Roving thoughts and provocations

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Bashevis Revisited

Roger Viollet/Getty Images
Jews in Lublin, 1934

Der Kuntsenmakher fun Lublin perhaps should have been entitled The Trickster of Lublin when first it was 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 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 at resistance. 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 who 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 mother land. 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 others’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. Howe asserted too much for Bashevis when he invoked Isaac Babel and Heinrich von Kleist, but I respect his critical enthusiasm. Edgar Allan 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 he is a master, invariably are Eastern European Jewish. His eye for detail is manifest throughout The Magician of Lublin. I particularly recall the trickster attired in “a light suit, kid-leather boots, a hard hat…a black silk tie over his collar.” Like Isaac Babel in his Odessa Tales, Singer is fascinated by sartorial flamboyance—and gustatory pleasure. Yasha Mazur devours sturgeon, sardines, and swiss cheese for second breakfast, and elsewhere his lover’s neighbors drop in “to borrow an onion, a clove of garlic, a drop of milk, a bit of lard with which to brown onions.”

In the famous short story “Gimpel the Fool” the charming but victimized protagonist, who is the town baker, feeds his faithless wife incessantly:

In the evening I brought her a white loaf as well as a dark one, and also poppy seed bagels I baked myself. I thieved because of her and swiped everything I could lay hands on: macaroons, raisins, almonds, cakes. I hope I may be forgiven for stealing from the Saturday pots the women left to warm in the baker’s oven. I would take out scraps of meat, a chunk of pudding, a chicken leg or head, a piece of tripe, whatever I could nip quickly. She ate and became fat and handsome.

—Translated by Saul Bellow

Since that world and its language were murdered, Bashevis chose to handle his tales as a series of dispassionate enormities. He neither celebrates nor laments his lost culture, as if somehow it had never had been his own. The epitome of this persuasive yet odd position can be isolated, as in the last paragraph of “Gimpel the Fool:”

No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world. At the door of the hotel where I lie, there stands the plank on which the dead are taken away. The gravedigger Jew has his spade ready. The grave waits and the worms are hungry; the shrouds are prepared—I carry them in my beggar’s sack. Another shnorrer is waiting to inherit my bed of straw. When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception, God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.

Gimpel’s situation is dreadful. He loves his promiscuous wife, who scorns him, and he is a tender father to her brood of children, even though they are not his own. The power, and limitation, of this is that Gimpel is meant to be the shadow or representation of vanished East European Jewry. Whether or not an individual reader desires to accept the adequacy of Singer’s intention and performance may determine her judgment of his achievement. Will it suffice?

*

I go on rereading Cynthia Ozick’s novella “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” across forty years since its first publication in 1969, included afterwards in The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971). Painfully hilarious and yet vitalizing, it chronicles the untranslated poet Hershel Edelshtein (the celebrated Yiddish poet Yankev Glatshteyn) and his fierce envy of Yankel Ostrover (Bashevis Singer). Ozick regards Singer as a great, normative Jewish moralist, whose message is that to be natural is to be good, and to be unholy is to go to ruin. Whatever disagreement I have with such a judgment, I still respect the stylistic influence of Bashevis upon Cynthia Ozick’s frequently superb narrative prose.

Reading through a volume of essays on Bashevis (Recovering the Canon, edited by David Neal Miller) I have just encountered a wild tirade by Glatshteyn on “Singer’s Literary Reputation,” written in 1965. I myself regard Glatshteyn, and Moshe Leyb Halpern, as the twin crowns of Yiddish poetry, but someone should have restrained the formidable poet from this hysterical outcry. Singer, Glatshteyn insists, has no sense of style or ear for language. Since those exactly are Singer’s strengths, I read on in wonder and am rewarded by: “That is one example of the absurd Singerian genre—a Jew murders his wife on account of a parrot.”

Such fury is splendidly excessive yet has a serious purpose: Glatshteyn accuses Singer of “naked sadism,” which is true though I might modify to “prurient sado-masochism.” That Bashevis panders to any reader’s relish for victimization is palpable. Yasha Mazur, the Magician of Lublin, reaches the end of his multi-adulterous path and becomes convinced that “death and lechery…were the same.” He builds a “small, doorless house with its tiny window” and immures himself there as “Yasha the Penitent.” Sealed in stone, the former trickster meditates himself nearly to death while on a diet of bread, potatoes, and cold water. At last he forgives himself but why have we suffered all this? At eighty, I rebel and toss the book aside. Was all that narrative gusto and propulsive stylistic drive to conclude only in this?

*

Some of the short stories of the impenitent Bashevis will survive, though I am wary of selecting them. The ones I like in Yiddish, such as “A Friend of Kafka” and “Blood,” do not please me in English, and those that seem to work in translation alienate me in the original, one being “Short Friday.” My friends and students seldom agree on particular stories and I cannot resolve their perplexities.

In a larger sense I uneasily concede that Singer cannot be dismissed. In his own very enigmatic mode his work subtly reacts to the Shoah even as he overtly appears mostly to evade it. There is no way to confront that horror aesthetically. Only indirection can hope to convey response and Singer became a master of intricate evasions, too endless throughout his work to enumerate.

No Yiddish writers who survived after 1945 could be anything but witnesses whether or not they had suffered experientially. What Baudelaire termed aesthetic dignity, by which he meant a quality transcending mere content, cannot be denied to Singer, however unpleasant I find him. Bashevis revisited is a necessary obligation for those who have no desire to abandon their Jewish identity.

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