Much of American writing at present is Jewish, and one of the probable reasons for this is that being a Jew gives one something definite to write about. The dissolving of beliefs and traditions has left modern life so flavorless that the flood of pornography we now endure was predictable all along: the sexual life still has conflict and urgency, pathos and comedy, which could hardly be said for anything else likely to be encountered in the plastic landscape we have made for ourselves. The Jew, whether orthodox or not, has to make up his mind among conflicting loyalties and values, and this gives his life a spiritual content capable of being explored in such a traditional medium as literature, whereas the puppet-movements that pass for action among the rest of us are best handled by television and the tabloids.
Of all American Jewish writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer is the least assimilated; the son and grandson of rabbis who came to America as a mature man, he has dealt with modern western life only by implication. His work is set in the past, and describes the Eastern European Jewish community in its own language, Yiddish. Its power of implication, however, is considerable enough to make it fully contemporary, and we turn with quickened interest to the figure of the Jew, who has clung to belief and ritual, a sense of man’s dialogue with God, and has endured persecution for the sake of these things because the alternative, of losing his identity and sinking down among the innumerable grains of dust, has frightened him still more.
In The Family Moskat, Singer dealt with a Warsaw Jewish family in the first forty years of this century. The Manor goes further back. It begins after the Polish insurrection against the Russians in 1863, which achieved nothing except to lose the Poles their remaining liberties and turn the country definitely into a Russian province. There was, however, industrial expansion; money flowed in, people worked hard and were enriched. The Manor takes account of this situation in its opening. Count Jampolski, a landowner, is banished and his estate given to a Russian duke, who in turn leases it to a pious and industrious Jew, Calman Jacoby. The manor prospers; timber is needed for railway ties, a work-force must be fed, Calman grows rich. His money gives him authority within the Jewish enclave, and also forces him into contact with the world outside.
Calman’s pieties underpin his life. He witnesses, rather than feels, the successive tidal waves that attack the coherence of Jewish life; though some of them come near to sweeping him away. His wife dies; dutiful, ailing, religious, she typified the Jewry of his beginnings. His second wife, though a Jew’s daughter, has her face turned toward the world. Her attitude to tradition is lightly skeptical. She objects, for instance, to the common ritual bath for women because it is unhygienic. “If I had my own manor and lived with a religious husband, I’d build a ritual bath of my own. That way, God would be satisfied and I’d stay clean.” Too late, once in wedlock, Calman realizes the ill omen of such remarks during their courtship.
His first wife has brought him four daughters; in his short and agonized second marriage he at last fathers a boy. The relationships define his life. Two of the girls make orthodox marriages and establish households in which Calman can feel at home. Another marries the son of the exiled Count Jampolski; Calman mourns for her as for the dead, then cuts her out of his thoughts. The remaining daughter marries a Jew who is plagued by intellectual curiosity and because Westernized, scientific, he is an emancipated thinker torn between Jewish wife and Gentile mistress. The boy, for his part, grows up sturdy and barbarian, uninstructed in the mysteries, his Jewishness meaning little to him beyond an occasional fist-fight with boys at school. Calman is horrified, but has no jurisdiction. His life is a tattered fabric. But still a fabric; in the closing pages we leave him in his “makeshift synagogue,” among the sacred books, feeling at peace.
At this point we are brought up sharply against the fact that The Manor is the first part of a longer work. Its structural qualities cannot be seen until the second volume at least comes out, nor shall we know the arc to be described by Calman’s life and the lives of his children. For the time being, everything is left at mid-point. The only things that are settled are settled negatively, by disaster; the daughter who has married the young count is shipwrecked, Calman’s second wife and her unpleasant (non-Jewish) lover move offstage in the direction of America (“at least one can earn a living there”), and, more important than all this, the Jewish way of life has come into open collision with modern skepticism.
As a realistic writer, Singer is solid and powerful; after reading the book, you cannot shake off the impression that you know all these people personally, that you have been to these places. This power saves Singer from any suggestion of the schematic, which is fortunate because it is obvious that the huge list of characters must have been chosen partly for completeness of representation. Every kind of Jew to be met with in Poland in the 1870s is there: pious, skeptical, grave, frivolous, scheming, unworldly. Singer seems to understand them all equally and portrays them all from the inside—a fact which, by itself, would place him among the best novelists now living. One of the fullest and most interesting portraits is of Ezriel, the Westernized son-in-law, who struggles hard to escape from ghetto provincialism, studying, enquiring, speculating, and finally qualifies as a doctor in Warsaw. His reward is disorientation and discontent. Modern science, once he grasps it, is just as full of mysteries and contradictions as the old religious doctrines. As for his marriage:
…Shaindel had remained provincial. She could not give up her small-town habits, and bore a grudge against Ezriel for studying so much and reading so many books. She still spoke the Polish of a peasant and could not even write an address properly. Her own son, Joziek, caught her in errors. Shaindel no longer wore a wig—but she had remained a pious Jewess. She attended the ritual bath, asked advice of rabbis, threw coins into the alms box for the holy rabbi Mayer, the Miracle Worker. For two and a half weeks out of the month, Ezriel was not permitted to go near her. When a child sneezed she tugged at its ear. On the eve of a new moon she gave the children a potion to prevent worms. Behind Ezriel’s back, she consulted wonder rabbis and even gypsies. At times it seemed to Ezriel that Shaindel played a perverse game with him, regressing as he advanced. How had he harmed her, that she should wish to oppose him?
Ezriel studies the brain and embarks on a career as a psychological consultant; perhaps in the next volume he will blossom into someone like Freud, as patriarchal as Calman but with a different set of references. Meanwhile, he has become the protégé of a rich, liberal Jew named Wallenberg, another kind of patriarch, prodding his race toward progress, comfort, and the rejection of superstitions.
While every kind of Jew is here, non-Jews, inevitably, inhabit the background, except for the Count’s son, Lucian. In this desperate character, Singer appears to be showing what happens to an aristocracy whose natural role is taken away: The old Count, pardoned, comes back to his estate and lives like an animal; his only wish is to be left in peace among the ruins and dirt, and to die on the estate. Lucian, the son, has not even his attachment to his plot of earth; cynical, drifting, a hopeless delinquent, he sinks through layers of self-indulgence to robbery and finally to murder. Singer is much too concrete a writer to make, or invite, generalizations about society, but in the portrait of Lucian he seems to be making a point that has much relevance for the Jews—that people robbed of their role, however illogical that role has been, tend to become riffraff.
The human and historical situation, so satisfying and solidly presented here, is one we are all still in, whether we are Jews or not. At a time when every critikin can prove that the novel is “finished,” Singer’s very old-fashionedness becomes a virtue. There is nothing in The Manor that would have seemed new, technically, to a novelist of a hundred years ago: it is rich, self-confident, and unfashionable, and little concerned with whether it is fashionable or not. Clearly, all Singer’s energy—and it is vast—has gone into the solid imagining of his characters, and none at all into tinkering with “form.” Not that he is indifferent to form: technically, he is a master. It is just that he is satisfied with the novel as it is and has been, and he is well able to justify his satisfaction.
V.S. NAIPAUL’S The Mimic Men also reconstructs a society from memory, in this case that of a West Indian Island which the author calls Isabella—though the reader soon slips into the habit of calling it Trinidad. An Isabellan politician, swept from power at the height of his career, sits down in an outer-London boarding-house to write his reminiscences. Without self-pity, fully aware that the forces that have ruined his career are the same that lifted him to power in the first place, he relives and evaluates his experience: postwar London where he lived the sexually adventurous life of a poor student; the move back home, a successful business career, marriage, politics; the flashback to boyhood; then a political career carried to its zenith, the crash, the quiet return to London and a not unhappy obscurity. “Early impatience had given way to despair, despair to indifference, indifference to a curious neutrality of perception.” So the narrator feels as he stands on a deserted railway platform, waiting for a train that will take him back to London after a fruitless attempt to find somewhere suitable to live in the country. But the mood is durable. “A curious neutrality of perception” well describes the atmosphere of the whole story.
Mr. Naipaul’s sharp eye for detail, his felicity of phrase, bring everything vividly before the mind. The scene is beautifully set. Our troubles begin when we try to feel our way toward the interior of the story. It seems to have no inside. The narrator is so little interested in the places and people he describes and so exclusively interested in himself that the book becomes oppressive. There is no escape from the confines of his personality. He understands other people, sees them clearly in many situations, but for him they have no life of their own; their role is to impinge on him, and so they have no inner existence. They are analyzed and described, not imagined.
Now, of course, most politicians are like the narrator, and share his egotism, certainly the clever ones who rise quickly and then overreach themselves. Doesn’t the claustrophobic atmosphere make Mr. Naipaul’s novel all the better? More true to the kind of life he is describing? Presumably Mr. Naipaul thinks so, because he screws the lid down more and more tightly, enclosing the reader firmly within the egotism of the narrator, from whose mental world we never for a moment escape. In the interests (we must suppose) of keeping us from straying into a more general view of the action, and seeing it through other eyes than the narrator’s, he even abandons the strategies of the novel altogether for long stretches, giving us instead a mixture of essay and plot-summary. The narrator analyzes the situation in which he finds himself; outlines the next few events of his life; analyzes the situation a bit more. There is no dialogue, no concrete evocation, nothing that might break in on the monologue.
This is not true throughout; there are patches of pure novelistic virtuosity, such as the brilliant description, near the beginning, of a christening party in the narrator’s London lodgings; or the first meeting between his wife and mother on returning to Isabella, though even this is telescoped and the two women, however evocatively described, don’t come out of the picture frame;
I hadn’t, I must confess, informed my mother of my marriage; nervousness had always been converted into fatigue whenever I sat down to write that letter. Sandra believed that my mother knew; the mutual dismay of the two women—precipitated by my easy remark to Sandra: “Oh, look, there’s my mother”—might easily be imagined. Yet not easily: we are a melodramatic race and do not let pass occasions for public display. Picture, then, Sandra in her carefully chosen disembarkation outfit coming face to face with a conventionally attired Hindu widow. Picture her mistaking the raised arms and the first wail for a ritual of welcome and, out of a determination to meet strange and ancient customs half-way, concealing whatever surprise and bewilderment she might have felt; then with the wail broken only to be heightened, the gestures of distress converted explicitly into gestures of rejection, realizing the nature of her reception, hesitating in her already tentative approach to the frenzied figure of my mother, and finally standing still, the centre now of a scene which was beginning to draw a fair audience of dockworkers roused from their languor, passengers, visitors, officials, the crews of ships of various nations.
This tendency to summarize, to see everything unremittingly through the narrator’s memory and always from his point of view, makes all the other characters seems as if they had been through some refrigerating process. The sacrifice is not worth it; the effect of greater fidelity is lost. Even the narrator’s father, who seems at first to have the makings of a wonderful serio-comic figure, is diminished by the lens of his son’s egotism. For all its surface bustle and variety of place and character, the book is airless. The only character we really meet is the narrator, and he, like all nimble-witted egotists, in the end becomes a bore.
THE PROBLEMS of the expatriate are insoluble, for who can breathe easily except in a landscape inhabited by the ghosts of his ancestors? In Jakov Lind’s Ergo, memory is distilled into pure nightmare. Wacholder, a middle-aged bundle of miseries, lives in a deserted customs shed, sleeps in a mountain of paper that never diminishes, inhabits a private hell. “Guilt was identical with Wacholder, there was nothing to amputate.” If there had been, it would have had to be his enormous sexual organ, with which he once stabbed a whore to death. Wacholder has a deadly enemy called Würz. He spends the bulk of the novel plotting the destruction of Würz by something called Nerve Foam, which he plans to flood into Würz’s house through the water taps. Würz lives with his wife Rita and her two sons, homosexual pimps; Wacholder lives with two writers, one of whom makes a gesture in defense of intellectual liberty, toward the end of the book, and is murdered for his pains.
The book’s main business, however, is not action, but pure fantasy; it is a fantasy about terror, and what the characters are terrified of is not death but the loss of their identity. They are afraid of nothingness. Against anything else they are armored. Würz has covered himself with white paint; his wife begs him:
Wash yourself, Ossias, she begged him. Please wash yourself before you go to the table. You hurt my eyes.
Only your eyes are sorry for me. You shouldn’t be sorry for me at all. You should be sorry for those people outside, who live, in coffins, waiting for somebody to come and hide them from the air. As for me, I can’t die. I simply can’t. I have eternal life. Just let them come. They won’t find me. I’ll hide in my own reason.
And to keep them for ever finding me, I’ll lose it.
Wacholder gets together a congress who will vote Würz into a void. If they all decide to ignore his existence, he will become a non-being. Only Aslan, one of Wacholder’s lodgers, refuses his assent and thus keeps Würz alive. The defeat breaks Wacholder; as the book ends, he is digging a hole in which to bury himself.
What can one say? In method, the book is a blend of Kafka and Beckett. Masters of the nightmare, and Lind is their equal. One shouldn’t use a novel to make biographical inferences, since a writer of fiction is by definition someone who makes things up, but it would be pedantry to pretend not to know Lind’s history; the book itself gives it to us, in a note: the Austrian childhood shattered by the Nazis, the fugitive existence with forged papers, all that early contact with brutality. After such experiences, after the cattle-trucks and the gas-chambers, humanity sweats and screams in the night. Ergo is a bit more of that scream. Books like this are part of concentration-camp literature, and their continued appearance is a sign of how little, yet, the wounds of the 1940s have healed.
October 26, 1967