Isaac Bashevis Singer from Beyond the Grave


Arts & Culture


The Isaac Bashevis Singer of public consumption—the elderly, distinguished, Yiddish, Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer—projected an air of oblique, quizzical humility, as if he were bemused by the grandiose esteem in which he was held. He endearingly told The Paris Review in his 1977 Art of Fiction Interview, the year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, that “a story is still a story where the reader listens and wants to know what happens,” and that he knew so few American writers “because here in America I find there is no place to meet them.” The younger brother of a celebrated Yiddish author, Israel Joshua Singer, he relished slotting himself beneath Israel’s long-dead shadow. According to that Paris Review interview, he listed himself publicly in the Manhattan phone directory, and “would invite anyone who called for lunch, or at least coffee.” He enjoyed “feeding pigeons from a brown paper bag.” The interviewer, Harold Flender, writes: “The first impression Singer gives is that he is a fragile, weak man who would find it an effort to walk a block.” That public persona—inviting, avuncular, warm, and unpretentious—was played with such confidence that the private Singer was able to stand just beside it, unhidden but unnoticed. Despite his appearance of overwhelming physical frailty, Flender tells us, Singer actually “walks fifty to sixty blocks a day.”

In nearly every promotional photo of Singer, he seems to have been caught slightly unprepared, standing in the middle of the street, hands clasped awkwardly, like a maladroit foreign uncle. In portraits, he appears caught in the midst of composing himself, midsigh, midgrimace, midsmirk, his face, when in motion, a garden of widening, branching lines: deep-riven forehead wrinkles when the eyebrows arch, cheeks bunched up in a smile, overhanging like mountain crags, casting thick shadows. Yet in these photos his eyes belie the rest—they are steady and very still. They are the eyes of a seer. The joke he is smiling at is also quite serious, his eyes say, that joke is the molten core of his being. Running beneath his genial exterior, feeding it, is a soaring religious notion, unflinchingly held, as if he had seen it with as little ceremony as a cloud or a car. It bursts into the open near the end of his Nobel Prize lecture, when he addresses Yiddish, his native tongue: “There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way … Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world.” Singer has reverted to prophecy. He was not an orthodox Jewish believer, but in the end he, like his rabbinical forefathers, did not believe in death. The universe and time were too vast, too wide, too kaleidoscopic, for finality. That is the extent of his prophecy. It is an extension of his humility.

As if in fulfillment of his own prophecy, Isaac Bashevis Singer has been astonishingly prolific in death. An untranslated magnum opus, Shadows on the Hudson, was translated into English in 1998, followed by a sequel collection of reminiscences of pre-1914 Jewish Warsaw, More Stories from My Father’s Court, followed by a steady, enviable beat of short stories, either unpublished or published in Yiddish but never translated, stories steadily adding to and enriching Singer’s great twin themes: the magical Yiddishkeit cosmos wrecked in World War II and the scattered, wandering survivors of that wreckage. In the past two years, Singer’s stories have been published in Harper’s and The New Yorker. Another, “The Murderer,” appears in the current spring issue of The Paris Review. Every few months, it seems, there is a Singer dispatch from beyond the grave, another unlabeled bottle floating in on the tide. Reading his bibliography, one would never guess he has been dead nearly three decades. And there will be more Singer for the foreseeable future, as the editor of his estate told The New Yorker: “There are novels, short stories, memoirs, even plays—some of which appeared in Yiddish and some of which … exist only as handwritten manuscripts.” Heaps of Singer’s words are wheeling blindly about in library archives, at the bottoms of desk drawers, manuscripts translated by hand on magazine tear sheets, unilluminated microfilm vibrantly uncollected and unclassified. He and his oeuvre refuse to be still. They seem to wend their way to the surface with something like the residue of Singer’s consciousness, or rather with the uncanny pseudoconsciousness of an automaton, set in motion by a now-dead hand.

Singer’s posthumous stories do not feel like the dregs of an archive—they are fresh, vital, and assured. Describing Maryan Skiba, the eponymous protagonist of “The Murderer,” Singer captures him in a few broad, confident strokes: “His flaxen hair reached to the middle of his forehead and stood up like a hog’s bristles. He had a red face, a snub nose with flared nostrils, and round yellow eyes without brows.” There is both a fable-esque simplicity (the splashes of primary color) and a touch of sophisticated irony (the hoggish hair rhyming porcine with the snub nose, the red and browless face), as if Singer were mingling the palette of Henri Matisse with the sensibility of Max Beckmann. It is not the work of an exhausted author. Again, as his estate editor says: “Readers and critics may think of Singer as a dead author, but for those involved in continuing to bring his work to light, he’s very much a living entity.”

Few authors are better suited than Singer to speak to us from a life-in-death perch. It is a natural extension of himself. In life, he was to the majority of the reading world a sort of walking ghost, a mediated entity, refugee of a disappeared land, writing about a dissipating culture in Yiddish, a language that, if not dead at the time, was then like a cut flower—still vivid and malleable, but consuming its final resources. His most famous stories revolve around shtetl life, or loss-haunted, death-haunted, Shoah-haunted Yiddish refugees at large. Even Singer’s earthiest, most clowning stories are veined with elegy, with lateness, with the heavy sensation of the mourner waking up happy, from a happy dream, as the memory of their loss seeps back in. In his Paris Review interview, Singer describes the years of literary silence that overtook him upon arriving in America in the thirties: “My images were not anymore. Things—I saw thousands of objects for which I had no name in Yiddish in Poland. Take such a thing as the subway—we didn’t have a subway in Poland. And we didn’t have a name for it in Yiddish. Suddenly I had to do with a subway and with a shuttle train and a local, and my feeling was that I lost my language and also my feeling about the things which surrounded me.” Singer describes here a kind of death, the withering of a critical organ, a critical faculty. He eventually emerged from this temporary tomb after the Yiddish homeland he left had been razed, itself another partial death. Singer in his maturity wrote across chasms of death—the phenomenon of death has not seemed to touch his literary output because, in a sense, his stories were always posthumous. Alive, he was somewhat dead; now dead, he is curiously alive.

This motif of flitting back and forth between blurring realities is one of Singer’s central preoccupations. His stories often introduce an element of the supernatural—a dybbuk, a resurrection, an impossible vision, communication from the dead, spirit possession of animals (the central preoccupation of “The Murderer”)—only for the question of that element’s reality to become the driving concern of the narrative. Often there is a fear of insanity, the specter of our concept of reality being irrevocably torn. In “Inventions,” a narrator who cannot sleep through the night tells the story of Morris, a doctrinaire Communist theoretician who feels a ghost pulling at his bedsheets one night. Supernaturalism is forbidden to the rational, religion-inoculated Homo Sovieticus, and Morris becomes deranged by this intrusion of superstition into the complete Communist system. He asks, “God in Heaven, can there really be demons? In that case everything falls apart.” Still in the grip of his haunting, the narrator tells us: “He has one hope—that the whole thing was a dream. But something tells him that he knows the difference between dreaming and reality … Outside, a trolley car passes by, and he can hear the scraping of the wheels. Reality still exists.” In the morning, Morris sees evidence of only his own tugging on the sheet; nevertheless, he falters in his next speech, undermined by lingering uncertainty. As for the reality of the vision, the narrator proposes: “It is possible for a man to dream while awake.” Many Singer stories end on this conditional note, a sort of epistemological shrug.

In “One Night in Brazil,” Lena, a prewar Warsaw acquaintance of the narrator (who is also the wife of the pathetic failed Yiddish writer the narrator has come to Brazil to meet) is convinced a dybbuk has invaded her stomach—the narrator feels it, and believes it a tumor or a psychosomatically induced mass. She then attempts to seduce the narrator, telling him a dybbuk resides within him as well, begging his dybbuk to kiss hers, and despite his ardent desire to leave, to escape her insanity, it seems his dybbuk does rise, and “even while I made this firm decision I put my arms around Lena.” The narrator had ceded control to his own dybbuk, or to something beyond the rational: “I wanted to say I didn’t understand it. Instead, I said, ‘It seems that life and death have no common border. Life is total truth and death is total lie.’ ” Back in New York, the narrator is snowed under by both manuscripts from the writer and love letters from Lena, who tells him of cosmic vibrations and telepathy. Finally, the narrator learns that Lena has indeed been killed by her tumor. Of his own dybbuk, his involuntary mystical pronouncements, the narrator provides no final verdict.

Humble uncertainty is the ethic of life in Singer’s work—to know reality is death, perhaps the only death. Singer fittingly expresses this conviction in simultaneous, seemingly opposite ideological grammars. In his work, there is the deeply biblical notion of the real as forbidden and unapproachable, incinerating. God cannot be gazed upon directly, even by Moses. Lot’s wife is punished for gazing upon God’s wrath. God’s name itself is secret. And alongside that suprarational fear is the bedrock modern value of skepticism and constant inquiry, of knowledge as a forever unfurling process whose only enemy is a closed, certain mind. Thus in “The Cafeteria,” one of Singer’s best-known stories, the narrator, immediately after citing Kant, ne plus ultra of rationalism, can say, “Esther didn’t sound insane. She had seen a piece of reality that the heavenly censorship prohibits as a rule. She had caught a glimpse behind the curtain of the phenomena.” Elsewhere the narrator asks, rhetorically, “Is there no death? Or is there no life?” The very questioning is Singer’s demonstration of an answer. As Singer told The Paris Review: “I feel that in spite of all our sufferings, in spite of the fact that life will never bring the paradise we want it to bring, there is something to live for. The greatest gift which humanity has received is free choice. It is true that we are limited in our use of free choice. But the little free choice we have is such a great gift and is potentially worth so much that for this itself life is worthwhile living.” It is life’s unfinished nature, our incomplete understanding, that gives it its essential degree of freedom.

The phenomenon of Singer’s posthumous productivity is like something out of a Singer story: a writer dies, but his stories continue to appear in the best magazines every few months. Not only that, but also a novel and, funnily enough, a sequel to a memoir—more life! Alive or dead? He has dashed back and forth across the line. The public demonstration of his humility, that things are beyond our understanding always, is dependent on his own self-effacement, his death. And there is the irony that his prolific posthumous output is in large part due to the deadness of the language whose resurrection he prophesied, the great backlog of stories in Yiddish left untranslated for want of speakers and readers and translators. Yiddish’s dying allows him to seem alive now, and this posthumous burst of publishing energy in turn helps keep Yiddish alive—some of the unrevealed treasures of Yiddish are ones that he himself hid away. Life and death, in this case, indeed seem to have no common border. Every new Isaac Bashevis Singer story is another question, another complication, another vivifying mystery.

Read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Murderer” in our Spring 2019 issue.

Matt Levin is a writer living in Uganda.