Gehenna

Walter Kendrick

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.

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