Isaac Bashevis Singer’s admirers describe him as a man of impossible paleness, “translucent” skin laced with veins the same shade of blue as his bulging eyes. They say he was small. In photographs, his right eyebrow arches and his thread-thin upper lip sneers. His ears are large and nearly pointed, elegant despite their size, and the cartilage that shapes them follows the steep angle of his cheekbones away from his skull, like batwings. Examining a picture of the man, reading the first words of his story “Blood” — “The cabalists know that the passion for blood and the passion for flesh have the same origin” — it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could be confused about his true nature.
That is, how he could be mistaken for a lovable alter kacker, as he is by those who remem-
ber most his saccharine children’s stories (heymish frauds, all). Or as a preservationist of a great heritage, as he is by those who revere the speech he gave on the occasion of winning the Nobel Prize (a self-congratulatory sermon). He was, by most accounts, a vicious man, and worse: a channeler of demons. The devils and imps and dybukkim with which he crowded his books play the part of metaphors, yes, but their symbolic meanings are only the rags and gabardine in which they’re dressed. Beneath, they are as real as Bashevis, as real as the double-edged spike that cuts through the aleph, `, the empty cave at the heart of the beyz, a.
The incarnation that Bashevis granted them was his gift to American letters, and for that — the flesh he gave them — we should be grateful.
The first time I read Bashevis I was 22, and I had taken a job as editor of an English-language magazine published by the National Yiddish Book Center. To prepare me, they sent a box of Yiddish literature in translation: Irving Howe’s “Treasury of Yiddish Stories,” Sholem Aleichem, Mendele the Book Peddler. At the bottom of the box was a copy of Singer’s novel “The Slave,” a story of a Jew in bondage to Polish peasants. Despite his isolation and his love for a shiksa, the main character remains true to his Judaism. Susan Sontag once remarked that “The Slave” is a book in which “God gets the last word” — a rather boring premise for a novel. Already regretting my immersion in professional Jewry, I groaned as I read Singer’s hero described thusly: “Jacob of Josefov took the privations Providence had sent him without rancor.” What a sanctimonious putz.
I read “The Slave” while I drove cross-country in the company of a woman with whom I’d fallen out of love. The feeling was mutual, the drive silent and long. Whenever she took the wheel, I’d read. No air conditioning, 100 degrees, we were doing 90 on a bone-bleak stretch of road in Eastern Montana. I let my arm fall into hot wind, Singer in hand. With a snap, the book tore out of my fingers. I twisted in time to see it slap against the head of a worker on a road crew, its pages in his face as if Bashevis himself were blowing the man a sloppy, Yiddish kiss in translation. Good riddance.
I wouldn’t return to Bashevis again, and thus wouldn’t discover the good parts — what the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein described as “insanely sexual, pornographic, paranoid, freakish” — until I met some old ladies who could personally vouch for Singer’s true proclivities. This occurred at a peculiar gathering convened by the Yiddish Book Center, a “conference” on the great man’s work. Most of the attendees were older couples. In passing, one of the speakers, a graduate student, mentioned Singer’s reputation as a womanizer. Around the room, wrinkled arms shot into the air.
An antique beauty with orange hair and candy-red lips said: “I knew Isaac. We use to meet for, eh, lunch. How to describe? Isaac was, he was… a passionate man.” The speaker’s husband, sitting beside her, looked out the window resolutely.
Another woman spoke: “There was a time I talked to Isaac almost every day. You know, about things in our lives. We’d go for walks. He… understood things other men did not.” Her husband, a dapper man in a blue blazer, stared at his desk.
A widow said: “Let’s not forget: He was not a tall man, but he was very physical.”
That night, I was haunted by demons. Succubuses, too many aged Liliths to count. Old women coming for me in the dark with unspeakable lusts and the smacking lips of octogenarians — red as fresh blood. What can I say? I responded. (Singer would have approved; his first serious lover in Warsaw was a consumptive twice his age.) The next day, I began reading “Satan in Goray.”
From there, I flew through much of Singer’s work in no reasonable order. Here was a Jewish writer who in his strength admitted no redemption, celebrated no triumphant spirit, aped no Christian moral. “Is creation a snake primeval crawling with evil?” one of his charming anti-heroes asks, taking it easy after dragging a young beauty to hell to be pickled alive for eternity. “How can I tell? I’m still only a minor devil.”
It is said that Bashevis carried a list of sins in his pocket at all times. “Every sin,” he wrote in his story “Taibele and Her Demon,” “gives birth to devils and spirits and these are man’s descendants and come to demand their inheritance.” A life-long student of the mind, he nonetheless refused to reduce his demons to the status of suppressed urges. “I am of the opinion that we are surrounded by existences and forces of which we are unaware now,” he told an interviewer, “but of which we shall learn in 300,000 years or never…. They may be sitting in this chair or standing and listening to our conversation.”
Or perhaps he was listening to theirs. In “The Last Demon,” the eponymous narrator laments that “the Jews have now developed writers. Yiddish ones, Hebrew ones, and they have taken over our trade.” Of course, he is being generous; modern Hebrew is too chaste for devils. The demon acknowledges as much: “I draw my sustenance from a Yiddish storybook, a leftover from the days before the great catastrophe.” It is the Yiddish aleph-beyz that gives solace to evil, shelters the demons made invisible by responsible scholarship, by well-intentioned hagiography, by the propriety of literature that Singer craved even as he inadvertently desecrated his adopted tongue — or rather, that of his comely young translators, every one of whom, legend holds, he seduced.
America had enjoyed chroniclers of evil before this monster — Hawthorne and Poe and Faulkner — but Singer introduced a different kind of imp to American letters, urban and omnipresent, with a better sense of humor. His demons thrive not just in the dark woods and crumbling Southern mansions. They are everywhere, and they are as real as the perversions they inspire.
Scholars may suppose they are tools of psychology, good Jews may insist they are mirrors in which we can glimpse the complex mind of God. But Jewish writers are, for the most part, a “pornographic, paranoid, freakish” bunch. I am thinking here of the various Roths and Hoffmans and Grossmans and Goldbergs, not to mention Ginsberg, Bruce and Bukiet, Shteyngart (“filthy immigrant bear,” self-named), Goldstein (just plain filthy) and Ozick (most brilliant pornographer of all), plus the legions of lesser smut writers, poison pens and naysayers among whom I am proud to be numbered. We know better. Singer’s demons are as real and numerous as our own lusts and envies and vanities and voyeurisms and perversions, inversions, reversions, as real and quick and clever as our pettiest deceptions, the ones we thank God for granting us, lest we run out of stories. It bears repeating: Bashevis’s demons are no more a matter of literary metaphor than was the last furtive glance you cast at some desirable creature on the street. She, he — or, God help you, it — was real, and so was the devil leering right alongside you, the dybbuk possessing and filling you with fantasies most unclean and delightful. Thank you, I. B. Singer!
As I was thinking about Singer’s centennial, I scanned my shelves to see what works I could call on for this essay. To my surprise, I found “The Slave.” It was a used edition I must have picked up somewhere, after I threw my first copy to the wind. There was a note inside. It seems this copy had been a gift from a man to his girlfriend. He wanted her to read it so that she would understand him, his Jewishness, his grandfather’s stories of the shtetl. He closed his note oddly: “As a New York cabdriver once said to me, yelling repeatedly over the traffic, ‘The DEAD command us.’ Read it with all my love.”
The Last Demon himself could not have said it better. The dead Singer reminds us of are our dybbukim, spirits that possess us. They rip books from our hands and hurl them at the goyim; they transport us to grotesque reveries and inspire us to record and reproduce the sins that are the fathers and mothers of a million bastard spirits. Yiddish may be a subject for nostalgia, but its demons are alive and well in America. They live on, as Singer wrote, in the curves and crooks of the letters with which we make words to describe them. They are sitting in your chair right now, or standing beside you, reading over your shoulder. I wrote this for their pleasure.