I.B. Singer: prize-winning author, minimal mensch
Isaac B. Singer, a Life, by Florence Noiville, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 2006, 192 pages, $23
In this slim volume, Florence Noiville offers a succinct, objective biography of author Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) that draws heavily upon Singer’s autobiographies of his youth, the memoir of his son Israel Zamir, published interviews, and other books by people who knew the widely-read Yiddish writer.
Noiville also records impressions of Singer from people in publishing who were enchanted by him and puzzled by his enigmatic persona. I say persona and not personality because like a superb actor, Singer was able to present different faces at different times.
The biographer even went to Poland a few years ago to get the feel of Leoncin, the little town where Singer was born and discovered the locals’ total apathy to, even disdain for, their famed local son. A tiny lane that was finally, and grudgingly, named in Singer’s honor was a dead end with no houses, for no one wanted to live on a street “with a Jewish address.” Moreover, Noiville found the street sign defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.
Singer grew up in a poor rabbinic household in Warsaw, where his boundless intellectual curiosity was nurtured through his eavesdropping. He would listen, often from behind a bookcase, to the discussions between Jews who came to his father’s study for advice or for judgment on marital or financial disputes. We learn about Singer’s philosophical quests even in childhood and his attitude to God and women (for him one coin with two sides). He quarreled constantly with the former (his “private war with the Almighty”) and adored the latter well into old age.
Singer came to the United States in 1935, helped by his older brother and mentor, the novelist I.J. Singer. The success that finally came, after years of creative torpor, with stories in The New Yorker, Playboy, and other well-paying magazines, stemmed from Saul Bellow’s translation in 1953 (more on that later) of “Gimpel the Fool.” Published in the prestigious journal Partisan Review, it was the first and only instance of one future Nobel Prize winner in literature translating another. At once, I.B. Singer became a contender on the American literary scene.
In favor with gentile America, Singer was out of favor in his own literary backyard, the community of Yiddish writers. At the Forward the Yiddish daily to which he was a lifelong contributor and in which most of his novels were serialized few people liked him. They felt he had betrayed Jewish culture by pandering to the goyim. For them, being a Yiddish writer meant being poor and unknown. To be famous and earn thousands of dollars for one short story was scandalous.
The Forward, too, was a bastion of socialism, and the writers there knew that Singer abhorred all isms, even atheism, which he considered the obverse of religious fanaticism. And when Singer won the Nobel Prize in 1978, Yiddishists in New York were so green with envy you could have put them in a St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Charming and mean-spirited
Singer’s dealings with Bellow are emblematic of his contradictory, even mean-spirited, nature. Bellow, busy in 1953 completing The Adventures of Augie March, at first declined to translate “Gimpel the Fool.” However, Eliezer Greenberg, the coeditor (with Irving Howe) of A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, prevailed upon Bellow to change his mind. But Singer never thanked Bellow, who was furious. In fact, Singer forbade any more translations by Bellow, feeling that the translator might overshadow the author.
The man who was a confirmed vegetarian as a sign of his opposition to man’s cruelty to animals, the writer who was often photographed feeding the pigeons on upper Broadway, is the same man different persona who, in 1935 upon leaving Poland for America, promised his Warsaw girlfriend, Ronya, the mother of his five-year-old son, Israel, that he would send for them once he was settled in New York. Not only did Singer not keep his word, he never contacted them again, and never replied to Ronya’s desperate pleas for money.
In 1955, Israel, then 25 and living on a kibbutz, sought out his father in New York. Singer, loath to have his daily writing routine interrupted, soon grew tired of his only offspring. (“My stories are my children,” he once stated.) The reunion, both men reported in different accounts, was edgy.
Singer’s relationship with his mother and his younger brother was equally unfeeling. In Poland he didn’t see them for 10 years; after his arrival in New York, he never wrote to them. They starved to death deep in Russia during World War II.
The following two personal encounters illustrate the polar aspects of Singer’s character. In New York, Singer had given me his Miami Beach phone number and told me to call him when I came to Florida to deliver a lecture series. For our meeting, I brought with me my host’s 12-year-old daughter, who was reading his marvelous children’s books. Singer invited us to a cafeteria.
“What will you have?” he asked the girl. She said she wasn’t hungry. Understanding the psychology of youngsters, he said with his usual charming smile, “If I have a baked apple, will you share it with me?” The girl happily agreed and had an Isaac Bashevis Singer anecdote for the rest of her life.
And yet, another time, when I told him about my forthcoming novel The Man Who Thought He Was Messiah and the levitation skills of its hero, the hasidic leader Reb Nachman of Bratslav, Singer, the man who built his reputation on reality-defying ghosts and imps and netherworld antics, snorted impatiently, “No, no, no. Impossible. It goes against reality,” and refused to read my novel’s advance proofs.
Singer was sincerely devoted to Yiddish and refused to switch to English. Shy all his life, at the Nobel ceremonies, in the presence of the king of Sweden and other dignitaries, he boldly read the first part of his speech in Yiddish.
The book contains a number of unfortunate errors that slipped by the French and American copy editors. Some pertain to Yiddish words but others to contemporary history. One photograph, captioned as taken in 1930, shows Jews in New York carrying a Yiddish sign decrying Hitler’s violence against the Jews of Germany. Although anti-Semitism existed in Germany at the time, Hitler did not achieve power until three years later.
Another dead wrong statement, and painful in the context of subsequent history, is Noiville’s remark that I.J. Singer’s death in 1944 occurred six months before the first bombing of Auschwitz. Alas, there never was such a bombing, let alone the first of more than one. Roosevelt refused to divert planes for this action; his secretary of war, John McCloy, agreed but put in his own successful bid to divert planes away from his favorite perfectly preserved medieval German city, Rothenburg, thereby sparing it from destruction.
In sum, I.B. Singer: a Life, beautifully translated by Catherine Temerson, is a useful and cogent introduction to the life and ways of Yiddish literature’s only Nobel laureate.
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