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.”
As a Polish Jew writing in the early 1940s, Singer no doubt earned his grimness. But The Family Moskat exhausted me. I was ashamed to admit it; this was in fact the novel that Mom’s English friend had given her on the kibbutz. But 600 small-print pages of progressively hopeless believers and schemers was a steep price to pay for obligation to my personal creation myth. When The Magician of Lublin left me similarly unmoved, I regretfully put aside my project. It was early summer. My Year of Singer had turned into an abortive Few Months of Singer, and left a bad taste at that.
All the while, I was having my first real success writing book reviews and personal essays. I received my first well-paying bylines in places I read regularly. So, in August I turned my personal odyssey into a pitch: a literary journey of personal discovery, a search for identity, a yearlong embrace of my Eastern European Jewish heritage in the form of its most notable writer. The idea was accepted here, and suddenly my pilgrimage became a professional duty.
This upended my approach. When I started The Manor and the Estate—Singer’s longest book, originally published in two installments—I was struck not by the characters’ unhappiness and dissatisfaction, but by the implications of Singer’s decision to focus almost exclusively on those conditions. Every single one of his protagonists—whether old or young, post-Holocaust or pre-Enlightenment—feels somehow unmoored and unsure of their connections. But the prose remains unruffled. Singer obsesses with the inability to belong, but he seems accepting, even desirous of that state. And once I went after him as a writer, not as a boy in search of myself, I recognized this worldview—it is a writer’s worldview. Writing necessitates dislocation, as I came to understand in my increasingly frequent late nights at my computer after the kids had gone to bed.
With this in mind, I read the first Singer novel that struck me as an out-and-out masterpiece, The Slave. It returns us to the general time period of Satan in Goray and concerns Jacob, a learned man whose village and family were destroyed by Cossacks. As the property of a pagan farmer, he is a Jew without any community, an intellectual without books, a family man unsure if his family’s even alive. He writes: carving memorized Torah verse into a rock. And he falls in love with his owner’s daughter, Wanda.
Jacob’s surviving neighbors find him and buy him back, but he runs away from this new freedom to reunite with Wanda. They then escape to a different Jewish village where she pretends to be “Sarah,” a mute. When their secret is discovered, Jacob is excommunicated. Wanda dies in childbirth, and the villagers refuse to bury her with the Jews. Jacob wanders to Israel for 20 years and finally returns to the village, leaving his son and three grandchildren in the Holy Land. He dies in the village, and while digging Jacob’s grave the buriers discover Wanda’s corpse. In the novel’s stunning last pages, the new generation of villagers refers to Jacob as “Our teacher, the saint” and bury him with Wanda under a grave decorated with two doves kissing.
In The Slave, Singer shows a man afloat, unwelcome or uncomfortable in every community he enters. His only salvation comes from individual pursuits—love, scholarship, and private religious devotion. Judaism as a faith does not save Jacob, nor do his fellow Jews. Instead, his private dedication to the Torah and his pilgrimage to Israel are intensely personal quests, and the public recognition for them comes only decades later, after years of suffering. It’s unavoidably an allegory for a wandering artist, and certainly autobiographical; Singer wrote in a niche language yet found his greatest detractors in the New York Yiddish-reading community.
Singer was surely used to the feeling of rootlessness. There had been seven generations of rabbis on his paternal side and at least one on his maternal. His parents felt that anything less than total subservience to God was an unforgivable transgression. From this starting point, any kind of relatively modern existence would mark Singer as an outcast. He was an exile before he understood the concept. More than that: “Poland” didn’t even exist, geographically or politically, when Singer was born. As a Yiddish-speaking Jew born in 1904, he entered the world as part of a phantom population within an invisible country. He was raised in a house that could have existed in the 15th century and then lived through the starkest depths of modern horror.
When Satan in Goray won the inaugural young-writer’s competition from the newly formed Yiddish PEN Club in Warsaw, Singer had already been granted an American visa, an opportunity that he knew, in 1935, constituted “the privilege of life, a reprieve from Hitler’s executioners.” He left a wife and baby son in Europe, promising to contact them once they reached America as well. He didn’t speak to either of them again until the son was more than 20 years old. In America his talent blossomed, and he became one of the most unlikely celebrities in our literary history. The privilege of life ended up a blessing beyond mere survival, but it came at a human cost that surely nagged at Singer’s conscience. It’s little wonder he felt so comfortable writing stories in the voices of monsters.
Rather than heroes, the perpetually in-between characters in Singer’s novels are always pitiable. His most sprawling, Shadows on the Hudson, was published in the late 1950s and concerns a group of Polish Jews in immediately postwar New York. Hertz Grein is a familiar Singer type, the unsatisfied husband and intellectual, drawn to an impressionable younger woman as well as a second mistress. His aborted elopement with an acquaintance’s daughter sends his life into a tailspin as he ends up despised by all of his three lovers. Grein naturally becomes consumed by guilt and reconnects with his faith. “I thought that you, at least, had found yourself,” says his youthful one-time fiancée when they run into each other and recount their crazed affair late in the novel. Grein is humbled to the point of resignation and offers the final verdict on his life of half-measures and attempted reinvention: “I haven’t found anything.”
A year prior, Grein had run away with this woman to Miami, a place where many other of Singer’s characters, like the man himself, sought further solace from the war-weary community of immigrant New York. In his fiction Singer paints southern Florida as a final frontier, full of men who have lost everything and still feel the world is deafeningly loud. As with Coney Island, which also figures prominently in his work, the seaside is more like a cliffside; the men can either hang on or leap, and this decision is what animates their thoughts. Even the titles of Singer’s beach-set stories are stark: “Alone,” “Old Love,” “Escape From Civilization.” In all three, the protagonists are older men whose families were killed in Germany. They have little or no possessions and are engaged by talkative women (or, in the case of the misleadingly optimistic-sounding “A Party in Miami Beach,” a wealthy and aimless entrepreneur). They experience a quick sympathetic human interaction that is promptly severed or halted.
The narrator of “Alone” begins his story by asking the universe for relief: “I wish I were alone in a hotel.” Not a noteworthy desire, unless considered in the context of a certain mid-20th-century Jewish mindset. “Unthinkable to go one’s own way, to doubt or to escape the fact that I was a Jew,” Alfred Kazin writes in A Walker in the City. “We had all of us lived together so long that we would not have known how to separate even if we had wanted to. The most terrible word was aleyn, alone.” But then one doesn’t become a writer without feeling a certain comfort with aloneness. And one doesn’t abandon one’s family, country, religious upbringing, and son without feeling compelled to solitude.
In later books like Enemies, A Love Story; Shosha; and Meshugah, Singer dramatized this eternally in-between state by tossing his male characters into love triangles where the women inevitably end up hurt. The most sympathetic of these men is Aaron Greidinger, the young narrator of Shosha. Aaron neglects multiple professional writing opportunities in order to reconnect with his childhood best friend Shosha, who has grown into a sickly adult. They marry, and Aaron soon receives an extended assignment for the local Yiddish paper. His creative confidence peaks. Shosha too becomes a prolific reader and supporter of his work and asks him about the future installments of the story he’s serializing. “I began to tell her things I hadn’t yet written,” Aaron says.
I conducted a literary experiment with her—let my tongue wag freely and say whatever came to my lips … children’s stories I had heard from my mother when I was five or six; sexual fantasies no Yiddish writer would have allowed himself to publish; my own hypotheses or dreams about God, world creation, immortality of the soul, the future of mankind, as well as reveries of triumph over Hitler and Stalin. I had constructed an airplane of a material whose atoms were so densely compressed, one square centimeter weighed thousands of tons. It flew at a speed of a million miles a minute. It could pierce mountains, bore through the earth, reach the farthest planets. It contained a clairvoyant telephone that tuned me in to the thoughts and plans of every human being on earth. I became so mighty that I rendered all wars obsolete. When the Bolsheviks, Nazis, anti-Semites, swindlers, thieves, and rapists heard of my powers, they promptly surrendered. … In my airplane I kept a harem of eighteen wives, but the queen and sovereign would be no one other than Shosha herself.
This is a unique litany in Singer’s work. No other character ever expounds at such length on a feeling of power and domination. And it’s also one of the few times, even in his actual autobiographies, that Singer expresses the sensation of writing, or at least of telling stories. It is a cartoon of freedom, a depiction of the creative mind as a superhero unbound even by the laws of physics. And it tellingly includes no other people except the villains he would destroy, the harem who would pleasure him, and the woman who exalts him.
I had gone looking for a connection to Old Poland and the Lower East Side, but I ended up with a writer who obsessed over the virtues and drawbacks of selfishness and unbelonging. Singer had no interest in being a model for anyone else’s Jewishness or morality, but he clearly thought of himself as a model writer. Language was the only constant in his life and the ultimate metaphor for his statelessness. Accepting his Nobel Prize on Dec. 8, 1978, he referred to Yiddish as “a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government … a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews.” This was in fact how he envisioned the role of a writer, as demonstrated in The Slave: to toil with language for years without expectation of recognition, but with the knowledge that future generations might—might—revere your efforts as saintly.
But we don’t look to saints for self-insight. We look for inspiration and examples but keep them at a reverent arm’s length. With writers, Singer felt we should read the work and not bother with the human particulars. “When you are hungry, you don’t look for the biography of the baker,” he said in a 1985 interview.
From Singer I learned that writing requires a sense of history and connection to your past but not an obligation to answer for it. The greatest honor I could do his name would be to stop thinking I inherited anything by it. Speaking at the Nobel banquet, he listed 10 reasons why he started writing for children, and up at No. 2 he answered my suspicion that he would have found my yearlong project absurd: “Children,” he stated approvingly, “don’t read to find their identity.”
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