ISAAC B. SINGER & G.G.
Shaker Heights, Ohio
A half-century ago, I discovered Graham Greene and Isaac Bashevis Singer at about the same time. I got the feeling that I was reading two interchangeable novelists, each describing the same predicament, one from a Jewish vantage point, the other Catholic. I must have read The End of the Affair and The Magician of Lublin at about the same time. Both describe "the problem" exquisitely well, the agonies of lost faith, love and even hope. Both were equally unable to resolve the crises except by making a kind of shaky nod to their respective traditions.
In The Magician of Lublin, Yasha the magician, traversing the well-trodden ground of the desired shiksa, the mendacity of business whether gangster or upright and the fall from faith, finally resolves it all by bricking himself up and becoming Yasha the penitent.
Thus it was that I was stunned to read Vivian Gornick’s review of Florence Noiville’s biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer ["Before the Law," March 5] and find a recap of those long-ago thoughts. I have no idea whether the comparison has been made elsewhere. I’d like to think it’s just Ms. Gornick and me.
I have read a lot of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories and always end up with a feeling of utter despair. What I have always kept from Singer is a comment he made at the start of his story "Shosha": His people had lived in Poland for almost a thousand years yet spoke hardly any Polish. Their lives were regulated by two dead languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, and all thought was devoted to knowing the rituals appropriate for a temple that had ceased to exist 1,900 years earlier. This is the culture Arnold Toynbee called a fossil, for which he was attacked as an anti-Semite. But any attempt to make this fossilized culture meaningful is doomed to failure. Singer knew this.
New York City
Vivian Gornick writes that Isaac Bashevis 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." She is mistaken. While it is true that some of his Yiddish works have never been published in book form, the YIVO library has ten books of his in Yiddish–five novels and five collections of short stories.
Der sotn in goray was published in Warsaw in 1935. The last original edition in his lifetime, according to our catalogue, was Der bal-tshuve (The Penitent) in 1974.
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research