I.B. Singer's Cruel Choice

By Mark Kuzmack

Fate and freedom for his characters, for himself.


Gimpel the Fool, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s most famous protagonist, is cuckolded again and again by his shrewish wife and endlessly mocked by the townsfolk of the shtetl of Frampol. He knows, and does not know, what is happening to him. The Polish maid of “Yanda” is turned in to a whore by a Jewish innkeeper, made to service his vulgar guests, and finally driven from town by its hypocritical wives, only to be raped by the son of her former lover back in her muddy home village. The wan philosopher Dr. Fischelson of “The Spinoza of Market Street” endures stomach ailments, poverty, anonymity, the vanity of the world. A few stories from Isaac Bashevis Singer. None of his famous demons appears in them. Yet the ground is recognizably his, and theirs. His world is cruel. His heroes are neither those who grapple successfully with it, nor those destroyed by it, but its sufferers, the ones who come to see something. They are the sincere, not the clever; the hapless, not the brazen.

Grappling successfully with the world is what Americans are supposed to do. They also write in English. Yet here is the Library of America welcoming Singer and his heroes into its canonical series of “America’s best and most significant writing.” It has published his Collected Stories in three volumes and added an album of biography, photos, and commentary.1 It is a remarkable fate for the only Yiddish writer, with the possible exception of Sholem Aleichem, who will be remembered by anyone but the Jews.

Here are all of Singer’s stories in English from the original collections, plus a few new, previously unpublished ones, in three neat volumes, with timeline, copious bibliographical information, and errata for the original English translations. The collection is a pleasure—for the stories, for the useful publication histories and other bibliographical materials, and for seeing Singer amidst the paleface company of Hawthorne and Emerson. For readers already acquainted with Singer, it provides, for the first time, a full picture of his development as a writer, including his breakthrough to a new depth in the mid-1940s, his shift toward stories with American settings, and his deep old age, with its almost spectral late Polish stories.2 The collection also stands as something of a coda for the curious encounter between Singer and America. Singer, involuted European and eternal greenhorn, was feted and adored by the breezy America to which he escaped from Poland. His American fame spread to the Europe from which he came, and today he stands as the primary representative of Yiddish culture for young Poles and Czechs. He is the only American writer to win the Nobel Prize who did not write in English (Joseph Brodsky won, but he wrote in English as well as in Russian), an outcome which spawned a debate about Singer’s Americanness which lasts to this day and is represented ably in the round-table discussion that is included in the album that accompanies this edition.3

Singer was called a “cruel writer” by Irving Howe. Certainly the stories set in Poland, especially those of his early and middle periods, are potpourris of cruelty for Singer and his eager demons. One of the contributors to the album was understandably surprised, though, to hear Singer’s pungent response to Howe: “Since when has cruelty been a crime?”4 That does not sound like the somewhat hapless Singer of his memoirs, who bitterly accuses the Almighty of cruelty, or like the isolated but beneficent old man of the many late autobiographical stories set in America. Nor does it sound much like the Polish Jew who, like many in his Yiddish-speaking milieu, lamented the cruelty of his fellow human beings and spoke for the stubborn goodness and piety of traditional Jewishness. It makes perfect sense that the imagined world of Singer’s Polish stories is one of cruelty, given its setting, cruel Poland, not the cheerful and sad America of his late stories. And given that human paradox is one of Singer’s most beloved themes, the cruelty of one who despairs over cruelty shouldn’t surprise too much. But this paradoxical Singer, cruel yet despairing of cruelty, envelops an elusive truth of the sort his protagonists were so often to see glimpses of.

Singer was known to put people through things, in life as in art. Dvorah Telushkin’s brave and insightful memoir of her years as personal secretary to Singer, Master of Dreams, recounts the harrowing, if enriching, experience of getting close to him, which involved more cruelty (and cruelty’s cousin, paranoia) than the tenderness that accompanied it in tantalizing doses. There were many other unhappy beneficiaries like her of Singer’s personal cruelty, which often resembled that of some mad dictator.5 In his work, the sheer volume and exuberance of the cruelty certainly provoke one to think that Singer rather enjoyed punishing what one might call his regime’s many internal enemies. They are the vain, the vulgar, the lewd among his characters; the virgins who like looking at themselves in the mirror, the rabbis who think themselves pious and wise. Also, with equal relish, the deluded, the thoughtless, the sentimental, and the unsuspecting. Their true significance in his work is best understood by their narrative position: usually secondary, whether to the demons who dominate the fantastic stories of 1943-1945, or through the foregrounding of other narrative elements even in those stories in which they appear to dominate the point of view. These ugly or deluded folk beset by Singer’s tortures do not get to be protagonists with whom we are to identify because their suffering does them no good.

But there is another class of citizen in Singer’s world: The chosen. Like the Hebrew God, Singer picks his favored ones out for the burden of suffering. They are often sincere and hapless, resembling not the Singer of his pungent reply to Howe, or the Singer who creates and stands over them in cruel omniscience, but the lost and searching man his memoirs reveal.6 We are able to identify with them; they evoke an empathy the characters destroyed by his demons do not. Yet where they are concerned Singer is not merely trying to give us the readerly pleasures of nineteenth-century narrative entertainment (even if he did delight in denouncing the absurd literature of the twentieth in its favor). He is after something else. Jean Améry (born Hans Maier of Vienna, later an inmate of Auschwitz) calls it “reality”: “Even in direct experience everyday reality is nothing but codified abstraction. Only in rare moments of life do we truly stand face to face with the event and, with it, reality.”7 Unlike his victims, Singer’s chosen—Gimpel the Fool, the philosopher Dr. Fischelson, the Polish maid Yanda, the grieving Rabbi Bainish of “Joy”—endure the extremity of Singer’s cruel universe, beset by human baseness, malign demons, illness, sorrow, or the world’s indifference, until some key moment arrives. Then they pop out of “codified abstraction,” the small world of their self-governing, self-preserving ideas, and see “reality” face to face, like the tortured. Some surprising truth that extends beyond their pain then becomes apparent to them. Invariably enigmatic, on the margins of the graspable, this truth is nonetheless seen plain, and it creates the possibility of a genuine free choice. Singer’s tortures, in other words, are delivered to those whom they can do good, so that they may arrive at that moment when they stand face to face with what is to be seen, make a choice, and live on differently, usually with a deepened acceptance of things.

So Gimpel is visited in the depths of his frustration and defeat by the Spirit of Evil, who convinces him to take revenge on his fellow townsfolk by urinating into his baker’s dough. Then he is visited again, this time by his dead wife, Elka. He sees something—that “this world is not the real world,” as he puts it at the end of the story—and changes everything. He heads off to become a beggar on the road, possessed of Singer’s version of tragic knowledge, and full of a saintly joy. Dr. Fischelson, “Der Spinozist” (the faintly ironic Yiddish title), is brought by old age and suffering to marry old Black Dobbe, a market peddler, in a hopeless gesture (“thank you, but I don’t look forward to any luck,” he tells those who congratulate him on the union).8 His books, his ideas, his melancholy occupation with the pursuit of reason are left behind as he gives in to his own deeply foreign impulses. Embracing his wife, he becomes one of the blind, passionate fools he had looked down upon—in Singer’s simple metaphor—from his attic room in Warsaw. We sense that he has returned not to life but to the world, with its beauty and ugliness combined in such a way that it must be resisted or embraced. Gimpel the Fool sees (it is one of the most characteristic insights, or intuitions, of Eastern European Jewish life) that this world is not the real world. The Spinozist sees, to his disbelief, that it is (“Divine Spinoza, forgive me. I have become a fool,” are the story’s marvelous last lines.)9 Heading in opposite directions, Singer’s two fools meet at the crossroads of the two worlds.

What happens to them happens to many of Singer’s favored protagonists. Extremity, having shaken them loose from codified abstraction, opens them to deep insight and a corresponding action, what is called recognition and reversal in the Aristotelian account of Greek tragedy. But in a Jewish tradition Singer’s characters themselves speak of frequently in these stories, God gave human beings free choice. Unlike Greek tragedy, in which the protagonist will choose a predestined fate, Singer’s unfated people are entirely free, indeed are called upon, to choose their paths, which tend to be idiosyncratic and deflated in a very human, rather Chekhovian fashion—the educated Dr. Fischelson’s unexpected marriage to an old peddler, for example. For all his portrayals of human beings as playthings of a malicious universe and its demons, Singer ultimately writes un-Greek tales of free choice given by a single God—whom Singer the author, therefore, resembles.

For Singer, the old Jewish question of free choice is more than a philosophical question, though it was the one he returned to most often, and (as we shall see) which sustained him personally as an artist. It deeply informed his work, calling on him, the omniscient, to give his protagonists freedom, and going to the ground of how they, in turn, move through the world. Because free choice takes place in a moment, Singer brings his attention with great force upon the moment-to-moment. And because free choice can take place only on a basis of accurate perception, perception becomes all-important for him. Singer locates his entire art in this crucible. He cleaves to concreteness. He disdains promulgators of ideas (“he spoke in the manner of the philosophers” is a line that crops up in more than one story, always when describing a demon or villain). He drives toward a fictional omniscience that unsparingly offers characters the same silence, distance, and free choice granted by an omniscient God. And he deepens the idea of free choice as bestowed by the rabbis by turning it toward the capacity to perceive and take in the real. In his universe, free choice is not merely a matter of making one choice or another, as it was for Cain or Esau, but of accurate perception of reality. He particularly likes showing characters who hesitate on the edge of insight, clinging to their notions, like the Spinozist and the knowing-and-not-knowing Gimpel the Fool, though he also delights in showing those failures who never make it over, like the deluded murderer of his amazing story “Under the Knife.” It is only superficially puzzling in this context that his heroes should tend to be believers in another world, those who reflect, rather than act reflexively. They have taken upon themselves the challenge of living up to both worlds, and that, for Singer, is what makes a hero.


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