Revisiting Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Magician of Lublin

by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated from the Yiddish by Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 246 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Der Kuntsenmakher fun Lublin perhaps should have been entitled The Trickster of Lublin when it was first published in English a half-century ago. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s second novel established his American audience, which grew until his death at eighty-seven in 1991. Rereading it now in Yiddish and in English (the novel has just been reissued in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its publication) has been a mixed experience. The book set the formula for all his narratives long or short. They are prurient sagas of the flesh and of repentance, marked by the ambivalences of a vegetarian satyr.

The trickster of Lublin, Yasha Mazur, a performance artist renowned throughout eastern Poland, cherishes his pious Jewish wife but is always on the road, making love to most women he encounters. His daemonic vitality renders them helpless to resist. At last he repents and becomes a rather dubious kind of saint.

A Nobel laureate, rather more esteemed by his English-language readers than by Yiddish speakers, Singer maintains canonical status. I do not find that his novels deserve that, but the very best of the stories seem permanent enough. Oddly they are more impressive in the original than I had remembered because his Yiddish is hardly translatable. He is far from the foremost of Yiddish fiction writers yet his style is remarkable, utterly unlike any of the others and surpassed by none. Its nervous exuberance and compulsive rhythmic drive captivate me despite my resistance to his stance and aims:

Yasha tapped his spoon against the saucer to summon the waiter but the man either did not hear, or pretended not to. The café was quite full. There were almost no patrons who, like himself, were alone. Most sat in groups, circles, clusters; the men in morning coats, striped trousers, wide cravats. Some wore pointed beards, some spade beards; some had drooping mustaches, some mustaches that curled. The women wore wide-skirted dresses, and wide-brimmed hats decorated with flowers, fruits, pins, and feathers. The patriots whom the Russians had exiled to Siberia in boxcars after the uprising were dying by the hundreds. They expired from scurvy, consumption, beri-beri, but mainly from ennui and the yearning for the motherland. But the patrons in the café had apparently reconciled themselves to the Russian invader. They talked, shouted, joked, and laughed. The women fell giggling into each other’s arms. Outside, a hearse rolled by, but those within ignored it as if death did not concern them.

However obvious I find the purpose of this gusto, nevertheless its helter-skelter intensity is seductive. Irving Howe asserted too much for Singer when he invoked Isaac Babel and Heinrich von Kleist, but I respect his critical enthusiasm. E.A. Poe and E.T.A. Hoffmann, also cited by Howe, are more reasonable comparisons. Singer, like them, dreamed universal nightmares, and those who praise Poe and Singer respond to a sense that the truth of such visions justifies the palpable sadism of both writers.

Singer’s minute particulars, at which …

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