A Young Man in Search of Love
“I must only imagine a door, a good old door, like the one in the kitchen of my childhood, with an iron handle and a bolt. There is no walled-in room that could not be opened by such a door, provided one were strong enough to suggest that such a door exists.” These words evoke the stifled, timorous, obituary spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s new novel, Shosha. The words are not Singer’s, however; they were written by Bruno Schulz, a writer he admires, in the doomed town of Drogobych, Poland, in 1937. By that time Singer, who, unlike Schulz, “did not have the privilege of going through the Hitler holocaust,” was safe in Manhattan, trying to recapture in fiction the universe he had escaped. Shosha is another among these mordant retrievals.
It is a stunted novel about stunted lives. The saturnine Aaron Greidinger, a playwright, is chasing wisdom and girls in a Warsaw filled with despair. Hitler has taken hold of Germany and advances unopposed toward Poland. The revolution in Russia has deceived, too much blood has been spilled. Dreams of Palestine seem quixotic, and would anyway abolish the life from which the dreams sprang. And the Jews of Warsaw are genteel and indifferent to spiritual experiment. From all this Greidinger takes refuge in his work. He frequents the Writers’ Club, where other Yiddish writers, the dauntless and the defeated, also ache for greatness, and wrestle with metaphysics over cognac, and with Trotsky’s revolutionary promise over chess. At the Writers’ Club the vexed Greidinger encounters Dr. Morris Feitelzohn, who wears English suits and is penniless, and who peddles Vaihinger and the Kabbala, Schopenhauer and the rebbe of Kotzk.
Greidinger—clearly Singer himself—is in the throes of a great and somewhat conventional revolt. He cannot locate God. Raised on the Talmud, he turns early to Spinoza. Spinoza will sponsor his worldliness, and even sanctify it. Worldliness for Greidinger means not politics—he has been forever disabused of the possibility of redemption—but only women. His cupidity is insatiable, virtually ideological. And so we are again treated to Singer’s stable of randy Jewish women, and again to his customary musings on the spiritual rewards of sex. There is Celia, a melancholy older woman whose enlightened (and manifestly homosexual) husband invites Greidinger to find ecstasy in his wife’s bed; Dora, a Communist with prodigious breasts; Tekla, the devoted rustic who cleans Greidinger’s flat; and, most momentously, Betty, a lovely actress from America for whom Greidinger is commissioned to write a play. The play, about a woman rabbi and her Hasidic lovers, along with whores and fiddlers and dybbuks, eventually fails, but not before Greidinger seduces its leading lady.
All this Greidinger renounces to marry Shosha, whom he loved as a child. But Shosha—the only really intriguing figure in his story—has miraculously remained a child: she has “neither grown nor aged.” She wears pigtails and eats candy and has never been with a man. And …