About a Book by Issac Bashevis Singer Titled “Old Truths and New Clichés”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Benjamin Balint of the book by Isaac Bashevis Singer titled “Old Truths and New Clichés”:

‘A Yiddish writer in America is an unseen entity,” Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “almost a ghost.” He offered this comment to explain why he felt inclined in his fables and fictions “to search for what is hidden from the eye.”

It could be said that an important dimension of the acclaimed Yiddish novelist and short-story writer has until now been hidden from the eye of many readers. “Old Truths and New Clichés,” a collection of 19 prose articles, most appearing in English for the first time, reveals that Singer was as consummate an essayist as he was a teller of tales. “To this day,” David Stromberg writes in his intelligent introduction, “few critics deal seriously with Singer’s essayistic writings.”

Mr. Stromberg, who serves as editor to the Isaac Bashevis Singer Literary Trust, has rescued these articles from the author’s archives at the University of Texas in Austin. The collection distills the convictions that informed Singer’s art and rounds out a literary self-portrait. Singer proves to be equally at home in a range of themes and registers, from casual observation to philosophical musing. In one essay he ponders what it is to seek a God who is “eternally in love . . . with his creations.” In another, in a satirical spirit, he considers how the Ten Commandments would be received—and misread—were they issued today.

Singer liked to say that when he was born in a Polish shtetl, his mother asked the midwife, “Is it a boy or a girl?” The midwife answered, “A writer.” The quip, repeated in a short piece here, wouldn’t have amused Singer’s pious parents. For them, a writer was someone inevitably subject to secular temptations.

In “Why I Write as I Do,” Singer describes the religious atmosphere that pervaded—in his memory, stifled—his childhood home in Warsaw. Yet it was there, he writes, that he learned “to transform inhibition into a method of creativity, to recognize in inhibition a friendly power instead of a hostile one.” The son and grandson of rabbis, he waged a “private war against the Almighty,” as he puts it, and replaced orthodox faith with “a sort of kasha of mysticism, deism, and skepticism.” Even so, long after he removed his black gabardine and yarmulka, Singer believed—as he says in another essay—that “it is impossible to write truthfully about human beings without having faith in something higher than human beings.”

Singer had the good sense to leave Poland for New York City in 1935, before Europe’s descent into barbarity and Poland’s dismemberment by Nazi and Soviet occupiers. Other writer-immigrants, like Joseph Conrad (Poland) and Vladimir Nabokov (Russia), switched to English upon arriving in English-speaking lands. Singer refused to do so. Having left behind—one might say, having betrayed—his religious past, his first wife and his 5-year-old son, he remained faithful to his native language, a language without a homeland. As he eked out a living writing under several pseudonyms for the Yiddish daily Forward, he felt comforted by what he calls “the language of exile.” In another essay, he contends that “journalism exerts a beneficial influence upon literary creativity.”

Yet the unknown writer felt “estranged from everything and everybody.” The autobiographical narrator in Singer’s story “A Day in Coney Island” says that, at age 30, “a refugee from Poland, I had become an anachronism.” Singer would live in New York for 15 years before his first book came out in English translation.

The breakthrough came when “Gimpel the Fool,” the tale of a pure-souled simpleton, appeared in Saul Bellow’s propulsive translation in 1953. Singer’s short novels “Satan in Goray” in 1955 and “The Magician of Lublin” in 1960 brought him to a wider American audience. His mischievous narratives, teeming with demons and dybbuks and false messiahs, soon migrated from the pages of small magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary to glossier outlets like Playboy, Esquire and the New Yorker.

An earlier generation of Yiddish writers—led by I.L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sforim—had perfected a plain-spoken and pathos-laden mode of storytelling. Singer inherited that legacy but also subverted it, by introducing notes of irony and carnality. Not everyone was pleased. In her novella “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” Cynthia Ozick depicted Singer’s detractors, who didn’t merely resent the American fame of a writer they saw as a careerist but, as Ms. Ozick writes, “raged against his subject matter, which was insanely sexual, pornographic, paranoid, freakish.” Singer reports that the editor who published his first stories at a journal in Warsaw had asked: “Why write about thieves and whores when there were so many decent Jewish men and devoted Jewish wives?”

Singer would have none of this, for reasons he makes clear in an impassioned essay titled “Why Literary Censorship is Harmful.” To people who complained that he blasphemed the Yiddish literary tradition he had a ready reply: “Where is it written that a writer must write in a tradition? A real writer should create his own tradition, his own style.” To those who snubbed Yiddish, regarding it as the language of the uneducated, Singer retorts (in the polemic-edged essay “Yiddish, the Language of Exile”): “The very fact that for generations Yiddish was despised should serve as a sign that great treasures of folklore, wisdom, and uniqueness are hidden in it.”

In his own unfettered style, Singer at first set about reconstructing episodes from Europe’s distant past. Two of his early novels, “Satan in Goray” and “The Slave,” reach back to the messianic maelstroms of the 17th century and render characters struggling between the divine and the infernal. Only when he had lived in New York as long as he’d lived in Poland did Singer begin conjuring his half-imagined adopted homeland. In “Enemies, a Love Story” (the main character, tellingly, is a ghost-writer) and “Shadows on the Hudson” (set in the late 1940s), Singer depicted émigrés like himself, figures who had escaped the confines of the Old World only to contend with the disenchantments of the New.

Along with 18 novels, Singer wrote 14 children’s books. “As paradoxical as it may sound,” he writes in an essay included here, “children are to a high degree old-fashioned readers.” Children seemed to share both his feeling for the supernatural and his impatience with gimmicks and “triteness that appears in the trappings of originality.”

Late in life, Singer began to reap the rewards of recognition. He commanded high lecture fees. Barbra Streisand and Paul Mazursky adapted his stories into movies. He was feted with two National Book Awards, three Newbery Honors and, in 1978, the Nobel Prize in literature.

After Singer died in Florida in 1991, his gravestone was inscribed with a typo: It referred to him as a “Noble” laureate. Maybe the word was apt after all. By affording us a glimpse of Singer’s worldview in all its beguiling ambiguities, “Old Truths and New Clichés” helps us see his noble achievement more clearly: to combine what he called a “spiritual stenography” of higher powers with a record of our wrestling with lower passions. “Somewhere I believe every human being to be possessed,” Singer writes, “and to me real writers are those who have the ability of exorcism.”

Benjamin Balint is the author of “Kafka’s Last Trial.” His book on the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz will be published next spring.

Speak Your Mind

*