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Before the Law | The Nation

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Before the Law

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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."

About the Author

Vivian Gornick
Vivian Gornick is an essayist and critic. Her biography of Emma Goldman is forthcoming from Yale.

Also by the Author

An eloquent portrait of underground life among the undocumented and the damned of the earth.

Seeing not a person but a thing was the crime of crimes for Primo Levi.

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.

The stories number in the hundreds, and they are the work upon which Singer's reputation will ultimately rest. In many of the novels Singer allows himself long, conventional debates among his characters--religious and philosophical--that drain the work of dramatic strength. The stories, on the other hand, are magic. In the hands of this master tale spinner, they become an embodiment of the mesmerizing ignorance with which all inner conflict is saturated. The sheer primitivism of our unknowing selves is cause for wonder. Stories like "Taibele and Her Demon," "Blood" and "Zeidlus the Pope" are astonishing not for where they take us (more often than not it's nowhere in particular) but for the richness with which characters who are driven by hungers they can neither name nor resist are brought to life. Usually it is sexual desire that is making them crazy; but sometimes it is the mad appetite for another kind of "forbidden" knowledge that accomplishes their requisite doom. "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" is the great example here:

After her father's death, Yentl had no reason to remain in Yanev.... She knew she wasn't cut out for a woman's life.... Her father Reb Todros, may he rest in peace, during many bedridden years had studied Torah with his daughter as if she were a son. He told Yentl to lock the doors and drape the windows, then together they pored over the Pentateuch, the Mishnah, the Gemara, and the Commentaries. She proved so apt a pupil that her father used to say:
  "Yentl--you have the soul of a man."
  "So why was I born a woman?"
  "Even heaven makes mistakes."

Yentl, as we all know, determines to right heaven's mistake. Out of her unholy need, she disguises herself as a man and becomes enmeshed in one surreal situation after another, until finally she has "committed so many transgressions that she would never be able to do penance." As the story moves toward its appointed end, all the principals suffer an increasing sense of dementia as Yentl's inappropriate desire forces on them an unwanted encounter with knowledge that brings them perilously close to a mental brink. Singer himself seems as frightened as his characters are of coming to consciousness: "Only now did Yentl grasp the meaning of the Torah's prohibition against wearing the clothes of the other sex. By doing so one deceived not only others but also oneself...the soul was perplexed, finding itself incarnate in a strange body." In short: To long for independence of mind is to risk outraging the cosmos even more so than the pursuit of sexual satisfaction.

Some readers may think Singer is being ironic; I do not. Singer is happy, not to say relieved, only when he can bring the story to a close with a nod in the direction of Judaic proscription. When Yentl pleads that she acted as she did only because "her soul thirsted to study Torah," the narrator shrugs, "All [her] explanations seemed to point to one thing: she had the soul of a man and the body of a woman." That's it. End of report. A woman studying Torah defies the ordained order of things, and although Yentl is as appealing a creature as Billy Budd, however sympathetic the cause of her trespass, she must be denied redemption. At the end of the day the Law is the Law.

Many of Singer's novels devolve on the same dilemma, only without the magic; and when at the end of their day the Law is the Law, the reader is left somewhat less than enchanted. In the stories, women and men alike are leveled by shtetl life: variously glorified, condemned or redeemed, in accordance with the requirements of the tale being told, while the author's touch--sure, light, authoritative--makes us yearn toward them all. In the novels, the settings are most often urban, the protagonists men, and the melancholy of soul-saving is pursued without humor or irony. Three of these novels in particular trace the extravagant suffering that is meted out to those who abandon the Law, even though they can no longer live by it: The Family Moskat, Shadows on the Hudson and Enemies: A Love Story. All have as protagonists the same wavering luftmensch, raise the same hand-wringing questions, come to the same dismal conclusion and--as women are invariably the instrument of temptation--leave the same trail of female destruction in their wake. But here, the reader feels an unmistakable absence of authority. The brooding power--indeed Dostoyevskian--necessary to sustain a book-length investigation of God, Man and World is simply not there. What we have instead feels derivative and uncertain: as though Singer does not know his own protagonist well enough to speak for (or of) him.

In The Family Moskat, set in Poland between the two world wars, Asa Heshel Bannet leaves the shtetl for Warsaw, wearing the long gabardine and earlocks of the Orthodox Jew. He had been a student of great promise--a seeker after truth that took him to secular as well as religious texts--but Asa's spirit had been uneasy (even tormented), causing his mind to enter a hovering state of indecisiveness from which he could not emerge: "But years passed and little came of his undisciplined efforts. He began courses of study but never completed them.... The eternal questions never gave him rest: Was there a God or was everything, the world and its works, mechanical and blind? Did man have responsibilities or was he accountable to no higher power? Was the soul immortal or would time bring everything to oblivion? In the long summer days he would...go off into the forest...and daydream. Each day he would make up his mind anew to leave the town, and each day he stayed." Finally the day does come. In Warsaw Asa instantly cuts off the earlocks, puts on a suit and wonders, "Is it here I will learn the divine truths? Among this multitude?"

The rest of the long novel (involving a cast of thousands) follows Asa as he spends the next twenty years struggling with these questions. The result is the same as in the shtetl: His legendary indecisiveness prevents him from making a life. Repeatedly, he finds himself living alone in furnished rooms, earning a marginal living, never fulfilling his intellectual promise, always seeking release in books--and in sexual passion. Along the way, he falls desperately in love with one woman, marries another, runs off with still a third, in the end ruining them all because--as is often the case with unformed women--each remains haunted by the poetic loser who, no sooner is she his, than he flees. It is Asa's estranged wife who finally delivers the authorial message: "It occurred to [her] that she had never been able to understand what it was that tortured him.... She was on the point of asking him, but suddenly she knew: he was not a worldly man by his very essence. He was one of those who must serve God or die. He had forsaken God, and because of this he was dead--a living body with a dead soul. She was astonished that this simple truth had eluded her until now." At the end, the Second World War has begun and Asa, who could have fled, walks back into the city as German bombs start to fall on Warsaw. Finally: no more choices.

In Shadows on the Hudson, set in New York in the late 1940s, the protagonist's name is Hertz Grein and, like Asa Heshel, "He had...dreamed of finding a book that would explain all secrets, unerringly reveal the right way. Every time Grein went into a library he searched for just this book.... What Grein sought did not and could not exist: he wanted the fear of heaven without dogma; religion without revelation; discipline without proscriptions." Hertz berates himself for having become a lapsed Jew who nonetheless cannot make a life in the world. Unable to give himself to work or family or spiritual devotion, he wanders from pillar to post, creating emotional chaos wherever he goes. He too runs frantically about among a wife and two mistresses, heaping abuse on himself even as he lusts after and lies repeatedly to each and every one. After 500-odd pages of an exhausting narrative in which Hertz endlessly rehashes God, Man and Worldliness; reviles Utopian Politics (Singer once said that God was everywhere except at a Marxist meeting); and realizes that he is a fool for seeking salvation in bed--he flees to Israel as one would to a monastery.

Enemies: A Love Story, the strongest of these books by far, also set in New York in the 1940s, tells of Herman Broder, a Holocaust survivor who, before the war, had also sought answers to the hard questions--he'd been a philosophy student in Warsaw--and had also been crippled by his own mysteriously demoralized will. The war, however, had solved the problem of a meaningful life, and now, in New York, Herman thinks of himself as one of the walking dead--even as he runs madly about the city among (again!) three women: living with his current wife (the Polish peasant who hid him from the Germans) in Brooklyn; sleeping with his passionate mistress (also a survivor) up in the Bronx; and drinking tea with his original wife (miraculously returned from the dead) down on the Lower East Side.

In this novel Singer successfully makes a metaphor out of the uselessness of having "survived" the Holocaust--these are truly people with leftover life to kill. Still: Herman is Asa and Hertz in spades. When Tamara (the first wife) and Herman find each other again, she questions him intently about his life with Yadwiga (the second wife) and Masha (the mistress). He hangs his head and tells her he doesn't know what he is doing, he just doesn't know. She stares at him and says, "You haven't learned a thing. Absolutely nothing." He agrees with her. He, too, thinks his perpetual "bewilderment" long precedes the war.

The house of cards finally falls in on Herman and he sits alone, experiencing a moment of terrified remorse in which he "had sworn to renounce all worldly ambitions, to give up the licentiousness into which he had sunk when he had strayed from God, the Torah and Judaism." The very next day, of course, the spineless Herman goes back on his own resolution. In the end, like Hertz Grein, he up and disappears, leaving Yadwiga pregnant, Masha dead and Tamara stunned. Maybe he joined Hertz in Jerusalem; maybe he's still hiding out in Cincinnati. Wherever he is, he is surely making life a living hell for himself and everyone who cares for him, as the devotion of Herman-Hertz-Asa to feeling scummy is boundless. Like the characters in Graham Greene's novels of lapsed-Catholic torment, Singer's, too, must go on sinking into a bottomless well of guilt, regret and the kind of elaborate self-revulsion that precludes any sort of rescue, either intellectual or psychological. That, finally, is the name of their game.

Having made the association with Greene, let me take it one step further. Upon rereading these novels of Singer's after many years away from them, I suddenly realized that a comparison with Greene feels more apt than with any other writer I can think of. While writers like Wallace Stevens really did--and do--address the immensity of "this iron solitude," Greene's writing often seems in service to a colossal piece of self-dramatization that compels him to make religious allegory out of bad character. I always feel Greene routinely beating his own self-deceived breast through the moral lapses that send his people spinning into the delicious despair they feel at living in a world bereft of God. It is the same with Singer in these novels. When Singer won the Nobel, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that Singer had made the Eastern European Jew "an exemplar of the suffering modern man who has been exiled from his divine inheritance." As the decades pass it becomes harder and harder to take seriously such an assessment. Singer once said, "I'm Herman, for good and for bad"--ostensibly with rue but actually, one suspects, with secret pride--and I remember thinking, "Ah, now we're coming closer to the heart of the matter."

If there's one thing the reader of a Singer biography wants, it is to get inside the passive-aggressive who said, "I'm Herman." What we want to know is: Who is he? How did he come to be? And how does that development illuminate the work? A flash of insight somewhere along these lines would, I think, provide a successful organizing principle for any book that purports to give us an I.B. Singer "Life." Unfortunately, in Florence Noiville's new biography we get nothing of the sort. Noiville is a French journalist with an astonishing predilection for hagiography. She absolutely adores Singer. For her, he can do no wrong.

Singer, apparently, had a character of monstrous complexity. Publicly he was seen as charming, folksy, unpretentious; whereas, by many accounts, he was inordinately vain, selfish and demanding. He betrayed friendships, discarded lovers, abandoned his one and only son. "But," his distraught biographer pleads on this last score, "at least Singer was sincere and frank.... He refused to become mired in the sham of family bonds." Detailing many moments of really questionable behavior on the part of her protagonist, she is often content to forgo analysis, exclaiming, "But at least he was sincere!" Perhaps it is just a matter of bad writing--as a teacher of writing I know how bad writing and bad thinking complement each other--maybe that accounts for the low level of interpretive intelligence that informs this Life. Examples such as the following abound:

About living on Krochmalna Street: "What is most important about those years is that he attended the school of life."

On reading a diary description of Singer's thoughts at 13: "He was already the 'eternal outsider' forever at odds with his background."

Looking at a photo of Singer at 22: "One can almost imagine the four-year-old boy who was taught to read the Pentateuch and almost recognize the face of the future Nobel Prize winner."

These are the sentences of a myth-maker, not a biographer of honest or searching intent. The thing that is most wanted from a literary biography is neither endorsement nor denunciation of the artist but rather a narrative that will reveal the person who wrote the books. In the case of Singer, one would have appreciated most some insight into the writer who when he gained distance on his subject served his gift magnificently, and when he used himself as a model for the protagonist got lost in a mass of words that, ultimately, provided neither wonder nor clarity.

Singer was a man not so much divided against himself as ambitious to climb literary heights for which he did not always have the right equipment. He loved and read the Russians throughout his life. He took them as exemplars and mentors. On reading Gogol, he said, "How is it possible that this man who lived a hundred years before me has stolen so many of my stories?" And indeed, the Gogol in Singer truly wrote fantastically; it was he who had the capacity not only to capture but to inhabit, in all its glory and foolishness, the thrill of the lowest of the low imitating God through the unruliness of their passions, the chutzpah of their strange imaginings, the daring of transgression. The problem was Singer also read Dostoyevsky. When he was in the shtetl, watching lust and Torah chase each other around the village square, he was Gogol; when he was beating his lapsed-Jewish breast he was Dostoyevsky. The talent lay with Gogol.

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