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ISAAC B. SINGER: A Life
By Florence Noiville, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson
Farrar Straus Giroux
I've met Isaac Bashevis Singer. Not the Nobel Prize-winning master of Yiddish literature who died in Miami Beach in 1991, his brain riddled with dementia, but other Jewish men just like him.
Men enshrouded by darkness; eaten up inside by their own insatiable desires. Men whose brilliance competes with their anger and ambition. Impatient men unwedded to any ideology or sustaining intimacy other than their lifelong preoccupation with themselves.
Le Monde's literary critic Florence Noiville has written an elegantly crafted biography about Singer that explores his many social difficulties.
Born Icek-Hersz Zynger, Singer left Poland in 1935 while still a young man, as tensions against the Jews escalated. He left behind his first wife, Rachel, and their five-year-old son, Israel, whom he would not see again for decades. Once settled in America, he quickly abandoned his brother Joshua, who had arranged for his coming, and moved into a seedy one-room apartment where he would entertain many women; no one really satisfied him.
His future wife Alma abandoned her husband and two small children to marry Singer, who for years refused to visit her children with her.
Even Singer's colleagues at The Jewish Forward found him to be a misfit, too conservative and aloof, a perpetual outsider.
But Singer found consolation of a sort in the anonymity of Manhattan. He began to master English, and spent countless hours roaming the streets, stopping in cafeterias to read and write. He decided that he would write the body of his work in Yiddish, feeling that only the language of his parents could accurately express what was in his soul.
Singer believed Yiddish to be the richest language in the world, one that could describe characters and personality and humor and the strange workings of the unconscious in ways other languages couldn't.
Noiville finds Singer's loyalty to Yiddish heroic, claiming "he never abandoned the language of his fathers - this magnificent, scorned language that conveyed an army of memories, traditions, legends and the very roots of a people constantly displaced by history."
Singer's writings draw heavily on folklore, and are noted for the mystical strain that runs through them. Much of his work tries to recreate the lost world of Jewish Eastern Europe and the immigrant experience in America.
In a determined search for Singer's essence, Noiville plunges through letters, personal recollections and interviews with Singer's friends, family and publishing colleagues, hoping to channel the young Singer.
Questions beget other questions. What made him so fearful of intimacy? Why was he so often devastatingly sad? What had created his need to distance himself from those who reached out to him, particularly his young son? What spurred his lust for so many women? How had he become such a skeptic about God?
Singer was born into an extremely pious family. His father, Pinchos Menachem Singer, like his grandfather, was a rabbi of the hassidic tradition. His mother, Bathsheba Singer, was the daughter of a rabbi and a strong, independent-minded woman prone to bouts of melancholy. His parent's marriage was horrendous; his mother often considered leaving. But what mostly fueled the writer's imagination was watching his father rule his rabbinical court.
Every day was a different drama. One day his father would be asked to decide whether a chicken was really kosher, and the next day he would be required to determine whether someone who had committed suicide was entitled to a proper burial. The young Singer was mesmerized and disheartened by the messiness of human affairs, concluding that "for most people there is only one small step between vulgarity and refinement, between blows and kisses, between spitting at one's neighbor's face and showering him with kindness."
Noiville's talents as a literary biographer are multi-faceted. She resists adopting any single theory about how Singer came to be the man he was, but rather views him through a variety of lenses: psychoanalytic, historical and cultural. Her response to him fluctuates between feelings of condemnation and awe.
But perhaps the picture she selected for the cover of her book is telling.
We see Singer as an old man, his eyes still bright, staring at the camera almost as if he were challenging it; his mouth slightly crooked.
There are two men nearby who appear pleased to be seated so close to him.
Singer seems unaware of their presence.