Searching for I.B. Singer
A yearlong first encounter with the great Yiddish author who gave me my middle name
There were always two stories about my first name. Mom liked to say it was an homage to John Lennon, while Dad stressed that it honored his older brother who died in the hospital in 1951, only 3 days old, a year before Dad was born. About my middle name, however, there was never any question. Mom had spent two years on a kibbutz in the late 1960s, where an English friend lent her a novel by the man who later became the only Yiddish-language Nobel laureate for literature. She grew to love his books so much that she named me John Isaac Lingan—for John Lennon and lost baby John, and for Isaac Bashevis Singer.
But despite turning out to be a voracious reader from my teens, I dutifully ignored Singer for years. On a subconscious level I must have just enjoyed denying my Jewish mother pleasure. It would have given her such joy if I’d simply cracked open The Collected Stories one day, but I preferred Gravity’s Rainbow, Herzog, White Noise, Jesus’ Son. I wasn’t only trying to meet my quota of teenage rebellion; Singer seemed genuinely uninteresting to me. He was an unabashed believer in God, and I am a skeptic on my most open-minded day. So far as I gathered, he was a chronicler of palsied rabbis and guilt-ridden Holocaust survivors. This half-Catholic, baseball-obsessed suburbanite child of the ’90s somehow never got in the mood for that trip. Plus, bearing his name I felt obligated to embrace him all at once. I agreed with a stray notion in Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: “You didn’t have the right to open one book unless you were prepared to read them all.”
Maybe it was the death of my grandmother, who was born and raised in the same Yiddish-speaking Manhattan that Singer colonized on the page and in reality. Maybe it was being married to a Polish woman who had read Singer’s stories as a child. Maybe it was the birth of our second child, our first son. For whatever reason, I resolved that 2012 would be my year to finally give my middle-namesake his due. I spent the year reading the bulk of his work: all the major novels, dozens of short stories, three volumes of autobiography, a few stray interviews and essays (most of his nonfiction remains untranslated), and one slim biography, Florence Noiville’s Isaac B. Singer: A Life. I was looking for some insight into my mother’s young mind perhaps, or my wife’s—some view of Polishness or Jewishness that might inform my marriage or self-conception. The nominally grown-up me, with financial and familial responsibilities competing for time that used to go purely to reading, was suddenly willing to engage with a few thousand pages about shtetl residents and their transplanted counterparts in New York. Anything that might offer a steadying hand.
I started with Love and Exile, a late-career collection of three contiguous memoirs—of Singer’s life as young boy, of his entrance into the Warsaw writing community, and of his initial experience in America. Singer was well into his 70s when he wrote these three “spiritual autobiographies,” the first two of which are almost short enough to be read during a haircut. The writing is smooth but plain and repetitive. He harps endlessly on his existential torment as a young man, describing the anguish of years spent flitting guiltily between Spinoza and the Torah. As a boy, Singer was obsessed with fate and God’s will, like a prepubescent Woody Allen without the jokes. As a young man, he carried that same sense of shame and self-hatred into multiple unsatisfying relationships with women who, by his telling, attached themselves to him like barnacles. The drama of Singer’s early life was the kind of thing I feared it might be: struggles with a God I didn’t believe in, and with a berserk and joyless bachelorhood that couldn’t have borne less of a resemblance to my current life. So, I excused this book as a throat-clearing exercise and waded into Singer’s real work, the fiction.
Gimpel the Fool’s celebrated title story I found to be a touching little yarn and not as saccharine as some of the collection’s other stories of spiritually redeemed older men. Much more affecting were the book’s three most intense stories—“The Mirror,” “From the Diary of One Not Born,” and “The Unseen”—all written from the perspective of devils and demons. These characters take great enjoyment from ruining human lives and damning poor Polish Jews to hellfire. There is no narrative consideration as to whether or not the human characters “deserve” their fate, just a recognition that some people suffer it.
After seducing and capturing a chaste young woman named Zirel, the narrator of “The Mirror” ends his tale with the kind of lament that made me glaze over when delivered by a human Singer protagonist: “Is there a God? Is He all merciful? Will Zirel ever find salvation? Or is creation a snake primeval crawling with evil? How can I tell? I’m still only a minor devil. Imps seldom get promoted. Meanwhile generations come and go, Zirel follows Zirel, in a myriad of reflections—a myriad of mirrors.” Simply by making his character a demon, Singer reinvigorated a rather garden-variety existential quandary. Singer’s world was suddenly one where humans fall prey to unknowable evil, but not even the agents of that evil can find fulfillment. Singer balanced his religious belief and his skepticism by asserting the existence of hell and then claiming that hell was just as random and limiting as Earth.
Satan in Goray, his 1935 debut novel, concerns a 17th-century village torn apart by the arrival of false messiah Shabbatai Zevi. It contains some of the most vivid and horrifying violence I’ve ever encountered in any book: countless rapes and maulings, endless teeth gnashing, incest, bestiality, shape-shifting, self-immolation—it’s Bosch-level gore, but in the service of a generally conservative story where the closest thing to a hero is the skeptical, joyless rabbi. While the village of Goray falls prey to the false prophet, Rabbi Benish despairs in the way that all aged, intellectual men do in Singer’s work. Then he leaves. He plays no role in the second half of the book, which is why Goray descends into a cesspool of cruelty and torture. I admired the sheer force of the novel and read most of it with my mouth agape. It was a cold read, but for a first novel it was astounding.
Satan in Goray was, as I found to my dismay, the last time that Singer employed such visceral supernaturalism at novel length. I moved on to The Family Moskat, serialized in the Forward in 1945 and translated to English in 1950. It’s a broad generational saga, and in a way it’s a generous and even celebratory book—filled with action and passions and so many round characters that none explicitly qualify as a protagonist. But it’s also unbearably bleak: No one seems happy, or even seems to have any idea of how to attain happiness. When two of the youngest characters, Asa Heshel and Hadassah Moskat, follow their hearts and run away from their respective spouses to be together, it’s a blind disaster. And Singer offers no clue that their love is “genuine” or worth blowing up the family for. The novel ends, at least in English, with the Nazis closing in on Warsaw and a major character proclaiming, “Death is the Messiah.”
Reflecting on a rough 2012, the Tattler suggests we all resolve to do the best we can with what we’ve got