In My Father’s Court
by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 307 pp., $4.50
The memoirs collected in this new volume by the celebrated Yiddish novelist and story-writer fall into two groups. There are those referred to in the title of the book, which describe the people and the problems that came before the rabbinic court conducted by the writer’s father in a poor Jewish quarter of Warsaw more than half a century ago. The other group of memoirs simply tells us about some of the events in the childhood and boyhood of the writer; in fact, the latter half of the book, having a strong element of continuity, comes close to being a brief, informal autobiography of Singer’s earliest years. Partly because they tell a continuous story, and partly because each episode is written to rather less of a formula, the chapters of straightforward autobiography seem to me more satisfactory than the accounts of the court cases. The book as a whole, it must be said, gives an impression of slightness, even of perfunctoriness in some places; yet it does throw a light of an unexpected kind on Singer’s achievements as a writer of fiction.
By this I do not mean just that the world of the memoirs is substantially the same as the one presented in the fiction: It could hardly be called “unexpected” that the Warsaw of this book should put us in mind of The Family Moskat, or that his description of the life he found in a small town like Bilgoray should remind us of such fictional shtetlach as Zamosc, Tereshpol, or Goray. At the same time, in speaking of the relation between the memoirs and his fiction, I am not suggesting that one can find in these sketches direct correspondences between biographical facts and the events in this or that story or novel. No, what I have in mind is the question of the devious stratagems that Singer is forced to adopt, as a writer of fiction, in order to make imaginatively available to himself (and to us) the entire world of his childhood experiences—given that this world was a devout, self-enclosed, ritualistic one quite unlike our own, and that it was utterly and deliberately destroyed in his lifetime.
One can say that these memoirs, in their relaxed, folk-like simplicity of tone, their readiness to offer opinions and draw conclusions, their didacticism and discursiveness, really are what many of the stories, for their own artistic purposes, merely appear to be. It is the difference between the reality here and the appearance elsewhere which makes one realize just how tightly disciplined, how subtle and self-effacing, is the art of Singer’s finest fiction; how conscious, dedicated, and sly a craftsman he is; how great must be the effort that enables him to write in his fiction as if he takes for granted his subject matter, his audience, his language, and his relation to them all. The world he writes about is irretrievably lost; but the fictions in which he memorializes it are given an almost …