There is no doubt about the achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer. He is one of the foremost storytellers of our time. His output has been prolific and now, in his 82nd year, comes a collection of a further 22 stories. Gathered from twenty years of magazine publication, translated from the Yiddish sometimes by the author himself, sometimes by or in collaboration with others, they nonetheless have a consistency of tone. It would be hard indeed to speculate which come from the mid-Sixties, which from the mid-Eighties. The same personality runs through all of them, that same love of storytelling.
It is tempting to write ‘genial’ of the personality, but that would be to disregard the sometimes rebarbative note that reveals itself. Beneath the unpretentious, effortless-seeming surface of these stories is a firm, calculated attitude of mind. The ‘Author’s Note’ makes it clear that there is a combative, even embattled stance from which these so natural, so accessible stories issue.
In the years I have been writing I have heard many discouraging words about my themes and language. I was told that Jewishness and Yiddish were dying, the short story was out of vogue and about to disappear from the literary market. Some critics decided that the art of telling stories with a beginning, middle and end – as Aristotle demanded – was archaic, a primitive form of fiction. I heard similar degrading opinions about the value of folklore in the literature of our times. I was living in a civilisation which despised the old and worshipped the young. But somehow I never took these dire threats seriously. I belong to an old tribe and I knew that literature thrives best on ancient faith, timeless hopes, and illusions.
Singer has always stood out against the lures of Modernism. The strength of his stories is the strength gathered from a return to the living sources of storytelling – the storytelling that still goes on when people talk to each other. A frequent framing situation here is of someone meeting or phoning the writer and then launching into a narrative. ‘Advice’ opens: ‘In the years when I worked at a Yiddish newspaper in New York, giving advice, I heard many bizarre stories.’ Sometimes this is presented as something to be resisted. ‘I often receive telephone calls from readers who assure me that they have a true story that would shock me. Usually I get rid of such propositions with any kind of excuse.’ Though the point is never spelled out, it is clear that Singer, the Rabbi’s son who trained at the Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw but became a secular writer for the Yiddish press, is re-enacting the listening, advice-giving role of his father. Many of the stories come from episodes overheard when a child. ‘The Divorce’ begins:
Many divorce cases were handled in my father’s court. The court was nothing more than our living-room, where my father kept his religious books and the ark for the Torah scrolls. As the rabbi’s son, I never missed an opportunity to listen in on the petitioners who came for a divorce. Why should a man and a wife, often parents of children, suddenly decide to become strangers? I seldom got a satisfactory answer.
And then there are the stories of times long past that Aunt Yentl tells, stories that draw on the infinite resources of oral history and that merge into the world of the folk tale.
My Aunt Yentl and her cronies were talking about love, and Aunt Yentl was saying, ‘There is such a thing as love. There is. It even existed in former times. People think that it’s new. It is not true. Love is even mentioned in the Bible.’
For all the opening polemic against the Modernism which is without narrative, against that lack of beginning, middle and end, Singer’s conservatism is not a blind refusal. He is not in this a reactionary. The self-referential nature of Modernism, art aware of and concerned with its own processes, is not absent from his work. There are frequent stories about stories, stories about writers. The Warsaw Yiddish Writers’ club is a frequent setting or departure point in this as in earlier works. Indeed the themes revolve as much around the behaviour and contradictions of writers as around Jewishness. In reaction to that awful authorial confidence of the great 19th-century writers who proclaimed a knowledge of everything, a vast social comprehensiveness, these stories consistently attest their personal authenticity, the directly vouched-for. If not what happened to the narrator, they are what happened to people the narrator has known, or the stories told to the narrator by people he has met. In his memoir Love and Exile Singer stressed the importance of suspense.
I yearned for some of the suspense found in the works of Balzac, Victor Hugo, Tolstoi, Dostoevski, Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas and Strindberg. Yiddish and Hebrew literature both suffered from a lack of suspense. Everything in them centred around some yeshivah student who had gone astray, sought worldly knowledge, then suffered the consequences at the yeshivah or at his in-laws’. But I had already grasped that suspense was the essence of both life and art.
All of his fiction has this strong narrative surge, this wondering what will happen next. But it is not a naive suspense. The old narrative tricks have become over-familiar to the experienced reader. It was in reaction to that exhaustion of the old techniques that Modernist writers had to look for other strategies: but in abandoning suspense and narrative they lost their readers to television. Singer, for all the seeming simplicity of his narratives, is not unsophisticated. In ‘A Telephone Call on Yom Kippur’ there is, as often in these stories, the dual perspective of the writer and of the visitor who tells the writer the story. The initial suspense is the writer’s anxiety that the visitor will never get to the point, the suspense of wanting it all over and finished. ‘I’m coming to the point,’ the visitor assures him on the third page. ‘But wait, the story is only beginning,’ he says on the fifth. ‘Now the real story begins,’ he promises at the end of the sixth. The ghostly mystery of the dead woman answering the phone that leaves the visitor wiping his forehead and shaking holds no surprises for the writer. ‘He sat there pale, pondering his own tale. I said, “Helena was still alive, eh?” ’ These old tricks of suspense are still there, but they take a gentler role, so that the more numinous qualities of what is narrated can be dwelt on. It is nice to know how we travel through the story – to see the automobile carrying us, to know its make and style, as it were: but we don’t need the highspeed chases, the flashy gravel-showering halt, the all too familiar zig-zag down Lombard. Narrative suspense is now appropriately subordinated, but not elided altogether.
Not that Singer is without the bolder narrative strokes. ‘One Day of Happiness’ tells of a young girl who, having given herself to be deflowered by a Polish officer-poet, slits her wrist on her return to her parents: ‘Sitting on the toilet bowl in the dark, Fela leaned her head against the wall, ready to die. She could feel the blood running from her wrist and she was bleeding below, too.’ ‘Strong as Death is Love’ concludes with a man so in love with his dead wife that he exhumes her decayed body and is found in bed with her skeleton. ‘The Secret’ tells of a woman who conceived by her husband’s apprentice and years later finds the child and the apprentice have met and fallen in love: ‘My daughter lives with her father! He is her lover. They are planning to marry!’
The dominant tone is not as sensational as these abstracted plot details might suggest, however. Violent action and physical cruelties he generally avoids. The childhood agonising over nature, God, meaning, suffering, cruelty that Singer describes in his autobiographical memoir runs through these stories, providing the impetus, the wondering why. There is a recoil from the cruelties of man to man and of man to the natural world. Herman in Enemies was always planning to become a vegetarian: Aaron in Shosha did become one, and in Love and Exile Singer describes his own conversion. In a note on his most recent novel, The Penitent, he writes: ‘I’m still as bewildered and shocked by the misery and brutality of life as I was as a six-year-old child, when my mother read to me the tales of war in the Book of Joshua, and the bloodcurdling stories of the destruction of Jerualem. I still say to myself that there isn’t and there cannot be a justification either for the pain of the famished wolf or that of the wounded sheep.’
Drawing the reader in is Singer’s technique for replication of reality. And this realism has a splendid amplitude. The stories in The Image range from contemporary New York apartment life to late 19th-century Polish aristocratic estates; from the poorhouse and the gaol to the Rabbi’s court; from the Warsaw Yiddish Writers’ club of the Twenties and Thirties to modern Israel. But Singer is not confined to a limited material reality. His scope is something that comes with his occult interests. One of the few contemporary writers to offer us a larger world of spirit, he unobtrusively suggests these further dimensions – cosmic reaches, spiritual interminglings, the interface of the spirit world with ours. This spirit world is unaffectedly an aspect of his realism. As real as the slums of Krochmalna Street or the subway system of Manhattan, it is introduced not to shock or surprise, not for the artificial frisson of the ghost story, but as a component of human life. This concern is not restricted to the folklore or arcana of a specific creed or race. Singer’s occult not only amplifies the picture of Polish and expatriate Jewry, with an attention, for instance, to cabalistic speculation: it is a subject-matter in itself.
Nor is his occult confined to those stories that deal thematically with dybbuks, astral bodies and clairvoyance. These themes are present in his collection, though sometimes problematically. At the end of ‘The Image’ it is doubted whether the image of the title is a denizen of the spirit world or a psychological projection, something even harder to deal with. ‘A dybbuk talks, screams, howls, wails and therefore he can be exorcised. Melancholy is silent, and therein lies its uncanny power.’ Singer’s occultism is not something reducible to psychic phenomena, but part of a larger world view. The stories enact his belief that each individual contains in microcosm the forces and tensions of the macrocosm. No matter how small the object on which we focus – the single community, the couple, the individual, the atom – it embodies the forces of the cosmic whole. There in the focus on the claustrophobic settings of a closed family life, of compacted tenement slums, of the prison cell, is the grandeur of creation and the wretchedness and suffering, too. They open out, these tiny episodes that are never miniatures in the usual dismissive sense. This is a quality of Singer’s stories that comes, not from a secular literary art, but from a world view. With their extraordinary accessibility, their open immediacy, their seeming artless-ness, the stories are compact, ready to grow and blossom into fulfilment, meaning. They are not overworked jewellery, embroidered artefacts. And there is none of the dissatisfaction many readers feel with story collections, with bundles of discrete episodes: for all their range of settings and historic moments, their moods of comedy and horror, resignation and disillusion, published together they comprise a coherent totality.
It is tempting to say that Singer has in the traditions of Hebraism, the upbringing in the Rabbi’s household with its mystical volumes – something which is beautifully evoked in Love and Exile – a wonderful source of material. But this is to underestimate Singer’s very real achievement in bringing these materials to life. Is his source, in fact, any richer than anyone else’s? Isn’t all life a rich source? Isn’t it a mark of his creativity that he gives the impression of a marvellous fund of material – when it is only from what he has made of his material that such an impression can be received? The creativity is so rich, the storytelling so fertile, that we then postulate a pre-existent source. The genius of the stories is that they imply this rich totality, but it is only brought to life through the stories themselves. The art lay in hearing the stories, in finding them, in capturing a pattern from the circumambient world in such a way that that whole world is then illuminated.
Singer’s main subject is sex. Sometimes it is with love, sometimes without; sometimes it is with marriage, sometimes with divorce. As he wrote in Love and Exile, ‘I had made up my mind a long time ago that the creative powers of literature lie not in the forced originality produced by variations of style and word machinations but in the countless situations life keeps creating, especially in the queer complications between man and woman. For the writer, they are potential treasures that could never be exhausted, while all innovations in language soon become clichés.’ This latest collection has tragic tales of young girls seeking yet failing to find the satisfactions of love and sexuality, tales of momentary transgressions or near transgressions that result in cataclysmic religious consequences, recurrent tales of adultery, divorce and remarriage. In ‘Confused’ a writer returns from a lecture tour with its series of one-night adventures and gets himself immediately enmeshed with three women in a contemporary tale of New York craziness that recapitulates in brief the structures of Singer’s earlier novels Enemies and Shosha. There is a pattern here of multiple affairs and multiple deceptions that owes as much to the repetition compulsions of biography – the same structure of affairs can be found in Love and Exile – as to any fictional imaginings. It is all done comparatively tastefully; there are no four-letter words, none of the remorseless physical detail of Henry Miller’s cavortings; Singer’s erotic themes are associated with drives and compulsions. And whereas Miller was able with his excess of physical detail to break through to a self-awareness, was able to demystify male delusions for himself and his readers, Singer’s decorum holds back from that abyss and effectively endorses these tales of duplicity and the double standard.
It has never been easy to write about sexuality. To present its ambiguous behaviour, the graspings and deceptions and delusions, requires a considerable selflessness in those writers who draw on their own experiences. The danger has always been that the presentation of the problematic, of disturbing behaviour that needs to be displayed in order to be able to be analysed and understood and perhaps corrected in future practice, will be read as somehow endorsing what is shown and advocating its replication. Meanwhile it is all too easy to take a simply censorious attitude to presented incidents, refusing to see that the author has built into the narration an apparatus of criticism and assessment. Singer raises enormous problems in this area. ‘The Bond’ is about one of those ‘cases when a man is forced to slap a woman’. Reuben Berger’s girlfriend is a victim of ‘insane jealousy’ which issues in ‘fits’. ‘One thing alone could stop her delirious outbursts – slaps. I was forced to slap her repeatedly, and this immediately brought her to her senses.’ Berger goes off to give a lecture without telling her and she finds him on the train, where she behaves ‘hysterically’, but after he slaps her she becomes ‘a quiet and humble lover’. The slap is observed by the librarian who is to introduce the lecture: she meets Berger in his hotel room, abuses him for his behaviour – and ‘I began to slap her just as I had Bella in the train.’ This slapping forms ‘The Bond’ of the title. The story ends: ‘Sometimes I suspect that what happened between us was the closest contact she ever had with a man.’ The story is carefully framed, narrated by Berger to the storyteller: so that any identification with Singer’s point of view is prevented. But it remains nonetheless a vicious and dangerous piece, and the strategy of framing it in no way exonerates Singer from the responsibility of reproducing it. This is the sort of story that encourages, and can indeed create, those violent and destructive sexist attitudes in impressionable young, and not so young, males; it offers a confirmation of the notion that the way to deal with a hysterical woman is to slap her.
Literature, of course, rarely records stories which tell us what to do with hysterical men. Hysteria, and responding to being slapped in a positive way, are all part of sexist typology, like ‘nymphomania’. In ‘Remnants’ Zina’s ‘first husband, the lawyer, said openly that his ex-wife was a nymphomaniac’ The expression is in reported speech, so is not necessarily endorsed by Singer: yet there are no comparably dismissive terms in his stories for the many males who are presented as sexually active. For all the humanity expressed in these stories, they also show a current of disabling sexism – though there is nothing in them which quite corresponds to the cataclysmic triggering episode of The Penitent, where the protagonist, after overhearing a quarrel between his mistress and her pregnant daughter in which the daughter reveals the mistress has another lover, goes off home in the middle of the night to find that his wife is having an affair with her college professor. It drives him to religion and to Israel, where he divorces his wife and marries a virgin.
The sexuality of Singer’s fiction is very much a male sexuality. Insofar as this reveals and demystifies male delusion and fantasy, it can be positive and cathartic. But there is an undeniable reactionary edge. Machla Krumbein, the sexually liberated writer in ‘The Interview’, is presented as a grotesque, and, the ultimate insult, as a bad writer. Other male writers are presented as irredeemably bad, and are generally disabled in some further way: Heisherik, in ‘Why Heisherik was born’ is a peasant, Mark Lenchner, in ‘Advice’, is ‘a well-known writer and a Communist, whose wife had tried suicide three times because of his constant betrayals’. In ‘Remnants’, not only is the philandering Benjamin Rashkes’ last novel rated as ‘the worst kind of mishmash’, but the ‘nymphomaniac’ Zina, his ex-lover, is promoting it and wants the narrator to write an introduction. Zina is one of a recurrent type in Singer’s writing, the Jewish girl who has become a Communist. There is Tamara in Enemies, Dora in Shosha, Lena in Love and Exile. Politically in implacable opposition to them, Singer is nonetheless fascinated by these women. Indeed, this is noted by the American consul when Singer applies for a visa in Love and Exile.
The consul had received information from someone that I was having an affair with a leftist woman and he asked, ‘How is it that you come to be involved with such individuals?’
I was overcome by a silly sense of frankness and I countered his question with another: ‘Where else can you get free love?’
The interpreter laughed, and after she had translated my response, laughter broke out among the other officials.
This answer, like all my others, was not true. Many of the so-called bourgeois girls were already far from being chaste. The only difference lay in that the bourgeois girls weren’t interested in some Yiddish scribbler who was a pauper besides. They sought doctors, lawyers, or wealthy merchants. They demanded to be taken to the theatre, to cafés. Neither was I interested in their banalities. With Lena at least I could have discussions, dash her hopes for a better world. To her I was a cynic, not a schlemiel.
But these political discussions find no place in Singer’s stories. ‘The Conference’ deals with ‘a cultural conference. Actually, it was an attempt by the Party hacks to create a united front with various leftist groups.’ But the politics are absent: the manoeuvres of Comrade Flora’s fending off sexual propositions is the foregrounded subject. The ideas of Socialism and Communism are never confronted by Singer, though his consistent opposition to them is firmly enough established. Stalin is equated with Hitler, but what Communism involves is left unexplored. That the Cold War parallel between Hitler and Stalin begs more questions than it answers seems not to worry him. His rejection of radical politics goes back to the Twenties. And though there is much about the disillusion of those Polish Communists who went to the Soviet Union in the years after the Revolution, the intellectual debate in question is something that has no place in Singer’s fiction. In Love and Exile he wrote of Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:
Both these works represented long essays spiced with description. Neither Jean Christophe nor Hans Castorp were living beings but mouthpieces through which the authors spoke. Both books lacked the suspense and vitality that great literature evokes in a reader even if he is a simple soul. These were works for intellectuals seeking a purpose, a sum total, a cross-section of culture, an indication for the future, and other such fine things that no art (and actually no philosophy) is capable of supplying. These were works for critics, not readers. They bored me, but I was afraid to say so since all so-called aesthetes had seized on them as if they were treasures. Already then I realised that there was emerging in the world the kind of reader who sought in a book not the synthetic but the analytical. They dissected the books they read and the deader the corpse, the more successful the autopsy.
But if the political is avoided, if the realism that issues in socially meaningful observation and analysis, like Gorki’s, is rejected, then something has to take its place. If work cannot be foregrounded – and what experience of the work-place does the professional writer have? – then what remains? The preoccupation with sexuality and the occult in Singer’s work is an inevitable consequence of his political exclusions. And the conservative nature of those exclusions and choices inevitably permeates the sexual attitudes.
Despite all this, and, for some readers, that is despite quite a lot, Singer’s stories retain their appeal. That there are issues to disagree with its not in itself something to be condemned, but a welcome mark of content. Singer’s conservatism, even if contentious, is certainly not evasive. At the point where Late or Post-Modernism has lost its non-professional readers, and has lost confidence, too, in its own processes, when the foregrounded manner fails to allure and seems only an advertisement for the absence of anything to say, Singer’s stories endure.