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What the Swedes Read: Isaac Bashevis Singer

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Isaac Bashevis Singer

Daniel Handler
12 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Isaac Bashevis Singer (United States, 1978)
  • BOOK READ:: The Collected Stories, various translators

For this Nobel project, there are writers I know: for instance, William Faulkner. There are writers I don’t: for instance, Gisouè Carducci. There are writers I sort of know: for instance, Octavio Paz. And then there’s Isaac Bashevis Singer, who’s in a whole different category. One way to put it is that I’ve read and enjoyed his work for a very long time, but that undersells where he fits not only into my life but also into the lives of a small smidgen of the population. For us, it’s more like we’ve been reading him since before we could read. And by “we,” I mean “certain Jews.”

Though Singer was an American writer, with a couple of National Book Awards to prove it, that doesn’t feel like the right nationality to put down on the Nobel list. Nor does Polish, which matches his birthplace. Jew is the word we’re looking for here. He’s not the first Jew to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he’s the first one to win it for writing in Yiddish, and we’re not going to see another one. Yiddish is a language that’s more Jewish even than Hebrew is. Yiddish is actually Yiddish for “Jewish,” now used only in a few scattered Hasidic communities and among the last of a generation of Jewish grandmothers. There’s an effort to keep the language alive, but it feels forced and academic, the way people still learn to play the lute.

More successfully, there’s a small generational slice that grew up on Isaac Bashevis Singer. For a certain kind of Jew, Singer’s work was the perfect way to transmute Judaism. There was some nervousness about passing on the Books of Moses among people who weren’t sure they believed in God. There was unease about praising Israel too heartily, as this would bring up nerve-wracking political discussions. But it was no problem to bequeath Yiddish culture, with its belief that the world is crazy (mishegas!), that we all have our troubles (tsuris!), and that sitting around picking things apart and complaining about them (kibbitzing! kvetching!) is the best way to spend our time.

At first glance, this might seem a far cry from religious practice, but Judaism centers on scholarship and debate over history and tradition, which is basically the same thing as picking apart and complaining about crazy troubles, so that’s why my Jewish education had as its bedrock the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer. His tales for children were weekly read-alouds at Sunday school. His shorter novels laid out basic moral quandaries to wrestle with while I trained for my bar mitzvah. One rainy afternoon, my confirmation class sat and watched Yentl, the movie musical based on one of Singer’s stories. Barbra Streisand echoed through the auditorium like the voice of God.

Although I’ve read and appreciated Singer as an adult—his posthumously published novel, Shadows on the Hudson, is in my all-time top fifty—he remains a fixture of my youth, existing in that curious space in the young brain where you don’t know anything about literature but you can’t stop thinking about stories. Some of the hallmarks of Singer’s work are the stuff of fairy tales—foolish heroes, mystical beings—and so his stories blurred in my head with some of those other foolish heroes and mystical beings, like Jonah and the Whale. When I was young, Isaac Bashevis Singer was an author like Moses was; that is, sort of, if you ever stopped to think about it.

I was all set to write about Singer like this. As a children’s author, I’m fascinated by the way children’s literature remains omnipresent but invisible, so that a book like Harriet the Spy, for instance, remains a widely read and universally loved novel without ever being granted the status of The Great Gatsby. I pulled down my copy of The Collected Stories, which like most Collecteds in my house was sitting there unopened, and thought I’d choose just one story—the opener, maybe, the much-anthologized “Gimpel the Fool”—and filter it through the prism of my own youthful readings.

Instead I lost about ten days. It would be tempting to say that instead of the blurry magic of my young memories of Singer, I encountered some older, saner vision, but truth be told it was the same mesmerism that had always gripped me when reading his work. I caught myself thinking, during walks or while cooking dinner, about something that had happened to a friend of mine, before coming to the slow realization that the incident was not in my own world but in a Singer story I’d finished later that afternoon. It was as if my hours reading him had been sessions of hypnosis, with their own flashbacks peeking through the cracks when I returned to real life.

Singer’s stories were published during the second half of the twentieth century, but they are largely set back a bit, in Old Country shetls, or villages—think of Fiddler on the Roof, based on the work of the only other major Yiddish author—or in a New York City populated by Jewish refugees, but it’s not just the journey of the immigrant that threads the work together. It’s the presence of the supernatural. It’s rare, in the stories collected here, to find one devoid of a demon or angel, of a curse or a psychic phenomenon. In the Old Country, these presences are couched in the mutterings of clergymen and old women; in New York, they’re lurking in the spiritualist shenanigans of various loopy intellectuals. But however slippery their origins, their manifestations are real. Several stories are narrated by the devil, but there’s no prankishness or irony, the way Donald Barthelme or Jonathan Lethem might do it. The closest analog I can come up with is Gabriel García Márquez, whose magical realism approaches the way these phantasms touch the lives of Singer’s characters:

Herman Gombiner considered himself to be among the select few privileged to see beyond the facade of phenomena. He had seen a blotter raise itself from the desk, slowly and unsteadily float toward the door, and once there, float gently down, as if suspended by an invisible string held by some unseen hand. The whole thing had been thoroughly senseless. No matter how much Herman thought about it, he was unable to figure out any reason for what had taken place. It had been one of those extraordinary happenings that cannot be explained by science, or religion, or folklore… He had been standing next to the chest, about to take a handkerchief out of a drawer. Suddenly his gaze had been attracted to the desk and he had seen the blotter rise and float. Nor was this the only such incident. Such things had been happening to him since childhood.

Such steadfast, ordinary language also seems to be held by some unseen hand, obeying Singer’s own directive, in his brief introduction, that a story should have “the magical power of merging causality with purpose, doubt with faith, the passions of the flesh with the yearnings of the soul.” Ordinary and mythic, Singer’s stories are indeed supernatural incidents, at least to this reader—as vivid and unexplainable in adulthood as they were when first encountered, in the dying and familiar language of one’s own childhood.

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