The following is an edited transcript of a discussion about Singer's life and works moderated by Max Rudin, publisher of The Library and America, whose participants included Morris Dickstein, Jonathan Rosen, David Roskies, and Ilan Stavans.
MAX RUDIN: When Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize, he wrote to the Swedish Academy, "It's a wonderful surprise, not only for me, but for all Yiddish readers. They feel rightly this honor was given to them, too, because of their faithfulness to their roots and to their culture." And in some respects Singer emerges from the Nobel Prize period as representative and spokesman for Eastern European Yiddish culture. Is that fair? Is that a good way to understand the place of his work in literature?
MORRIS DICKSTEIN: I think it's unusual for him to be representative. And it's interesting that he says he accepts it as an honor to Yiddish readers and not to Yiddish writers, since he had contempt for most other Jewish and Yiddish writers. And mostly he had contempt for the whole Yiddish literary tradition. He saw himself as reaching back to earlier Jewish traditions and away from Yiddish traditions that he saw as polluted by Socialism and sentimentality. Also, this is late Singer, and kind of an official moment. I think earlier he rarely saw himself as representative of anything.
ILAN STAVANS: It is interesting that he says Yiddish readers, too, in that he's not representing American Yiddish readers. I was thinking of this answer more in the context of the ethnic writer that Singer has become in the United States in representing the American Jews. To some extent the ethnic writer always is pushed to represent African-American readers, or Latino readers, or Asian-American readers.
DAVID ROSKIES: Well, the first thing I would say is that roots and culture are wonderful buzzwords, and they're unexceptionable. And that's what I think he does to position himself as an All-American writer. I mean, really, who would take exception to a writer who speaks in the name of roots and culture? That's like motherhood and apple pie. But you're rightit's balanced by the fact that it's Yiddish. But Yiddish is fuzzy and warm, just like roots and culture are fuzzy and warm. So I guess I would use that as the foil for the Singer who was anything but fuzzy and warm.
I think his strength as a writer from beginning to end was in opposition to a very distinct culture and cultural tradition. It's true that he was at war with socialism and humanism. One of the great turning points in his life was coming to America in 1935. And the writer's block that he sufferedseven years, basically, where he completely dries up as a writer. Because he discovers the demise of Yiddish as a living language in this country. And what is he going to do? He has this linguistic medium. It's what he knows best.
And the readersthese same loyal readers have abandoned him, have betrayed him. They're speaking a patois, a pidgin Yiddish, beneath contempt. No self-respecting writer could write the language that is spoken in the streets of New York and Miami Beach. So what is a writer to do? In his own brilliant dialectical way, he decides that the answer, at least for the time being, is to renounce the American present, renounce his readers, renounce the degraded state of Jewish culture in America, and go back to some re-imagined past. To me that's the root of his greatness from beginning to end.
JONATHAN ROSEN: He is redefining what Yiddish literature is. Now it is synonymous with him. He may have started out writing in opposition to the tradition, but, you know, that's the nature of tragic Jewish history. He started out as the first of the Mohicans, and now he's the last of the Mohicans because the world changed around him. And so he ishe now knows that people will identify him with Yiddish literature, even if they're not reading him in Yiddish.
I worked at The Forward when it had become the emblem of what a Jewish newspaper was supposed to be. Nobody spoke about all the Yiddish newspapers it had argued with and quarreled with. And that context is the thing that made The Forward alive and meaningful. So it's kind of the blessing and the curse of being last or one of the last.
MORRIS DICKSTEIN: It's possible to be so traditional that you're radical. It's true that he did become more reactionary toward the end of his life. In books like The Penitent and so on he sort of presented himself as someone who scorned much of the modern world. On the other hand, by reaching back from immediate traditions to earlier traditions he showed that a use could be made of them that made them seem radical and even modern within a contemporary literary context.
MAX RUDIN: Let's talk briefly about Singer's use of the supernatural.
JONATHAN ROSEN: His father was a mystically inclined rabbi, who literally predicted the Messiah would come on a certain date. His brother tells a story in his memoir about rocking the cradle that Isaac was lying in and getting so excited hearing his father talk about how the Messiah was about to come that he Isaac actually flew out of the cradle.
And his maternal grandfather was a rationalist rabbi. And this was a conversation inside Judaism, which is both a natural and a supernatural religion. Singer is roughly contemporaneous with Gershom Scholem, who was suddenly telling people that this seemingly hidden occult stream of Judaism is actually as large and formative as the seemingly normative tradition above it. Partly Singer was doing what writers always do, which is just drawing on his inheritance, on his background.
ISAIAH SHEFFER: I can tell you one practical anecdote that might shed light on it. I was working with him on the adaptation of his Shlemiel stories into a play. And at one point, the plot requires that Shlemiel be turned around and head back to the same town that he's just left. And we were sitting in his living room on 86th Street thinking, how does the guy get turned around? We were trying to find a plot device for this folktale. And at one point, I swear to you, he said, "Listen, maybe a demon comes… Nah, nah." [laughter] And then we decided that a rascal turns his shoes around and points them back toward the other town. I think that's just a lightweight illustration that maybe his belief in the supernatural was something that he used as a literary tool.
MORRIS DICKSTEIN: Think of the Yeats line where the spirit comes to him and says, "I come to give you metaphors for poetry." In a way this is true for Singer as well. When he was growing up there he was someone who was very much involved in a world of ideas in Warsaw and elsewhere. The hot philosophy was rumors of Freud, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche. In other words, that element of modern culture, which is sort of the rediscovery of the irrational. And Singer had in his background--in his world--a fund of explanations that were very vividly dramatic explanations of the irrational.
He then proceeded to live life in a century where the irrational seemed to be dominating modern history. And so, he had something that he either did or did not believe in, but obviously believed in at some level as a way of explaining the paradoxes, and the cruelties, and the violence, and the motivations of human life as they were--then even more so--writ large in the contemporary history that threw him and his people from one place to another, and destroyed many of them and subjected them to things that he felt he had a way of explainingor at least of dramatizing this material, using it.
DAVID ROSKIES: I would call what Singer does, not magic realism but demonic realism. And I think that he already perfected that in the old country. I think it's in Satan in Goray that he really shows his stuff. And what's new when he comes to Americaand I maintain that in 1943 is really the annus mirabilis of his career, that's when he really bursts forth as a genius after this prolonged silencewhat is new is two things. First of all, he returns to a very traditional form of Yiddish writing, I would say, the most traditional formnamely, the monologue, which was already passé. But all of modern Yiddish literature begins with the monologue out of the recognition that this is a spoken language, and the real strength of it is its spoken-ness. Sholem Aleichem, and Mendele Mocher Sforim, and Peretzthey perfect the monologue.
So, what happens in 1943 is he returns to this very old-fashioned literary form, and he perfects it on many grounds simultaneously. So he creates these magnificent monologists. Gimpel the Fool, the woman speaker in a story called "The Wife Killer." He creates a whole series of monologues. And, of course, those with the devil, his major mouthpiece.
But where he discovered this the first time was at the second ending of Satan in Goray, which is very modernist. He ends the novel twice. He has a realistic ending, and then he has a storybook ending. And the literary presence that runs away with the book is a dybbuk. He creates this dybbuk who starts blaspheming, and ripping apart the whole plot and the veneer of civility, and gives the story a completely different read, which has nothing to do with everything that we have understood to be the novel. It's really quite brilliant.
Okay, so now we flash forward, and it's 1943, and he gives the devil his due by making him the master storyteller. So, on the one hand, we're on familiar ground. We hear a voice. A highly articulate, Judaically knowledgeable, brilliantly idiomatic voice telling the storyonly it's the devil. And it's the devil incarnate.
Where I think the real modernism and the genius of it is, is that it's narrated by the id. The devil becomes the spokesperson and the driving force of the id, who then proceeds to enter into the consciousness--the minds of each one of his victims--and adopts the voice and the sensibility, and the reading material of each one of his victims in turn. He is dramatizing the id, the force of evil, the demonic within each one of us in a way that it's never been done before.
ILAN STAVANS: I think as we analyze and as we discuss Singer transforming himself from a Yiddish Polish writer to an American writer, we need also to understand how the readership is changing. The readership that has been with him when he's writing Satan in Goray is very different from the readership--the American Yiddish readership--that he encounters the first seven years. And then that readership transforms itself anew.
There's one moment in which he is having a radio conversation with Irving Howe, I believe it's at Princeton or at Yale. Later on it's transcribed in a Midstream text, where Singer actually tells Howe that heHowe--is much more of a Yiddishist, of a Yiddish writer, than Singer himself. He's much more loyal to the left-wing Socialist tradition of utopianism than Singer is. Singer has abandoned that sense--that "nonsense," as he puts it.
But it is because also in many ways the American Jewish and world Jewish readership is being transformed. It is renewing itself as Singer is renewing it in other writers, and it is shifting its terrain. I think that in many ways Singer is a transitional writer in that sense. A transitional between the early immigrant writers that we haveAmerican Jewish writers, Yiddish writers, and the Bellows, and Roths, and Henry Roths that will be emerging. It's kind of a figure in-between that serves as a bridge.
MORRIS DICKSTEIN: One biographical detail that should be mentioned here is that I think that he was liberated by the early death of his brother, whom he revered and whose shadow he remained in his first years when he was in America. His brother died in 1944. And I think that probably foreclosed his early attempt to be a writer like his brother, which is to say to write a multigenerational family chronicle of which we have The Family Moskat. And it's clear from thatthough there are wonderful things in itthat his bent was not to do that kind of writing, which his brother had excelled in.
Now, curiously, his brother had always had a much more "modern" sensibility. His brother was the rebel, the one who broke away, who more clearly rejected the tradition. Whereas Bashevis Singer clearly had much more affinity for the fables, and folklore, and mysticism of his father that was in his background than his brother did. I think it was the death of his brother that not only liberated him as a writer, but helped him to become the kind of writer that he later became.
ILAN STAVANS: I think the fact that it's his brother who diesgenerally you have the pattern of the writer whose father is a figure, the Kafka figurethe Kafka model--whose father is the oppressive figure that opens suddenly a can of worms. And when the father disappears, or in the case of Kafka it's a different storythe author disappearsthen everything kind of falls into shape or is seen differently.
I think that sibling rivalry is very important in the case of Singer. And the fact that the brother dies on this side, that has become so successful, and that it takes for Singer, as we were mentioning before, all this time in some ways is about the brother on the other side that allows me to navigate alone and to tell the story of the family in my own way.
DAVID ROSKIES: Okay, so we agree that he comes here armed with certain tools. He has the rationalist and the mystical fighting within his genes. And certain traditions that will seem exotic. But let's not forget, here was a young man, who from the age of 22-23 decided he was going to live from his writing, and did for the rest of his life. He was a professional writer from the word go. So, it's true, his older brother landed him a job as a proofreader in the Yiddish equivalent of The New York Review of Books, and he wasn't such a great proofreader. But it was a paying job. And it allowed him to enter into the literary world. He was the youngest member inducted into the Yiddish P.E.N. Club. So he was a boy wonder even in Poland. And it was in Poland, speaking about the readershipand here I'd like to sharpen this question of the American readership and what you call the transformation of that readership. What he learned to do was to differentiate his writing. He knewhe had his highbrow writing under the name Yitskhok Bashevis, and he started a little magazine with Aaron Zeitlin. And the name of that magazine was Globus: The Globe. You know, not anything modest! The Globe is what they called their little magazine in the middle of the Depression. So they were the world. And Yiddish was the world, and they were at the center of that world. So, that's where he wrote very tough literary criticism, that's where he serialized Satan in Goray.
He also wrote sensational pot boilers, bordering on pornography, which he published anonymously. Although in Warsaw in literary circles everybody knew that he was one of them. He was excoriated for doing that. And then he wrote light stuff in between. So that by the time he comes to New York and he comes out of this terrible depression and writer's block, what does he do as a professional writer? He creates three literary personae, right? So he has Yitskhok Bashevis, which he always reserves for his best writing. And then he has Yitskhok Varshavsky, for his middle-brow writing and his literary criticism, and for In My Father's Court, which he published under the middle-brow name, and all of his children's stories under the middle-brow name. And then he has a secret pen name for his tabloid journalismD. Segalwhich was only revealed, you know, very late in life.
ILAN STAVANS: He comes from the Yiddish literary tradition where using a pseudonym is a way to reinvent your persona.
MORRIS DICKSTEIN: It's also important that although he has these separate kinds of writing under different names, it's the popular writing and the desire to reach the popular audience that also undergirds the serious writing. In other words, one of the most striking thing about the serious writing is its amazing concreteness. Again and again he says, writing should not be analytical. Writing should not be critical within the writingit should be story, it should be concrete, it should be factual, it should be terse, it should be definite. And these are the kinds of things that one has to do in popular writing and immediate writing to reach an audience directly.
Now, I think the popular writing also undergirds the serious writing in a more negative way in the sense that one of the defects of some of the serious writing is this wild tendency towards melodrama. Even some of the very best stories have melodramatic twists and turns that are questionable. And I think they come from the potboilers, and they come from the more popular sensibility. So there is, I think, a series of overlaps and connections between the way he pursues each of these kinds of writing.
DAVID ROSKIES: You're absolutely right. The plot of Satan in Goray is: married to two men, possessed of the devil. I mean it's straight out of
ISAIAH SHEFFER: Makes a good movie.
MAX RUDIN: It's a good headline.
DAVID ROSKIES: Yeah! That's the story! [laughter] It's what he does with it, though, that makes it more serious.