The Genius of Isaac Bashevis Singer

Satan In Goray

by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 239 pp., $1.25 (paper)

The Family Moskat

by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 611 pp., $2.25 (paper)

The Slave

by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 246 pp., $3.50

The Spinoza of Market Street:

by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 214 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Short Friday

by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 243 pp., $4.95

Isaac Bashevis Singer
Isaac Bashevis Singer; drawing by David Levine

Isaac Bashevis Singer emigrated to the United States in 1935, which was the year of his first novel Satan in Goray. Since then, he has written more or less exclusively about the Jewish world of pre-war Poland, or more exactly—it’s a relevant qualification—about the Hasidic world of pre-war Poland, into which he was born, the son of a rabbi, in 1904. So not only does he write in Yiddish, but his chosen subject is even further confined in place, and culture, and now to the past. Nevertheless, his work has been lucky with its translators, and he has to be considered among the really great living writers, on several counts.

He’s produced three more novels, that have been translated, and three volumes of short stories. Looking over his novels in their chronological order (the stories are written in and among, but they belong with the novels) the first apparent thing is the enormous and one might say successful development of his vision. Vision seems to be the right word for what Singer is conveying. The most important fact about him, that determines the basic strategy by which he deals with his subject, is that his imagination is poetic, and tends toward symbolic situations. Cool, analytical qualities are heavily present in everything he does, but organically subdued to a grasp that is finally visionary and redemptive. Without the genius, he might well have disintegrated as he evidently saw others disintegrate—between a nostalgic dream of ritual Hasidic piety on the one hand and cosmic dead-end despair on the other. But his creative demon (again, demon seems to be the right word) works deeper than either of these two extremes. It is what involves him so vehemently with both. It involves him with both because this demon is ultimately the voice of his nature, which requires at all costs satisfaction in life, full inheritance of its natural joy. It is what suffers the impossible problem and dreams up the supernormal solution. It is what in most men stares dumbly through the bars. At bottom it is amoral, as interested in destruction as in creation, but being in Singer’s case an intelligent spirit, it has gradually determined a calibration of degrees between good and evil, in discovering which activities embroil it in misery, pain, and emptiness, and conjure into itself cruel powers, and which ones concentrate it towards bliss, the fullest possession of its happiest energy. Singer’s writings are the account of this demon’s re-education through decades that have been—particularly for the Jews—a terrible school. They put the question: “How shall man live most truly as a human being?” from the center of gravity of human nature, not from any temporary civic center or speculative metaphysic or far-out neurotic bewilderment. And out of the pain and wisdom of Jewish history and tradition they answer it. His work is not discoursive, or even primarily documentary,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.