Searching for I.B. Singer
A yearlong first encounter with the great Yiddish author who gave me my middle name
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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