November 14, 2010
THE SECRETS AND POWERS OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
I fell in love with Isaac Bashevis Singer when an early mentor of mine recommended “The Slave,” and I have been reading — and re-reading — Singer’s novels, stories and memoirs ever since. Seven years ago, when I sought to introduce his work to a young writer of my acquaintance, I found a copy of “The Slave” that had been inscribed in Singer’s own hand. I paid a bit less for an autographed copy of one of Singer’s masterpieces than what I would have shelled out for some newly-published flavor-of-the-month best-seller at the local bookstore.
The point, of course, is that the literary stock of Isaac Bashevis Singer has slumped since his death in 1991. It’s hardly surprising, of course, and it says nothing about the enduring quality and importance of his work. Singer was honored with a Nobel Prize in 1978, but that’s wholly beside the point in our media-frenzied culture in which we are invited to communicate with each other in 140-character bursts and we are always scanning the horizon (or, more precisely, the computer screen) for the next big thing.
So I was delighted to see that Singer’s longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has re-issued “The Magician of Lublin” ($15.00), one of Singer’s most beguiling and beloved novels, on the 50th anniversary of its first publication. Set in Warsaw in the late 1870s, the book bears all of his toolmarks as a storyteller — a certain strange magic but also a sure sense of the world as it is, an open-eyed interest in sexual adventure, an all-embracing curiosity about even the most extravagant varieties of human experience and, not coincidentally, the dangers and doom that it can bring, all conveyed with a sly sense of humor and expressed in the deceptively simple phrases and cadences that are Singer’s glory.
“A reckless man! To win a bet, he had once spent a whole night in the cemetery. He could walk a tightrope, skate on a wire, climb walls, open any lock,” writes Singer about Yasha Mazur. “In Lublin they said that if Yasha had chosen crime, no one’s house would be safe.”
Singer himself was a master of literary legerdemain, which is another reason why “The Magician of Lublin” is a good starting point for a new generation of readers. Born in Poland in 1902, he followed his more famous brother, I. J. Singer, to the United States shortly before World War II, and achieved a unique kind of literary success only in the 1960s, when the stories he had composed in Yiddish for the Forward began to show up in English translation in the pages of Esquire and the New Yorker. Thus Singer showed himself to be an alchemist who was able to transmute Yiddish newspaper serials into high literature.
Like “The Magician of Lublin,” his other novels and stories often conjured up recent and distant history, ranging from medieval Poland to post-war Manhattan. But he was always a thoroughly modern writer, and his frankness about matters of sex and the human psyche put him at a distance from the conventions of Yiddish literature. He was famously willing to entertain the existence of ghosts and dibbuks, as he does in “The Magician of Lublin,” but always with a certain ironic distance that allowed the reader to understand them as phenomenon of the human imagination, no different than dreams and visions, “fancies [that] had burrowed through like mice or hobgoblin” — a fact that always endeared him to the Jungian movement in psychoanalysis.
So when Singer writes that Yasha “had always been a soul-searcher, prone to fantasy,” we might imagine that we are glimpsing the author himself. “He possessed hidden powers,” continues Singer, “he had more secrets that the blessed Rosh Hashonah pomegranate has seeds.” All of these powers and secrets are richly displayed in the pages of “The Magician of Lublin,” and I confidently predict that any reader who opens the book in its latest edition will yearn for more of Singer’s remarkable magic.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.