Before the Law
My mother's parents, both 16-year-old principals in an arranged marriage that took place in the synagogue of a small city in Ukraine somewhere around 1890, were surprised to discover on that first night together that they were sexually inflamed by each other; in fact, besotted. The mysterious pull both thrilled and frightened them. Although it apparently lasted a lifetime (my mother was the youngest of eighteen children), it was never alluded to in that pious house, much less spoken of. Married passion was the family secret. "Theirs," my mother often said, with a mixture of awe and admiration in her voice, "was a Bashevis Singer story."
She said this on the basis of the Singer stories that she had read in English. It wasn't that she couldn't have read them in the original Yiddish; it was rather that unless she bought the Jewish Daily Forward--which she wouldn't, she was too far left to read the paper Singer wrote for--she could read him only in the translated English. Singer never allowed his work in book form to be published in Yiddish. Everyone in the world read him either in or from the English translation. This practice allowed Singer to play with the idea that he had produced a twin set of literary works: the originals and the translations. He may have had something there.
The work in English--by Singer's own estimation--was cleaner, more economical and elegant, perhaps even more psychologically astute, than it was in Yiddish. By any reckoning he was extraordinarily lucky to have landed (in 1935) in the United States, where not only did he escape Hitler's Europe but twenty years later enchanted translators began to render his work in the rich, free American English that ultimately won him a place in world literature. But it is interesting to think that although he was passionately attached throughout his life to writing in Yiddish, he may have valued more what his work accomplished in English.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, the son of a rabbi, was born in 1904 in a village in Poland into, as he himself put it, "a stronghold of Jewish Puritanism"; that is, a shtetl culture wherein a religious Jew who was a man spent his entire waking life praying that he be found worthy enough to adore God; to deviate at all from the thousand and one rituals and strictures that represented this devotion was not only to forgo eternal salvation, it was to drift like a leaf in the wind in this world as well as the next. For the people among whom Singer grew, the secular world in any and all forms was a delusion and an abomination: One's physical being was simply a vessel of containment for the worship of God. His own father, Singer once said, was so unbodied that on his wedding day he could just as easily have married his mother-in-law or his sister-in-law, that's how little he registered the flesh and blood reality that surrounded him.
When Isaac was 4, the family moved to Warsaw. Here the Singers lived on a street that Isaac would make famous (Krochmalna Street), in a Jewish quarter so insulated from the rest of the city that, as one who'd lived there said, "It was possible to live your entire life without knowing ten words of Polish." At the age of 18, Singer realized that he could not commit to a life inside Orthodox Judaism: "I told my parents the truth: I didn't believe in the Gemara (rabbinical commentary in the Torah) or that every law in the Shulchan Aruch (the book of daily rituals) had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai; I didn't wish to become a rabbi; I didn't want an arranged marriage; I was no longer willing to wear a long gabardine or grow earlocks." He then left the quarter to go to work--through the intervention of his brother, Israel Joshua, eleven years older and already a known Yiddish novelist--as proofreader at a Yiddish magazine in what might have been called midtown Warsaw.
Though Singer mocked his lowly job in what his most recent biographer, Florence Noiville, infelicitously calls "the kitchen of literature," it was the necessary first step in the leave-taking of a life that would later prove to have been formative. Once out in the larger world, he quickly found his way to sensuality and the self-dramatization of repetitious remorse. A friend of that time remembered Singer as a bundle of contradictions: a secretive young man for whom the open pursuit of fleshly pleasure was both impossible and irresistible. He hungered, and he brooded. He could neither live without sexual experience nor forget the mystical power of Orthodoxy. The conflict was the making of him as a writer. The terms in which he rendered the conflict determined the sort of writer he would be.
As Singer understood it, his situation was the Dostoyevskian plight of the man who has lost God yet cannot accept that without Him life has meaning. This insight put him, potentially, in the company of other twentieth-century writers whose loss of faith had brought them to a bitter impasse; writers like Wallace Stevens, who described living in an age of nonbelief as "this iron solitude." But whereas Modernist writers could address the lost soul of contemporary man in the thought and language of their time and place, Singer was confined by the left-behind culture that permeated his being to an expressiveness that could not make use of New World models; better the Russians than T.S. Eliot.
He had indeed gained vital knowledge of our immutable inner divisions, the ones from which all of life's drama stems; but the idiom to which he was wedded--that of European Yiddishkeit--consigned him in the telling of his tales to the language of fable, in the writing of his novels to that of nineteenth-century realism. These combined elements of psychological savvy and storytelling that could be traced back a thousand years produced an unexpected twin consequence: They both guaranteed that Singer would never have to enter the place to which a hard-won secularism had brought most of the Western world, and they made of him an extravagantly admired original. A deep-rooted literary conservatism devoted to what he conceived of as the sacred power of emotional mystery took him, finally, all the way to the Nobel Prize. Reading him today, it is difficult not to register, with more than a little misgiving, the trade-off that his writing represents.