Whenever I’d ask my relatives where my great-grandparents had lived before immigrating to the United States, their answers always seemed strangely, frustratingly unspecific: A little village near Minsk, or maybe Pinsk, they would say. In the part of Russia that is now called Belarus, they thought. It may have been near a river, they conjectured. It was as if my family had come from a magical land that fogged the memory, evaded description, slid around on the map.
Which is one reason why, when I first encountered the writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer, at the age of 8 or 9, it made a deep impression on me. Singer’s stories provided the details I craved. They painted a picture of potatoes and prayer, men in beards and women in kerchiefs, lives of struggle and suffering and brief bursts of happiness — a picture that, to my mind, seemed absolutely correct and appropriate. Even the bits of magic and glimpses of the supernatural seemed real and authentic to me. Things were different over there in the Old Country, I thought. That was just the way life was, back there, back then. When my family went to our synagogue, I looked at the elderly people in the congregation — the ones with heavy accents and an air of “differentness” — and I felt I knew them from Singer’s stories.
Even today, I find it difficult to get this image out of my head, the image of the Singer Old Country. I can’t distinguish fact from fiction, memory from my imagination’s embellishment.
The first Singer stories I read, in a collection of some of the lighter, less nightmare-inducing stories, had such authority emanating from them that I immediately assumed they were nonfiction. They had the air of testimonials, of eyewitness accounts. The authenticity came not from a piling up of details and factual evidence, but from the opposite: the stories’ very simplicity. The matter-of-factness of their tone was what made them seem so true, made them seem as if they could not possibly be otherwise.
I came back to Singer when I was a college student. I wanted to be a writer, and I remembered the strong impression his stories had made on me. I returned to his writing, curious to see if it would intrigue me as much now that I am an adult as it had when I was a child. If so, I wanted to figure out what made it so powerful, and then steal those tools and devices to use in my own writing.
I read as many of his stories as I could find. Most were deeper, more nightmarish and disturbing than the ones I read as a kid: stories of dybbuks, devils, gloating imps, ghosts, people struggling against sin and temptation, old immigrants hunched over weak tea in cafeterias. I was both thrilled and perplexed by them — thrilled because they were as intense and effective to me as an adult as they’d been years ago, but perplexed because I couldn’t pin down why they entranced me as much as they did.
I was then in a phase in which I liked to pick apart stories, the way a watchmaker takes apart a clock. I wanted to look at all the cogs and machinery and see how they fit together, see what made them tick. And I couldn’t do that with Singer’s stories. They resisted dissection. You just had to swallow them whole. The stories are so simply written — no stunts, no devices, no fancy flourishes. Everything seems to be out in the open, nothing hidden. And yet I couldn’t pin down which words or phrases or plot structures were the ones that made the stories sing. I couldn’t pin down where the magic was.
I had tried to imitate Singer deliberately, but I simply couldn’t do it. That is, until I stopped trying.
It wasn’t until years later that I found myself emulating him, after all. Singerisms crept into my own writing, in ways I didn’t intend and that I only noticed in retrospect, long after I’d finished writing. I wrote stories about people poised on the brink of moral choices, with dark forces swirling all around them. I didn’t set out to do it, but I found myself writing an entire novel that clearly was set in a Singer world — an ominous, cold Old Country where violence and magic were daily facts of life.
When I read Singer’s stories today, I’m gratified to find that I still love them as much as I always have. I still notice new aspects of the stories that I’ve never noticed before. These days, one of the new things I notice is the odd feeling of déjà vu they give me. When I pick up one of his stories, I immediately feel a sense of familiarity. It often takes me a few paragraphs or pages to figure out whether I’ve read a particular story before — which is not to say that Singer’s stories are repetitious or predictable or redundant. Not in the least. But they share a tone and atmosphere that are distinctly his; the moment you begin one of his stories, you sense that you are in his hands, in his world. You may be reading a completely new story, but you can sense characters from other stories hovering in the wings, just next door, just out of sight.
Another aspect of his writing that I’ve recently noticed for the first time is his skill with opener sentences. In my own writing, I’ve always been fussy about the beginnings of stories, always struggled to find the perfect first sentence. Singer’s openings, though I’d never paid attention to them before, are brilliant. They always thrust the reader into the story immediately. He doesn’t bother with preliminaries, with setting things up or easing in the reader gently. He just starts the story with a bang, and the reader immediately finds himself in the middle of it.
“First she wrote me a long letter full of praise,” begins “The Admirer.” Was there ever a first sentence more weighted with implication, more imbued with anticipation? We assume the “admirer” of the title is this mysterious, unnamed she. The word “first” suggests a long series of favors to come. If “a long letter full of praise” is only the first, what could possibly come next? At first, the story progresses in the way we might expect: The admirer wants to meet the narrator of the story, a writer who one might assume is an alter ego of Singer himself. She pays him a visit. And then things go awry in marvelously absurd, unpredictable ways.
Such openers are full of momentum, like a round boulder poised on a steep hill — the action begins immediately. Other stories have similarly beguiling starts: “Why should a Polish Jew in New York publish a literary magazine in German?” (“The Joke”), “Herman Gombiner opened one eye” (“The Letter Writer”) and “After her father’s death Yentl had no reason to remain in Yanev” (“Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”). Singer’s characters are always about to make a move, poised on the brink of some action — whether it be as small as opening one’s other eye or leaving home forever.
Singer was a master at the subtle use of symbolism, too. His stories are full of symbols, but he doesn’t thrust them into the foreground; instead they’re slipped, here and there, in places where they don’t call attention to themselves. I recently reread one of my favorite stories, “The Cafeteria,” and for the first time noticed a fabulous symbol. The narrator, a writer, encounters a character named Esther several times throughout the story; she first catches his eye because she appears so much younger than the usual elderly cafeteria crowd. At one meeting he notes that her hair had turned gray, and he thinks, “how strange — the fur hat, too, seemed to have grayed.” At a later encounter, he thinks, “it must have been snowing again, because her hat and the shoulders of her coat were trimmed with white.” Another time, the woman tells the narrator a fantastic story of seeing Hitler, still alive and in that very cafeteria, holding a strange midnight ceremony. He assures her that what she has seen is a memory or vision. Later, the narrator glimpses Esther with an old half-remembered acquaintance, and she’s wearing “a new coat, a new hat.” He tries to find her again and cannot. He begins to wonder if he’s seeing things, if the mysterious woman herself is a ghost; ultimately he begins to question his own definition of reality.
The details about the woman’s evolving outerwear don’t call attention to themselves. They’re placed delicately, among other sensory descriptions. And yet they add something to the story, a sort of thematic progression running through it beneath the surface. Even if you don’t consciously notice the coat and hat, perhaps unconsciously they shape your impression of Esther.
This is why I’ll continue to read and reread Singer — for these unexpected angles and discoveries that have been hidden in the stories all along. And for the pleasure of re-entering the strange and magical and yet familiar Singer world. I feel toward Singer as Esther did, when she told the writer-narrator: “I read you and I know that you have a sense of the great mysteries.”
THE MASTER: Even today, writes Budnitz, she finds it hard to get the image of Singer’s Old Country out of her head, to distinguish fact from fiction, memory from embellishment.