Even if I married a whole harem of women I’d still act like a bachelor

Elaine Showalter

  • Shadows on the Hudson by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated by Joseph Sherman
    Hamish Hamilton, 560 pp, £16.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 241 13940 6
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life by Janice Hadda
    Oxford, 254 pp, £22.50, February 1998, ISBN 0 19 508420 9

The posthumous English publication of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s mammoth novel Shadows on the Hudson has created such a tumel. Critics have been arguing about the quality of the novel, originally serialised in 1957-58 in the New York Yiddish newspaper the Forward; and about the reasons Singer did not have it translated during his lifetime. It has been compared to the work of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but also condemned as a melodramatic mishmash. First, Richard Bernstein (last December in the New York Times) called it ‘a startling, piercing work of fiction with a strong claim to being Singer’s masterpiece’. Bernstein kvelled about its ‘largeness, the depth and complexity of its exorbitantly vivid, intelligent characters’ and Singer’s ‘skill in weaving into a seamless tapestry various disorderly responses to the savagery of life’. But then another New York Times reviewer, Lee Siegel, called it a ‘chaotic, rambling, repetitive and parochial’ book in a ‘plodding translation’ – a ‘shapeless lump’ compared to Singer’s best stories, which are ‘hard diamonds of perfection’.

Reviewers have also speculated about Singer’s reasons for withholding Shadows on the Hudson during his lifetime. Sinclair sees it as a matter of political prudence: ‘it had always been apparent that Singer was no leftist, but his anti-Communism was always guarded. But here, addressing his Yiddish-speaking audience directly, he is revealed as being somewhat to the right of Senator McCarthy. Perhaps that is why he thought it prudent to consign his text to the shadowlands.’ For Alfred Kazin it was a matter of social camouflage: Singer didn’t want his English-speaking Jewish audience to know how he had caricatured them in the novel. In his review of Shadows on the Hudson in the New York Review of Books (perhaps the last review he published before his death), Kazin suggests that Singer took pleasure in writing ferocious and comic portraits of Holocaust survivors in their ‘physical crudity, intellectual vanity, ideological fanaticism, and sexuality clouded by remembrance of warnings against pleasure absorbed in childhood ... I can well believe,’ he went on, that ‘Singer did not want to tell some of his American readers what he thought of them.’ Bernstein revisited the debate to suggest that Singer was trapped by his own persona and could not break out of it:

My theory, which is offered with less than absolute certainty, is that Singer felt uncomfortable with Shadows on the Hudson, in large part because it no longer fitted in with his needs as a literary celebrity. During his period of public adulation, he served as a kind of Jewish leprechaun, an elfin, grandfatherly figure with the musical old-country accent whose personal tenderness seemed to be matched by a tenderness he felt for his characters. Could it be that Shadows... seemed to him too dark, too lacking in charm, and too commercially unpromising to bother with?

Singer the man is very much at the centre of the dispute; and, as Janice Hadda reveals in her fascinating biography, he was not by any means a leprechaun. A professor of Yiddish literature, a psychoanalyst and a very good writer, she shows that Singer, far from being the folksy laureate of shtetl life, was a cold-hearted, conflicted and calculating man. The shock produced is akin to the revelations about Paul de Man or Philip Larkin. Lee Siegel is horrified by the racism in Shadows, by the ‘crude, alienated caricatures’ of blacks, gentiles and vulgar Miami Jews who ‘make Goodbye, Columbus look like “World of Our Fathers” ’.

According to Hadda, the people who knew Singer divide neatly into ‘those who hate him and can say nothing good about him and those who love him and will lie to protect him. The former are mainly men, the latter almost exclusively women.’ Among the men, Charles McGrath, who was Singer’s editor at the New Yorker, told Richard Bernstein that ‘the public Singer was a creation. He pretended not to be interested in his fame, but he was consumed by success, literary stature and his popularity long past the age when most people are interested in those things. Singer spoke at any B’nai Brith or Hadassah meeting that asked him. He basked in the adulation.’ At the Nobel Prize dinner in Stockholm in 1978 the vegetarian Singer ate artichoke bottoms and avocado: ‘he may have been on a green diet but he hadn’t stopped drinking blood,’ Saul Bellow said recalling the occasion.

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