A Life in Translation
Aviya Kushner on Isaac Bashevis Singer
ISAAC B. SINGER:
By Florence Noiville. Translated by Catherine Temerson. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. 192 pp. $23
My father likes to tell two stories about the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. In the first, Singer is speaking to a group of students in New York City. Just as a shoemaker thinks of life in terms of shoes, he says, so a writer thinks of it in terms of writing. To Singer, God was, of course, a writer. “And what is God’s book?” my father remembers Singer saying to the stunned students. “Life itself. And one thing you have to admit about God’s book. It’s interesting. You always want to know what happens next.”
In my father’s second story, the 65-year-old Singer is glimpsed at a Holocaust memorial service on Earth Day, in 1970. He is sitting silently in the back, listening to survivors talk. Both of my father’s versions of Singer—the man who couldn’t stop thinking about God, and the writer who remained curious all his life—emerge in journalist and Le Monde literary critic Florence Noiville’s lovely and often disturbing take on the life of this master of the tale.
Though many Americans graduate from college without having read him, Singer (1904–91) is widely considered both a major writer of fiction and an important chronicler of European Jewish life, especially the vanished world of the shtetl, the village of the pious and usually poor. He emigrated to the United States from Poland in 1935 but persisted writing in Yiddish, even after most Yiddish speakers were killed in the Holocaust.
In America, Singer lived for years in the shadow of his older, successful-writer brother, Israel Joshua Singer, and eked out a living as a freelance journalist and contributor to the Yiddish newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward. He didn’t publish major work until he was 40, but from then on his production was startling. In all he published 14 novels, 16 children’s books, 10 works of nonfiction, two plays, and several hundred stories. His major works include The Family Moskat (1950), which was his first novel published in English, as well as The Magician of Lublin (1960), The Manor (1967), The Estate (1969), and Shosha (1978). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. The film musical Yentl is based on one of his short stories.
As Noiville reveals in her first sentence, Singer disdained biographies as a means of understanding a writer. Perhaps Noiville means to signal,
by this admission, that her attempt to bring Singer to life will lead to many dead ends. A scant 120,000 of Poland’s three million Jews survived the Holocaust. Sixty years later, Noiville searches for the house where Singer was born, in Leoncin, 20 miles northwest of Warsaw; all that remains on the spot is an orchard. The section of Warsaw to which the Singer family relocated, memorialized in his books as the place where the thieves, the pimps, and the prostitutes were never too far from the virtuous, is gone too.
No one, Noiville discovers, wants to live on the street named after Singer in the town of his birth. Anti-Semitism runs deep. But a lot of people hated Singer the man as well. He left a five-year-old son in Poland and didn’t see him again for 20 years. He lovingly described his mother in prose—but didn’t write to her for a decade. He thrived on juggling the attentions of numerous women, and apparently demanded total devotion from his associates. Saul Bellow launched Singer’s career in English with a beautiful translation of the short story “Gimpel the Fool,” published in Partisan Review in 1953, but Singer failed to acknowledge this debt. Other Yiddish writers despised him, possibly because he alone managed to have an illustrious career in the English-speaking world. There is plenty of grumbling, too, that Singer’s work in English has been sanitized from the Yiddish original.
I grew up hearing my father read Singer’s magnificent short stories aloud. Whatever his personal shortcomings, Singer clearly loved every one of his characters. Noiville’s book, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson, is eloquent, funny, and moving: a tribute to the art and importance of translation and to the life of Singer, who reached so many through devoted translators. And as Singer might say, a translation of a life may be as close as one human being can get to understanding another.