A Fabulous, Bald Jew

May 9, 2004 |

Collected Stories, Volume III
By Isaac Bashevis Singer
Edited by Ilan Stavans
Library of America. 899 pages. $35.

The Anglo-Jewish author and playwright Israel Zangwill, who was once perhaps the most famous Jew in the world, remarked around the turn of the last century that Yiddish literature was “rich in men of talent, and even genius, whose names have rarely reached the outside world.”

Oy, how times have changed.

In the intervening years, one Yiddish author in particular, Isaac Bashevis Singer, has ensured the language’s literary reputation among Jewish and non-Jewish readers the world over. A writer who donned multitudinous hats, caps, yarmulkes, and shtroimels, Singer achieved unprecedented success and prominence.

He was a consistent and lifelong journalist, a New Yorker regular, an inventive fabulist, a sentimental memoirist, a children’s author, a believer in the paranormal, a sex fiend, and a sweet old zeyde to his readers. He was a globetrotting lecturer and a devoutly loyal New Yorker. A brief stretch of asphalt on the Upper West Side now bears his name. He is the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize (probably forever, unless we see a drastic and surprising demographic shift)—and now, to these accolades, he posthumously adds another. His short fiction has been enshrined in the Library of America, a patriotic publishing series that “fosters appreciation and pride in America’s literary heritage”—despite the fact that Singer wrote in a language that 99 percent of all Americans who have ever lived neither read nor speak.

This new Collected Stories subsumes and surpasses the handful of previous attempts to gather Singer’s many tales under a single cover. And, in fact, one cover can’t quite do it: three are necessary. Totaling close to 3,000 pages, and with a detailed set of appendices that will prove invaluable to current and future Singer scholars, these volumes comprise an essential addition to any personal or public library of Jewish and/or American fiction. Though many Yiddishists object to his fame among readers of English, calling him an opportunist (as Saul Bellow famously did) or a phony, Singer is a towering giant of modern Jewish literature. A literary lamed-vovnik, one might say.

Cataloging Singer’s accolades is easy. Defining his literary niche, delimiting the focus of his work—that’s the tough part. The 78 eclectic pieces in the third volume of the Collected Stories could serve as a textbook on the various methods and modes a writer may use to package and present plots. Frames and authorial masks abound, though there’s not a trace of postmodernist gimmickry, which Singer calls in an author’s note “forced originality.”

Often Singer leaves the storytelling to proxies. When he writes about Eastern Europe before WWII, he evokes his Aunt Yentl, who “frequently broke her own rule to keep the Sabbath pure and gay and told stories which had the scent of gossip,” or three idlers in the Radzymin study house. In these pieces he reproduces the shtetls and cities of Poland in striking detail, as when, in “The Betrayer of Israel,” he describes an unrepentant bigamist’s lavish dress, noting that “the uppers of his boots shone like lacquer.”

For wartime and post-war stories, he transcribes the monologues of exhibitionists who know his work from the Forverts—”I read you! I come from the towns you describe”—look him up in the Manhattan phonebook, and relate their personal histories.

Are these pieces based on real interviews Singer gave to his fans? It seems they must be. Yet his authorial hand is everywhere: he edits their voices, plucks out the juiciest idioms from their speech, and sifts out the truly engaging stories from the hundreds presented to him. Describing what he hears from the human slush pile of unsolicited storytellers, he admits, “I’m almost always disappointed. The stories are typical recitations of treacherous husbands, unfaithful wives, ungrateful children.” Such run-of-the-mill tales are discarded in favor of just the opposite: shocking anecdotes of cross-dressing Hasids, daring escapes from and missions into Nazi Germany, and touching descriptions of bizarrely loyal lovers.

His taste for the profane and the deviant has earned him dogged opponents as well as fans. He’s an easy target for criticism: not only was he not the best writer who worked in Yiddish, some would say, he wasn’t even the best in his own family. (That honor, the argument goes, belongs to his older brother, I. J. Singer, author of the epic masterpiece The Brothers Ashkenazi.) In her generally sympathetic biography, Janet Hadda charges Singer with willfully manipulating his image in the English media. And some think it a shanda that Singer’s Nobel Prize wasn’t awarded instead to Chaim Grade.

Still, in most cases, Singer’s stories argue for themselves. The pieces reprinted in this third volume of the Collected Stories are polished, compelling, resonant, and ambitious: They consistently challenge received ideas—about Jewish history, passion, loyalty, and faith—and they rarely disappoint.

[Originally published on JBooks.com.]