The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Roundtable Discussion
Singer in America: The Translation Problem
The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Roundtable Discussion
An Interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer

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I. Singer's expanding audience
II. Singer as literary celebrity;
Singer and the Yiddish literary tradition

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: What about this change from writer for a smallish Yiddish audience to writer for a mainstream English language audience? And allied to that question, what was it that made Singer's work apposite to the American literary culture of the 50s and 60s?

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: There was a Jewish-American literary renaissance, and here was somebody who seemed to precede it, and who seemed to know so much more. Who seemed like absolutely the real article. And there were different stages in his recognition in America. The first stage, after "Gimpel the Fool" was published in Partisan Review, and then was the title story in a very successful volume of stories, was really Singer as a sort of avant-garde writer. Not a bestselling writer—but Singer as the darling of the literary intellectuals and of the American Jewish writers and critics. Now, that was before Singer was being published in The New Yorker. That was when Singer was sort of a discovery of Irving Howe and the New York intellectuals.

Later, when Singer was published in The New Yorker, he achieved a much wider readership, just around the time that he began, after a long delay, really writing about an American setting and an American world. And so that was a different and a much more wider dissemination of Singer to American readers. Then, finally, there was perhaps a third stage around the time of the Nobel Prize, where he became a monument, really. And his books were very, very widely translated abroad from the English, and he became really a world-class writer.

DAVID ROSKIES: But you're skipping the first stage, and that is the commercial failure of The Family Moskat, which was—I mean, you may minimize its achievement as a modernist classic, but it is a very impressive novel. And one that he spent—I mean, the amount of psychic energy that went into producing that novel was enormous. And the hopes that he must have had that this was going to launch his career as a Western mainstream writer, and it flopped in 1950. And it was only after the second genesis of him appearing as a cutesy storyteller that he figured out, "Ah, that's what they want from me."

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: But "Gimpel the Fool" was his first stage of his recognition. The Family Moskat was his non-recognition. In other words, it was a book that was really only widely read after the stories began to appear, and after the acclaim that he received.

ILAN STAVANS: But I go back to the issue of readership. Who gets the story published in Partisan Review? It starts with Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe. Greenberg telling Howe, "You have to read this writer." He reads it, he's mesmerized. Bellow translates it

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: They stand over Bellow. Bellow is at the typewriter, and they stand over him and read him sentence by sentence. And in a couple of hours Bellow has it typed onto the typewriter.

ILAN STAVANS: And so he has this cadre of people that are supporting him. The Family Moskat is already a failure. But a group of Jewish intellectuals, critics, writers believe that he is a link with the past that is quickly disappearing, and he begins to be championed. Without this group around him it would've been a very different story.

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: But remember this was Irving Howe more than 20 years before World of Our Fathers, this was Irving Howe before he became a well-known literary figure. When he was really a figure in a relatively small world of New York political and literary intellectuals. And so that was where the initial recognition came.

JONATHAN ROSEN: I think it's amazing to realize that Singer was 49 years old when this story was published. I mean he was in some sense made by Partisan Review. But he was also made by The Forward. I mean, Irving Howe tells that story in his memoirs about discovering Singer, but he discovered Singer the way Columbus discovered America. I mean, he was there with the readership, and he had already become an incredibly accomplished writer.

And what's interesting for me to wonder about is whether even a story like "Gimpel the Fool," which suddenly was enormously appealing to American readers, had perhaps already been shaped by America, even though it was written in Yiddish. I mean, The Family Moskat ends, at least in English, "Death is the real Messiah"—

DAVID ROSKIES: Only in English.

JONATHAN ROSEN: Only in English. But that's how it was translated. But now there is a kind of element of hopefulness as well as the darkness, which may just be the reflection of his own story inside of this country.

DAVID ROSKIES: There's another aspect to his popularity in America, which is once he appears in English all of his work is radically decontextualized. Yiddish readers encountered "Gimpel the Fool" when it was written in 1945. And they read it alongside his other short stories, which complemented those told by the devil. There are actually two stories that I think were linked and he conceptualized them together. One is "Zeidlus the Pope," which is '43 or '44. And the other is "Gimpel the Fool." They're the same story, two aspects of it. One is a person who is destroyed because he is all mind and rationalism, okay? Taken to an absolute extreme. The boy wonder who then wants to become a pope and is undone by his hubris.

JONATHAN ROSEN: And he sells out to Christian culture.

DAVID ROSKIES: Yes. Right, then he sells out. But is redeemed in the penultimate moment of his life when he says, "If you, the devil, are real, then God is real." So he has that transcendental moment, which is given to him despite everything that he fought for and labored over. And then you have Gimpel, the man of perfect faith, who achieves transcendence through a long and rocky—through the school of hard knocks, and being cuckolded once, and then again, and being the butt of everybody's joke.

I think that is a rewriting, a modernist revision of one of the classic Hasidic stories of Nachman of Bratslav, the story of the wise man and the fool. So you have the two characters, the wise man and the fool. Only he splits them and creates two characters.

But the important thing, the point is this. He writes them in the very midst of the Holocaust. The end of that civilization. And it is his response to the two—these are two different but complementary responses to the Holocaust. By the time these works appear in English one is in Partisan Review in 1953. "Zeidlus" appears in 1960 in a random collection—you know, the third collection of short stories, in the middle of all this other stuff, right? So, whatever he was trying to say at that particular moment to that particular audience is lost.

ISAIAH SHEFFER: There was also that elfin interview persona that he developed. He is said to have said in answer to the question, "How come 'Gimpel' was such a success?"—"Perhaps people thought it was about Gimbel's. I think I'll call my next book Macy's" [laughter]. I wouldn't vouch for that quote.

ILAN STAVANS: But it's a good one.

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: I wouldn't vouch for the following story that I heard on good authority. Singer was invited to speak down at the University of Texas, and there was going to be a huge audience. And a young man was sent to accompany him, he met him at the airport. He was trying to be very helpful, and he said, "Mr. Singer, I'll be there. After your reading there'll be a question period. Is there any particular question that you would like to speak about? I could ask it from the audience." And he said, "You know, a lot of people have compared my work to that of Marc Chagall. Perhaps you would ask me what I would think about a comparison of my work to Marc Chagall."

And so the event occurs and there's the question period and the discussion. The young man in the back raises his hand and says, "Mr. Singer, I wonder how would you compare your work to that of Marc Chagall?" And he says, "Now that is the stupidest question I have ever heard."

DAVID ROSKIES: Except that it really happened to the head of the English Department. It wasn't just a hapless undergrad. [laughter]

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: Well, these stories change in the retelling.

MAX RUDIN: I'd like to ask, what does it mean to have Singer in The Library of America? Does Singer's work in any way expand our idea of what the possibilities of what American literature are?

JONATHAN ROSEN: I think Singer became an American writer for lots of reasons. I mean, one of them is that immigrant writers in general dramatized an aspect of the American experience so that people on the periphery suddenly seemed to be at the center of the dramatic story. But I also think that there is a strain in America itself that was compatible to Singer. And I don't know if he willed it into being, or if it happened just because he was living in this country. You think about a novel like The Slave, which is set in the seventeenth century, and really the detail and the evocation of Poland in the seventeenth century is incredibly rich. But there's something about the love story that is so contemporary. And the hero of that story really is a kind of American solitary figure. There's an Emersonian sense, almost, of self-reliance in that book that is very much at odds with traditional Eastern European notions of Jewish community. And it's a very natural transformation. I don't know if it was done consciously. But you simply feel it in that book. It feels like an American book. There's an element of American consciousness in it. And although it has the trappings of Jewishness in it, it really feels more almost like a kind of American religion, where the journey is inward, and the salvation of the self is the individual's salvation. There's a powerful strain of individualism in Singer that he discovers in himself, I think, that just fits in an American tradition.

Also, the flipside of that is the sense of America as a place of—a sense of chosenness gone wrong. I mean, I think the greatest novel in the nineteenth century in America is Moby Dick, about a whole community—a whale ship—that sinks, and everybody's destroyed except for one guy with a Biblical name who tells the story. And there's a way in which that solitary narrator riding the aftermath of calamity is very much in tune with what Singer is doing. I don't think he's doing it consciously, but I think there was something in the air, or something in the atmosphere, and something perhaps about America itself, having been born out of certain Jewish ideas as transformed by Protestantism that you hear an echo of in some sense in his writing.

DAVID ROSKIES: That's very funny—or it's wonderful, because I was told that the other country where he is most popular is Italy, because all his readers are lapsed Catholics. And they identify with the drama that gets played out with all these penitents and all these rebels, all these fornicators who really want to go back and pray and be cleansed of their sins. So, you're right—I think there's a religious dimension to his writing which is remarkably modern.

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: And there's the sexual dimension, which is to say that Singer was early on seen as unusually modern in his treatment of sex, and passion, and love. And he was seen as different from other Yiddish writers. He was seen as less traditional than other Yiddish writers for that reason. And I think that relates to the individualism that we might feel in Singer's work, as compared to the communalism. I mean, he really felt that each—he had a kind of fatalism, and he felt that human beings are like puppets who play out their little dramas on earth for a very short period. He had a vision of life that promoted the idea that we should live all we can and live out our desires, even though it may lead us to be kind of shadows who are just dancing around in a void. Both a gloomy, grim, dark philosophy at the same time--one that had to do with a very positive view of living in the moment, and particularly about living sexually.

MAX RUDIN: Let's pick up two phrases. One is your "shadows dancing in the void," and the other is Jonathan's reference to Moby-Dick: "And I alone have escaped to tell thee." Let's just talk about the Holocaust and Singer's work. Does the Holocaust change the meaning and direction of Singer's work?

ILAN STAVANS: The Holocaust has become such a cathartic, such a cataclysmic event in Jewish history, in world history, that you can't write the same, you can't think the same, and you don't have the same audience. So I think it's simply that the zeitgeist has been transformed, and the void is there, and you'll respond to that void.

JONATHAN ROSEN: I mean I think you can answer the question of the effect of the Holocaust on Singer in a hundred ways and a hundred times. It was just so profound. But I think it's amazing to realize how cold his eye had to be to be able to write with such energy—to almost be liberated by the Holocaust.

I remember when I was at The Forward, the old Yiddishists would sort of talk about Singer's brother as if his he was not only a better writer, but that he kind of had the tact and integrity to die in 1944 when everybody else was dying. Whereas Bashevis Singer was suddenly energized and had this whole other career, in which he was also free to reinvent what was gone and shape it around his own imagination. So it's half tribute, but it's half transformation

DAVID ROSKIES: It's not, almost. We have the documents to prove it. He writes an essay in 1943, "Concerning Yiddish Writing in Poland." The most anti-sentimental overview of Yiddish culture. It's written in the Holocaust issue of Di zukunft, which was the leading Yiddish periodical. It was the first time that all the surviving writers were asked to respond. They all do by writing jeremiads. It's August 1943, Yiddish writers—if nobody else in this world—knew exactly what had happened. Polish Jewry was over, was finished. And he writes this scathing, scathing review of Yiddish between the two World Wars, where he says that it was getlekh on a got, veltlekh on a velt: "It was godly without believing in God. It was worldly without having a world to stand on." That's it.

So I think just as you said before, the death of his brother in 1944 and the death of Eastern Europe was absolutely liberating in terms of allowing him to reinvent the past. But I would also say that's sort of a misanthropic, maybe, side of it. The other thing is something you said when we talked about Shadows on the Hudson. Let's not forget that from the get-go, he identified Nazism and Communism as two equal evil empires. And you can see that in "The Cafeteria," you can see that in Shadows on the Hudson, you can see that in Enemies—in all these stories where the Holocaust is invoked—for him, those who survived the gulag are functionally the same as those who survived the death camps.

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: Remember, Singer very clearly—if we can identify him at all with the survivor characters in Enemies or in Shadows on the Hudson—felt a great deal of survivor guilt. It's true that the Holocaust, by finishing off the older Yiddish culture, had in a sense liberated him. And yet I think he felt—and his characters all feel—his characters are like the survivor characters in Shadows on the Hudson. They are like the living dead. They are shadows, they are unreal. They feel that they're living a weightless, unreal life.

Although Singer adapted to America very well, his characters universally detest many features of American life and find them thin, and materialistic, and culturally insubstantial compared to Europe. I think one of the things that makes for Singer's greatness is this ambivalence—these many threads of feeling that include very negative feelings about America—that he has from the very beginning.

JONATHAN ROSEN: If the Holocaust hadn't happened—one of course can't imagine it—the writers who elevated him in Partisan Review would have been much more wary of him. He would have been the return of the repressed—I mean, the thing that they were separating themselves from. But there was an almost automatic sentimentalization and an awareness of what was gone. And so there was a need for people to fill it.

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: Remember, these writers had by and large until that point not at all identified themselves with their Jewishness. In fact, they had done everything they could, including in most cases changing their names, to separate themselves from their Jewishness. Secretly they found that they were all really very Jewish. But Singer appeared on the scene at just the moment when they were sort of rediscovering their Jewishness, partly because of the war, partly because their politics had changed. And he gave them a version of the past—not that they had rejected, but that they almost knew nothing about—that was unsentimental, hard and sharp. That was brilliant and bitter. This was a version that they could accept much more than they could in any writer that would have sentimentalized them.

MAX RUDIN: Do you think Singer was lucky in his timing in the sense that the 60's and 70's was a time when a kind of American Jewish culture itself was moving from periphery from mainstream? People started to eat bagels and cream cheese, and suddenly things which had been ethnic were now pop culture. Is there any connection there, or is that simply factitious?

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: Well, Singer never became popular in that way. He was never exported to every foreign city like a bagel. So, I wonder. I mean I think there was a period when Jews and Jewish culture became culturally fashionable, and he both profited from that and his work indeed helped to fuel that.

Now, I mean—just two weeks ago I was at a conference on immigrant literature at this Key West seminar and immigrant literature most definitely did not include the Jews. The one Russian Jewish writer who was supposed to be there didn't come. The one Eastern European Jewish writer there clearly felt more Eastern European than she felt Jewish. Clearly, the dynamic element that was there in terms of present-day immigrant writers were Hispanic writers and Asian-American writers. So, in a way things have moved on.

But they've moved on in a way that tells us what it was like for Jewish writers in the 40s, and 50s and 60s, especially if you factor in a huge amount of guilt about the Holocaust. In other words, America was not responsible for the Holocaust, but America certainly didn't do enough to try to prevent it or to intervene. And therefore, I mean, you see the effect on American mores. Discrimination, anti-Semitism in America was a very, very common feature of American life before World War II. And for 25 to 30 years after the war it almost disappeared because of this guilt element about the Holocaust. Whether that worked in favor of Jewish writers as well, I'm not sure. Certainly some popular Jewish writers like, let's say, Exodus or something like that fit into kind of an American pop sensibility the way Saul Bellow and I. B. Singer never could.

DAVID ROSKIES: I think the secret of his success was that he made absolutely no demands of his readers. Singer never took a classic work of Yiddish literature to translate it and said, you know, "If you really want to learn Yiddish this is why you should learn Yiddish. And I will show you that there is a great tradition out there." Or not Yiddish. Take some other: there are other Jewish classics that he could've turned to. He didn't mentor any younger writers. He was always very competitive toward anybody else.

And in the process of translation he dumbed himself down. I mean, he knew what he was doing in terms of what the expectation of the readers was going to be. I think that was also a brilliant calculation on his part so that he could become the Jewish writer for all seasons in a culture that was basically middlebrow.

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: But when he very belatedly begins writing about survivors and Jews in America, long, long after he's lived here, he really does open up a new vein in his work, and really in a different style. I mean that's a very striking development. He doesn't keep mining the demonic modernist--the dybbuk style--into the 70's and 80's. Absolutely not. And he was also, remember, tremendously productive into his old age. And these late stories, like "The Cafeteria" are not like "Gimpel the Fool."

JONATHAN ROSEN: That's a good story.

DAVID ROSKIES: It's not that late—'68.

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: Well, that's pretty late. How old was he? In his mid-60's.

ILAN STAVANS: The Singer we remember in photographs is the old Singer, the one that has lost his hair, the one that is making jokes, being impatient, being antsy. And it's a kind of grandfatherly figure. I think it is important to just bring here the fact that he had a very conflicted relationship with his son. That descendency, as we were talking, within the literary tradition is very problematic. That he doesn't cater and push anybody new to the fore, and yet he becomes this kind of sage for American Jews and for American culture.

JONATHAN ROSEN: And a children's book writer.

DAVID ROSKIES: Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus is the rewriting of "Gimpel the Fool," where he portrays himself in a much more benign light as a grandfatherly, sage storyteller.

MORRIS DICKSTEIN: It happened that as an old man—and even as a slightly younger man—he fit very well into an American literary culture that was much more about authors as characters and personalities than it was about books. He had already crafted this persona that fit very well into what became of American literary culture in the 60's and 70's, which was to a degree a celebrity culture. And he became a fixture in that celebrity culture.

JONATHAN ROSEN: And simultaneously an avocation of a standard figure in Yiddish literature, like Mendele. He was just a guy going around telling stories.