Singer’s Last Word

John Bayley

A story no doubt originating in Norway goes over the ground about persons of different nationality required to write an essay on elephants. The Englishman of course writes about hunting them, the French about their love-life, the Swede about elephantine manners and etiquette, the Dane about the ivory business. The Norwegian produces an essay on Norway and Norwegians. A laborious jest with many permutations, but it serves to show that a people likes to think that while other countries have their own characteristics they have what really matters – themselves. And for a people to write about itself can be both inspiration and good business.

It certainly was for Isaac Bashevis Singer. His incomparable sense of Polish Jewry, the Yiddishness in which he was brought up, renders itself to the reader as if in the palpable form of experience: the words seem to sit us down and bring us beer and brandy with a side order of jellied calves feet cooked in garlic. How is it done? By the author hugely enjoying being himself, his past, his culture? Singer says that with Yiddish you get vitamins you don’t get in other languages, and we can well believe it. But would the fascination be so strong if the world he described still existed? That’s another question. The story, the place, depend on the past as much as they do in that other great wizard, Walter Scott, whose powers were as great as Singer’s and of the same kind. But beyond the tavern door where the calves feet and chopped liver are eaten and the stories told, the terrible present is about to happen. In an interview in Encounter in 1979 Singer said that though the Jews of Poland had died in the Holocaust, ‘something – call it spirit or whatever – is still somewhere in the universe. This is a mystical kind of feeling but I feel there is truth in it.’ It is the same quasi-mystical connection that Scott felt with his country’s past. What Singer did not exploit was the connection between a vanished way of life and the manner of its death – but the implication is there. In the shadow of arrest and execution under Stalin another Jewish writer, Babel, ironically referred to his new art of silence, and everything in Singer’s extraordinarily vivid world throws the shadow of the same oncoming silence.

As the Norwegian story suggests, to be condemned to a consciousness of oneself as Norwegian, Irish, Jewish, English or Scottish can also be an intolerable bore and a burden. That it was never one for Singer would be because his whole provenance had become his art, the art he so richly produced. His story ‘A friend of Kafka’ wonderfully suggests that genius’s love-hate relationship with his background, the superlative ways he found to escape in his writing from what was inescapable. But Kafka was writing in German – and very much his own German – not in Yiddish. Bruno Schulz, killed in the Jewish quarter of his home town by a Gestapo officer in 1941, wrote a Polish of such delicacy and exquisite animation that his nouvelles were praised by native writers for being some of the finest stylistically in their language. But could one say that neither Shulz nor Kafka are as much themselves in their writing as Singer seems to be in his Yiddish, which he could himself translate into an English that still retains something of its demotic succulence? In one sense, certainly, the language and the life he wrote of may still be alive, in New York and in other places: but the kind of Jewishness – incarnate in speech and spirit, in herring and onion roll – where Singer’s characters reside seems a long way either from modern America or from modern Israel, or from the problems authors like Amos Oz write about in their contemporary Hebrew.

Singer’s memoir of his early years, Love and Exile, may be, as he says, ‘basically autobiographical’, but names and dates and the course of events have been changed, in some cases both for family reasons and ‘because the true story of a person’s life can never be written’. Love and Exile is as much an evocation, the summoning-up of a corporate and social being and way of life, as are the tales and the novels. His elder brother and sister are writers and translators with whom he co-operated, both in Poland and later in the USA. His father was a rabbi first in a Polish village and then in the town of Radzymin. His mother, whose name was Bathsheba, could scarcely believe late in life that her son had possessed such a memory for places they had lived in and people they had known before he was three or four years old. He convinced her with names and dates, and she said: ‘What a memory! May no evil eye befall you.’

Nor did it, on the whole. When he went to Warsaw as a young man Singer promised his father ‘that I would conduct myself as a Jew.’ He took a mistress, admittedly a Jewish one, twice as old as himself, and adopted all sorts of goy ways. Polish girls were amused by him and admired his red hair and blue eyes. Even the army sergeants were fairly good-natured when he had to present himself as a conscript, and remarked: ‘Woe to the Polish nation if this has to be her defender.’ He was granted a deferment, which grew tacitly into exemption, even though Jewish boys were expected to serve in the Polish Army and Hitler would soon be coming to power. Indeed he knew a Jewish girl whose fiancé had become an officer during his period of service and won acclaim for his horse-riding and his feats of military daring. In spite of his happy family background, Singer thought of himself as a split personality (a phrase he found in a book) and felt that ‘some kind of enemy roosted within me, or a dybbuk who spited me in every way and played cat and mouse with me.’ He lived hand-to-mouth in a bohemia peopled by communists and Volksdeutsch, Jewish editors for whom he did proof-reading and young Jews scheming to get to Palestine. A temporary marriage was the accepted way to secure official permission, and Stefa, the officer’s fiancée, interviewed young Singer with a view to this arrangement, intending to move on afterwards to America. Nothing came of it, but Singer detached himself in part from his elderly mistress, who had become a fanatical believer in spiritualism, and got a room with a respectable retired Jewish couple, where he seduced the Polish maid, or she him. His landlord was a friend of Dr Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto, a language in all respects the opposite of Yiddish.

One dwells on the hallucinatory vividness of Singer’s recollections in Love and Exile because they form the basis of the last novel he wrote before his death a few months ago. Scum concerns a middle-aged man called Max Barabander, who has made a respectable fortune in the Argentine and is married to an assimilated woman with a Spanish background. His young son has died. Finding himself virtually impotent at the age of 47, he travels back via Paris and Berlin to his old roots in Warsaw. The time is 1906. The currency is the rouble, for Poland is part of the Russian empire, recently disturbed by war with Japan and an abortive revolution. But the Russians are still the ruling class, and Max Barabander’s experiences merge naturally into those of Singer in Love and Exile, who used to wander endlessly with his moribund mistress (she was dying of TB) through the Russian cemetery, so much grander than the Jewish and Polish ones, where yellowing photographs of whiskered officials and high-bosomed women in crinolines were fixed to every tomb.

The date is significant. Singer was born in 1904, and claimed to remember what happened to him at the age of two. Max is his alter ego, and Max finds himself drawn to Krochmalna Street, a dubious quarter of the ghetto and the name of the street in which Singer and his family had lived when his father came to Warsaw as a rabbi. Max is staying at the Bristol Hotel, but it is in Krochmalna street that he at once feels at home – or does he? The wife of the local fixer, met in the pub, fancies him, but when it comes to the point he can do nothing. He is divided between intense pleasure and relief at being in his own place, joking in Yiddish (when a rabbi gently asks him why no beard, he automatically wisecracks: ‘better a Jew without a beard than a beard without a Jew’), and a sense of suicidal emptiness, as if even the gusto of being Yiddish again cannot help him possess or retain his own private ego. He is nothing but a voice. ‘He relied completely on his tongue, which was his ruler and destiny.’ The youthful Isaac of Love and Exile had instinctively rejected ‘leftism’, the fashionable creed of his young acquaintance, whether Jewish or Polish, because it ‘wanted to abolish privacy, and to institute a perpetual public domain’. Max yearns for the domain of Yiddishness, but it too deprives him of himself – or perhaps he has never had a self? Only the rabbis who were both Max’s and Singer’s father and grandfathers possessed that, when they immersed themselves in the Torah. Singer’s father said to him: ‘The Torah is bottomless. No matter how much one studies one can never grasp all of it. Without the Torah the world would not exist.’ The only world that exists for Singer and for Max is the world of their voices, the world they rediscover with the tongue.

The extraordinary vividness of Singer’s writings has this poignancy at its bottom: he is conscious of having no other way of being himself. He knows, gently but emphatically, that he is not himself a very interesting man. He cannot, like Kafka or like Bruno Schulz, invent and inhabit a world of his own. It is this that gives his last novel something of the touching inwardness of The Tempest. He resigns his magic, but has no home of his own to go to: so that, as in the case of the downward-drifting Max, every third thought must be his grave. But let us not be sad about it, for Singer himself is certainly not. Humour, and not savage humour, is what survives of us. Scum is not a felicitous title, but it probably inadequately renders some genially forceful Yiddish word or expression – Psia Krew perhaps, ‘dogs’ blood’ – expletising the doings and denizens of Krochmalna Street. Unlike Singer in Love and Exile, Max does not meet any of those passionately secularised Jews who had transferred all their powers of belief and being to Zionism or to the Communist Party. Although they existed in 1906, they were still comparatively rare birds.

Max’s chief concern in the world to which he has returned is not to find his roots – he has a brother and sister in the south in Roszkow, as Singer himself no doubt still has kin in Radzymin – but to rediscover his virility. A thieves’ quarter in Warsaw in which all is familiar but in which he is not known, is indeed an exotic stranger, should be perfect for the purpose. In no time he is engaging himself to the rabbi’s young daughter Tsirele, concealing the existence of his own wife back in the Argentine and promising her father to perform all the rites and learn all the texts to fit him for an orthodox marriage. Tsirele, fascinated by the stranger, comes to see him at the Bristol Hotel but will not let him make love to her. More indulgent female acquaintances fail to restore his manhood, just because they are more indulgent, as Max gloomily diagnoses. But he keeps on trying. He hatches a scheme to ship young women out to the Argentine, on a purely voluntary basis, of course, and again finds the first candidate all too fatally willing. He contemplates suicide or flight or both, when a gratuitous accident solves his problems by putting him in the hands of the police. He has come home in all senses, and fulfilled a destiny which in more terrible form awaits the next generation.

This is Singer’s most autobiographical story, and his last. All the old animation is there, and the joy in belonging heart and soul to this great and vital race, but there is melancholy too: the sense of limitation, the recognition of his impotence – his powerlessness to be an original artist and a man outside his race. Like Keats, however incongruous the comparison may seem, Singer lives in a perpetual recall of sensuousness, in a kind of chamber of maiden thought, out of which his art cannot break, however much he himself may wish to do so. And yet how funny he is! In rabbinical terminology the penis is called the yesod, ‘the sign of the holy covenant’; and in his relations to the rest of the world the youthful Singer seemed to have all the time ‘a kind of negative erection, if one may use an expression like this ... sex, like art, cannot be made to order – at least not in my case.’ A positive erection has to find its old family womb. So he remained a divided man. As he wrote in Love and Exile about his early days in America, ‘I was still a Yiddish writer who hadn’t made it, estranged from everything and everybody. I could live neither with God nor without him.’ The words of Ecclesiastes were always in his mind: ‘Of laughter I said it is madness and of mirth what doth it?’