man in Search of Love, transl. by Joseph Singer. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978.|
|Lost in America. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.|
|Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, transl. by the author and Elizabeth Shub. N.Y.: Harper, 1966; London: Secker and Warburg, 1967.|
|When Schlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, transl. by the author and Elizabeth Shub. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1968.|
|A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing up in Warsaw, transl. by the author and Elizabeth Shub. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1969.|
|The Fools of Chelm and Their History, transl. by the author and Elizabeth Shub. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1973.|
|Why Noah Chose the Dove, transl. by Elizabeth Shub. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1974.|
|Stories for Children. N.Y.: Farrar Straus, 1986.|
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
Isaac Bashevir Singer died on July 24, 1991.
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