Isaac Bashevis Singer was a writer, journalist, and winner of a Nobel Prize in literature. He was a writer of three nations: Jewish (he wrote in Yiddish), American, and Polish. He was born in 1902 or 1904 in Leoncin near Warsaw, and died on the 24th July 1991 in Miami, Florida.
He was considered a descendant of Scheherazade, since storytelling was the essence of his existence. One of the stories was related to his date of birth: at the end of his life he said that the right date was 21st November, 1902 and not the one that appeared most often, 14th July, 1904, which he only said was the true one to avoid military service. Singer was born Icchok Zynger, but later he used several pseudonyms. Press readers knew him as Icchok Varshavski or D. Segal. He also created more ambitious literature under the pseudonym Bashevis (from the name of his mother, Batszewa).
He was raised in a family where everything revolved around religion (his father was a rabbi) and the word ‘man of letters’ meant a godless person and a liar. And yet all of his siblings, apart from the youngest, Mosze, became writers. Isaac was afraid of demons, he asked questions all the time, and he loved listening to the stories told by his sister, Hinde Ester (who later became a writer known as Esther Kreitman). He was ridiculed because of his flaming red hair and shyness, but he fought his persecutors with his most powerful weapon: storytelling. He did not have toys, so his attention was drawn to the piles of books in the house. First he read the religious ones that belonged to his father, later he reached for the secular ones, inspired by his older brother, Israel Joszua (who later became a well-known writer and Singer was in his shadow for a long time). Singer started to write under the influence of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Doyle. He was impressed by Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, although as a twelve-year-old he understood little of it. He would often re-read Tolstoy and Gogol and say that Mickiewicz was a genius, just like Byron and Pushkin. Emilia, one of the characters of Singer's The Magician of Lublin, recited Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz from memory. Reading these works increased Singer's scepticism towards the Jewish tradition.
The Singer family moved from Leoncin to Radzymin for a short time and later, in 1908, moved to Warsaw. As a little boy, Singer went to a cheder there and his father took the post of a rabbi. The address 10 Krochmalna was the most important in Singer's life and artistic creation. He would often stand on the balcony of his flat and observe people who lived in the neighbourhood: craftsmen, shopkeepers, drunkards, and pickpockets. Later he would often describe them in his works, for example in the short story volume In My Father's Court and the novel The Certificate.
The second place whose atmosphere can be felt in Singer's books is Biłgoraj, a town untouched by civilisation. A third of it was inhabited by religious Jews. Biłgoraj became the prototype for a shtetl, an echo of the past. The mother moved to the family's homeland in 1917 with the two youngest sons because of the lack of food that the Singer family suffered during the war. In Biłograj Isaac learnt Polish, tried to write in Hebrew and wanted to return to Warsaw where his older brother was already a well-known and acclaimed writer.
Although his original plan to study in a Jewish seminary failed, Singer decided to move to Warsaw in 1923. He took the post of a proofreader in the Jewish weekly Literarisze Bleter (his brother was its editor-in-chief). He wrote merciless reviews of books, translated The Magic Mountain by Mann into Yiddish and published his debut short story In Old Age which was awarded in a literary competition. Then Bashevis was born: Isaac Singer adopted a pseudonym so as not to be mistaken with his brother, Israel Joszua Singer. However, it was thanks to his brother than he entered into contact with artists from the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists and met his bosom friend, Aron Cejtlin. Together with Cejtlin Singer co-edited the literary magazine Globus, where his first novel in instalments, Satan in Goray, was published (published as a book in 1935).
The Nobel Prize winner described Warsaw's topography so accurately in his works that they could be used to draw a map of the pre-war city (he brought the destroyed city back to life in, for example, The Family Moskat). During his many moves he would often lose all his identity documents and many characters of his works also had this tendency. Singer threw off his traditional Jewish clothes, he was in an informal relationship with a woman who supported communism and he had a son with her. He often thought back about the places where he lived as a child, however, even in Poland he felt like a paying guest.
The unstable financial situation and growing anti-Semitic moods in neighbouring Germany quickened the writer's decision to emigrate to the United States in 1935, just like his brother had done. In America Singer wrote his biggest works, met his wife, Alma Haimann, and started working in the Jewish daily Forwerts. He did not want to return to Poland, which he considered the ‘cemetery of the Jewish nation’. His biographer Agata Tuszyńska said that he lived inside words.
Singer learnt Polish in order to be able to read the works of Mickiewicz and Słowacki. However, he was never a fluent Polish speaker. As a teenager he wrote his first poem in Hebrew. He also tried to write short stories in this language, but he felt the limitations that Hebrew imposed. It was the language of religious books, not of everyday life. He chose Yiddish as the language of his works. He spoke Yiddish and thought in Yiddish, just like his literary characters. He justified his choice in a speech given during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1978:
Firstly, I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. (…) Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts, but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: ‘Are there any new Yiddish books to read?’
Chone Shmeruk, a remarkable Singerologist, said that Singer ‘faithfully reflects the specific linguistic richness of the Jews from the central Poland together with the whole scale of sounds unusual for people used to other dialects of Yiddish’. Singer was a master of monologue in narration. He believed that a literary work must have a plot which keeps readers in suspense and that they should feel the writer's passion for writing. He had an insatiable desire for perfection and he expressed it in short stories. His fellow Jewish writers were jealous of his juicy language and chatty narrative style.
Unfortunately, this stylistic richness was often lost in translations into other languages. That is why the author willingly participated in the translation process of his works. He edited and changed extensive fragments, he added or removed descriptions and dialogues in English texts. He would often repeat that English is the language of understatements, while Yiddish is a language of exaggeration.
Singer was an individualist. He avoided crowds, but when he wanted to be he was the life and soul of the party. He always listened patiently to other people's stories. His literary failures were the biggest torture for him. He wrote everywhere: on scraps of paper or in notebooks that he did not use later on. In his works he showed sainthood and sin. He presented the Jewish world without embellishments, people with their weaknesses and eccentricities, people who are superstitious and believe in demons (for example in the short story Gimpel the Fool). Although Warsaw was a lost paradise for him, he remembered it as composed of two unfamiliar, sometimes hostile communities: Polish and Jewish. This ambivalence can be noticed not only in his novels and short stories but also in the press articles written for Forwerts.
An important fact is that almost all the events that he described happened before the Holocaust. Even when the plot leads to the Second World War, the narrator shows the Holocaust from distance, from a collective perspective, like in the final chapters of The Family Moskat or the epilogue of Shosha. The author is not present there.
Literary critics, especially Jewish ones, tend to call Singer a pornographer because he boldly presents the erotic sphere of life. His characters are not ashamed of their bodies, they succumb to passion, they almost take pleasure in jealousy. He created female characters on the basis of his own experiences. In his works there are young girls who support communism, eccentric Jewish women and Polish maids working in houses where a red-haired young man lives. The main character often loves a few women at a time. We can find love triangles in The Certificate, Enemies, and The Magician of Lublin. A sort of polygamous Werther can be considered the author's alter ego. It is not known exactly how many of those flirts and romances really took place in Singer's life, since, as he put it: ‘Art is a lie which tells the truth’.
Singer's works are often compared to the works of Prus and Orzeszkowa. However, Singer himself admitted he did not know the writers. He was surely more inclined to create according to the vision of literature that he described in a review of Brunon Schulz's short stories:
I would say that his main objective was to discredit literature and at the same time to create a little literary masterpiece. Schulz achieved that thanks to an original combination of realism and nonsense, genuine images and clichés, authenticity and fantasy, dreams and reality. (…) He actually does not parody literature but the people's conscience, the power of word, and while doing so he reveals an extraordinary literary power.
Although Singer loved the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, he resisted writing for young readers for a long time, believing that this art was lowly. He changed his mind when he turned 60. He realised that young readers accept literature spontaneously and writing for them can let him fulfil his mission of familiarising people with the Jewish world both from the religious and secular perspective. His short stories for children are dominated by an idyllic vision of reality and admiration for the animal world (Singer was a vegetarian for more than 30 years due to ethical reasons). A daughter of a neighbour, Szosza, would listen to those stories as a child (Singer titled his novel Shosha after her). He said that the history of the world is a book which can be read only in one direction: from right to left since it is written in Yiddish.
Singer treated Jewish literature as a book of memory. He himself suffered from memory loss in old age. He died at the age of 87 and was buried at the Jewish cemetery in New Jersey.
- Satan in Goray (1935)
- The Sinful Messiah (1935-1936 – in instalments)
- The Family Moskat (1950 )
- The Magician of Lublin (1960)
- The Slave (1962)
- The Manor (1967)
- The Estate (1969)
- Enemies. The Love Story (1972)
- Shosha (1978)
- The Golem (1982)
- The Penitent (1984)
- The King of the Fields (1988)
- Scum (1991)
- The Certificate (1992)
- Meshugah (1994)
- Shadows on the Hudson (1998)
Selected volumes of short stories:
- The Spinoza of Market Street (1961)
- Short Friday and Other Stories (1963)
- The Séance and Other Stories (1968)
- A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories (1970)
- A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories (1973)
- Passions and Other Stories (1975)
- Old Love (1979)
- The Collected Stories (1983)
- Stories for Children (1984)
- The Image and Other Stories (1985)
- The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories (1988)
- In My Father's Court (1956, 1966)
- Love and Exile (1984)
- The Magician of Lublin directed by Menahem Golan (1979)
- Yentl directed by Barbra Streisand (1983)
- Enemies, A Love Story directed by Paul Mazursky (1989)
- 1970 – National Book Award (children’s literature)
- 1974 – National Book Award (fiction)
- 1978 – Nobel Prize for Literature
- 1989 – Gold medal awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke, translated by MW, April 2018.