Yet Another Look At Bashevis

A New Biography Explores The Life of a Writer Who Remains a Mystery

By Ilan Stavans

Published October 27, 2006, issue of October 27, 2006.
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Isaac B. Singer: A Life
By Florence Noiville Translated from the French by Catherine Temerson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 181 pages, $24.

By now, the English-speaking world’s embrace of the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer should be evident to all. Beginning in 1953, when his story “Gimpel the Fool,” translated by Saul Bellow, was published in Partisan Review, to his centennial celebration in 2004, which included his induction into the literary canon of the Library of America, he has become one of the most well-known authors of the last century.

And yet, in many ways, he remains a mystery. There have been memoirs about Singer by relatives and acquaintances (among them Dvorah Telushkin, Dorothea Straus, Lester Goran, and Singer’s Israeli son Israel Zamir), as well as evocations and book-long conversations. But a full-fledged biography is yet to come. Khrone Shmeruk, Leonard Wolf and Ronald Sanders each entertained the idea, but all abandoned it eventually. Only Paul Kresh and Janet Hadda completed the task, in 1979 and 1997 respectively, but neither offered as comprehensive or even-handed a picture as one would wish.

Singer’s centennial brought along a bunch of small biographical explorations, which were released worldwide in German, Japanese and French. The French title, by Florence Noiville, a literary critic for Le Monde who has also written on Greek and Roman mythology, came out under the aegis of Editions Stock, Singer’s longtime Paris publisher. It has now been translated into English by Catherine Temerson. And although it’s no palliative for the much-needed in-depth biography, “Isaac B. Singer: A Life” is a useful and highly-accessible depiction of this complicated, often maddening figure.

In barely 160 pages, Noiville has chosen her topics with care, and the result is a gracefully conceived, zigzagging narrative. It switches viewpoints from Manhattan in 2002, when Noiville did her research, to Singer’s various points of departure, from his native shtetl Leoncin, to Warsaw where he embarked on his career with his debut novel “Satan in Goray,” Miami where he taught in his mature years, Surfside, Fla., where he died in 1991, and the Beth-El cemetery in Paramus, N.J., where he is buried. She visited Warsaw, Leoncin, Radzymin, Krakaw, Stockholm, New York, among other places.

Noiville is balanced in her approach. It would be easy to concentrate on Singer’s photogenic career in the United States, given the amount of material at the biographer’s disposal, but she resists the temptation. About half of “Isaac B. Singer” is devoted to his first 50 years, no doubt the most difficult period to research — since his childhood and adolescence, in the words of Singer’s brother, Israel Joshua, are part of “a world that is no more.” Almost no one is left to talk to, but Noiville uses the other tools available, including historical accounts and published comments by Singer’s contemporaries.

For the latter period, Noiville interviewed some of the players around at the time (Robert Giroux, Telushkin, Zamir, Straus, Cynthia Ozick, et al). She also visited the Random Humanities Center in Austin, Texas, which contains a veritable treasure trove of material, from unpublished manuscripts to readers’ letters and photos. In spite of unavoidable gaps, and of some questionable assertions (did Noiville really see the Nobel medal, rumored to have vanished?), her interpretation feels accurate. She has a penchant for sexual irony, as when Singer’s cadre of female translators is referred to as “a harem.” And her compassion is tangible in the last section, dedicated to his old-age dementia.

Another strong point is Noiville’s interest in language, in particular her meditation on Singer’s multilingual journey. By far the most interesting sections are about his critical reception in France, as well as in Germany and Italy. His success depended on the strategic support from editors and publishers like André Bay at Stock, Christoph Schlotterer at Hanser, and Lisa Morpurgo at Longanesi. I do wish Noiville had also paid some attention to Singer’s vicissitudes in non-traditional linguistic realms, including Polish, Russian, and Arabic. About Hebrew, the famous anecdote of him, as a disengaged father, asking Zamir to render him in the sacred tongue, could have served as a door in discussing Singer’s vicissitudes in the sacred tongue. Yiddish, of course, was the mameloshn, but Noiville trenchantly notes the significance of Polish to Singer. Some years ago, I spoke with Agata Tuszynska, author of “Lost Landscapes: In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland.” She gave me a sophisticated picture of how he opened people’s eyes in Warsaw to a chamber of the nation’s memory that had been shut long time ago. Any comprehensive biography should ultimately engage with Singer’s influence in post-Communist Poland.

The book has its flaws. There are sharp portraits of Singer’s parents, yet his own his ambivalence toward parenthood is left unnoticed. His endorsement of the modernist novel is explored, but there’s no insight into his sub-career as a children’s author. Noiville is self-effacing as a detective, describing her book as “one interpretation of [Singer’s] life,” albeit “not a scholarly work.” Perhaps, but she ultimately fails to penetrate Singer’s inner world, to understand the contradictions that made his more than a dozen novels and 300-plus stories possible.

And so, the perfect biography of this complicated figure still eludes us. In the meantime, Noiville’s fresh take is a welcome addition to the library of books about him.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book is “The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories.”

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