Tales of the Ghetto with a Universal Message Bring Isaac Bashevis Singer to the Nobel Award Banquet in Stockholm
Singer appreciates the honor and the cash, but wonders why it couldn’t have come sooner
Tolstoy is his idol. But if the Russian author lived just across from him on Manhattan’s West 86th Street, Isaac Bashevis Singer would not even try to meet him for a drink. Writers don’t interest him at all, only their work. The love of good literature is disappearing everywhere, Singer believes, while interest in authors themselves is getting out of control.
A few weeks back, the 74-year-old Polish Jew who is the world’s best-known writer in Yiddish (a Jewish-German language) was talking about his early life in Warsaw. “I got there a gift from America,” he told his Fair-lawn, N.J. audience, “two large volumes in Yiddish called The Plays of William Shakespeare as Translated, Enlarged and Improved by David Horowitz.” That started a little laugh, although his listeners were having a hard time understanding him. “I myself spoke Polish with an accent,” he explained. “As a matter of fact, ladies and gentlemen, I speak all languages with an accent. There is even an opinion that I speak Yiddish with an accent.”
Then he sat on steps inside the synagogue to autograph new books for admirers who were shoving one another to get close to their writer in his frayed pin-striped suit. A sudden fear of being trampled brought the fragile old man to his feet. “If it were a line for bread or for cheese, I would understand,” he told them, “but it is only for a name in a book.”
But not just any name. Singer’s 28 books of sad, sweet, funny, sometimes earthy and often occult stories about Jews in a shtetl, or Jewish community of Eastern Europe, had just earned him the world’s most coveted honor for a writer. This week in Stockholm he will pick up the Nobel Prize—a medal and a check for $164,772, tax-free. His Tolstoy never did that.
After the ceremony Singer will get back to work. “Since I was told of this prize, I am a has-been writer. Maybe two, maybe three lines I’ve got down on paper. Why all that money to people when they are 74 or 94?” he grumbles. “Why don’t they give it to people when they are born for the work they are going to do?”
Not many years ago Singer was in desperate financial straits. To pay the rent, his second wife, Alma, was selling dresses in a Manhattan shop. When her customers learned that she was the wife of “Singer-the-writer,” she would put on a long-suffering look and tell them, “So don’t envy.” These days Alma is being only proud. “When she was sure I’d won,” Singer says, “she made for me a lunch like I had never got before.” Then he told about his scientist friend up the street who also won a Nobel. “I asked him what his wife said when he came home to tell her. She said, ‘Take out the garbage.’ ”
Singer began to write before he knew the alphabet. “I took my father’s pen, dipped it in ink, and began to scribble,” he remembers. “The Shabbas [Sabbath] was an ordeal for me because on that day writing was forbidden.” Rituals were observed along Krochmalna Street in Warsaw where Isaac lived with his father, Pinchos Menachem, the court rabbi (who settled neighborhood squabbles), his mother, Bathsheba, the daughter of a rabbi, and his younger brother, Moshe, who would become a rabbi. Isaac himself was studying at a rabbinical seminary. “Disputes between rabbis going back some 100 years had more substance in our house than current events,” Singer wrote in his recent book A Young Man in Search of Love. While he searched, Jewish Bund revolutionaries around him wanted to depose the Russian czar. His father was always assuring Isaac that only if the Jews conducted themselves piously would the Messiah come. That set Isaac to wondering about the thieves, swindlers and whores in his shtetl who could delay that arrival forever. When he was a small boy he convinced his schoolmates that his father was a king. As a young man he persuaded himself that atheism and materialism were just as insubstantial as all religions.
Until then, Singer’s older brother, Joshua, was the family’s only rationalist with little reverence for any religion. Isaac decided to be a writer because that was Joshua’s line of work. When the editor of the American Yiddish paper Jewish Daily Forward hired Joshua to be its Warsaw correspondent, Isaac was proofreading for a Polish literary journal, trying to acquire a good prose style in Hebrew, living with a mistress old enough to be his mother and torturing himself. “Suddenly I became impotent,” Singer has written. “Some kind of enemy roosted within me or a dybbuk who spited me in every way and played cat-and-mouse with me. As soon as I read of some phobia or neurosis, I immediately acquired it. All the afflictions psychiatrists and neurologists described in their works assailed me one after another and often all at the same time. I was consumptive, had cancer in my intestines, a tumor in my brain, I was growing blind, deaf, paralyzed, insane. I suffered from nightmares and compulsions. Some maniac uttered crazy words inside my brain and I could not silence him.”
Singer decided that because Hebrew was not his mother tongue, his effort to write his stories in it was the source of all that ailed him. But when he turned back to Yiddish he was still too shy to write what he thought. “Satan did not allow me to express my individuality then. Nowadays my aim in literature is to transform inhibition into a form of creativity,” he says. “Now I recognize any inhibition as a friendly power instead of a hostile one.”
Before he could achieve that benign state, he went through a period as a prolific hack and journalist who once translated The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann from German into Yiddish. The enterprise started Mann thinking of Yiddish as a kind of crippled German. Singer for his part began to consider German as a kind of crippled Yiddish. He settled on that earthy language of the ghetto as his meal ticket for the rest of his days.
He was solvent enough to acquire a wife in the late ’20s and discerning enough by 1935 to foresee that Nazism was making Warsaw a poor place to be a Jew. When they separated, he headed for America, and his wife, a Communist, and their 5-year-old son fled into Russia. In New York, along with Joshua, who had arrived a year earlier, Singer counted on the Jewish Daily Forwarder most of his meager income for the next 25 years, at first as a freelance contributor and later as a staff writer. “Like all journalists, I did a little reading, a little guesswork,” he says. “The main thing was to cover the paper with ink.”
For three years the Forward paid him $30 for two weekly installments of a serial on Jewish life in the anti-Semitic Poland he knew. In 1950 the serial-turned-novel was published in an English translation as The Family Moskat. It earned Singer a small reputation in belles lettres. Three years later Chicago novelist Saul Bellow (who was to win the Nobel in 1976) translated Singer’s short story Gimpel the Fool for Partisan Review, and a modest celebrity came over its author. “I have the strange feeling,” he says, “that all the literary people in America read that one issue.”
There was at least one reader in the Mideast too—Singer’s son, Israel Zamir (in Hebrew Zamir means nightingale), whose prewar migrations had taken him from Russia to Turkey and after the war to a kibbutz in the Negev. A few years later he sent word that he was coming to see his father. The father, of course, wrote a story (The Son) about their dockside meeting in New York. As the passengers were debarking, one looked just right to the author. “This is he, something screamed in me. He was searching for someone…Suddenly a thick woman waddled over to him and locked him in her arms. Her cry turned into a kind of barking, soon a whole bunch of other relatives came up. They had snatched a son from me who was not mine…” The last one ashore had shabby clothes, a bent back and carried a wooden satchel. It was Israel. “He took after me, but I recognized traits of his mother—the other half that could never blend with mine. The mother’s lips did not pair with the father’s chin. We kissed and his stubble rubbed my cheeks like a potato grater…He said to me almost without words: ‘I understand that you could not stay with my mother. I have no complaints. I myself am made of the same stuff.’ ”
Since then Singer has been a regular visitor to his son’s kibbutz and a doting grandfather. Israel Zamir wrote his version of their encounter for a Tel Aviv paper. His article began with his life on the run with his mother in Turkey, stateless and broke. “He didn’t send money,” Zamir wrote of his father. “He said he had none.” And he hadn’t. But 10 years after their reunion, nearly all of Singer’s Yiddish stories for the Forward were being translated into English and republished in Playboy, Harper’s and The New Yorker, then collected into books that have given him a fairly steady income of at least $100,000 a year.
Before the phone calls from envying old friends became a distraction for the new Nobel laureate, Singer liked to do most of his writing in bed before breakfast. Though he still writes in Yiddish, his translators, one of them a nephew, find themselves coping with an author whose English vocabulary has become just about as resourceful as theirs. He cannot credit this growing fluency to reading the fiction of fellow writers. “I am bored stiff with all these gloomy things they write today that are without punctuation or syntax, all that pseudopsychology and pseudosociology,” he says. “After I read four or five pages I have had enough. I put it away and read some other piece of junk. This century, my friend, has not given us great gifts in fiction as the century before did.”
It is a cranky septuagenarian’s complaint. Singer knows it, and he has resigned himself to age. “The only thing to do if you don’t want to get older,” he muses, “is to commit suicide. Every human being, if he is really a human being, has moments when he thinks, ‘What is this whole business? What am I waiting for?’ I don’t know that I thought about suicide yet today, but most probably I did yesterday or the day before. What else is there to think about all the time? Eating blintzes?”
Behind that partially feigned despair is a devout author on somewhat intimate terms with his Creator. “God had endowed me with powers He possibly didn’t possess Himself,” Singer claims in one story. In another, “God was omnipotent, but He suffered from restlessness.” They were Singer’s lines long before his fellow New Yorker contributor Woody Allen came up with funny facsimiles.
Nowadays, when Singer feels really worked up about the Prime Mover, he likes to think of Him as just another struggling writer still hoping for a masterpiece. “Your novel, God,” says Singer the critic, “is too long, too cruel, has too little love, too much sex.” Then Singer shifts to the third person plural, not wishing to seem presumptuous. “They advise cutting, condensing. They find His creation inconsistent, sensational, antisocial, cryptic, decadent, vulgar, pointless and especially repetitious. About one quality they all agree. God’s novel has suspense. One keeps reading it day and night.” Then the old Laureate from Krochmalna Street takes over again. “The fear of death,” he says, “is nothing but the fear of having to close God’s book.”