I. B. Singer was a beloved presence on the American literary scene for so long that it was hard to imagine that this centennial, including the publication of his Collected Stories in three hefty volumes by the Library of America, would tell us anything new about him. I had been reading his novels and stories all my life, as had so many American writers who envied his almost magical fluency, his unexpected fame and his seemingly bottomless knowledge of Jewish folkways. Besides reading his work, I had been raised in one small corner of his world. As a child, living and going to school on Henry Street, just a block from East Broadway, I had probably passed the Forward building a thousand times and eaten in the Garden Cafeteria often enough to have brushed by Singer himself, seated over a cup of coffee and a plate of rice pudding or stewed prunes. I hadn’t grown up in Eastern Europe, but I knew the Orthodox world he described like the back of my hand.
Yet when I sat down this summer to look at Singer’s work again, I was overcome by an ineffable sense of strangeness, as if, in the years since his death in 1991, he had become a visitor from another planet–a feeling he himself intensely experienced when he landed here in 1935. His world, which already seemed exotic when he first broke upon the literary scene in the 1950s, had now grown unimaginably remote. Not only his dybbuks and demons but the people themselves belonged not simply to another continent but to another cosmos, a distant century. Yet even now, because of his preternaturally sharp memory, graphic fantasy life and huge storytelling skill, they soon became wonderfully immediate, almost leaping off the page. Instead of casually browsing through his work I found myself cascading from book to book, story to story, instantly gripped by whatever he portrayed.
Every reader seems to agree: A Singer story pulls us right in. It never slows down to bathe us in atmosphere or pauses to analyze the characters’ motives and feelings. It unfolds in swift strokes, like flashes of lightning. In their speed and narrative economy, in their rich oral quality, his stories remind us of folk tales or legends, seemingly conventional yet daringly heterodox, and crafted by a cunning verbal artist. They’re relentlessly driven less by plot than by Singer’s almost prurient fascination with the oddities of human behavior. By some peculiar paradox, he seems at once the most traditional and the most modern of twentieth-century writers.
Singer’s childhood and youth were split between small Hasidic towns in Poland like Bilgoray, where a centuries-old way of life had changed little, and the bustling city of Warsaw, where this shy, dreamy son of a rabbi could see con men and fallen women rub shoulders with yeshiva buchers; could hear his older brother Israel Joshua, a rebel and rationalist, arguing with his deeply pious father; and could eavesdrop on his father’s rabbinical court, where it seemed that every human conflict and desire was acted out on a daily basis. In his father’s court Singer first developed his acute interest in human nature, especially the vexed relations between men and women, which would sustain him through the next eight decades. In his father’s books, which he read with the same overweening curiosity, he saw how these passions were translated into folklore, legal prohibitions and mystical conjecture about angels and demons, sin and punishment, God, creation and the afterlife. This rush of knowledge, combined with new sexual feelings and metaphysical qualms, turned Singer into a believer who did not believe, someone who saw a design in the universe but–especially after the Holocaust–one that had gone horribly wrong. He began to think of this rich Jewish mythology not as literally true but as a set of profound metaphors, dyed into the spirit of the people, for a world that God had toyed with or abandoned, where lust, cruelty and deceit would always overwhelm reason and progress.