BOOK REVIEW / Familiar complaint in Warsaw: 'The Certificate' - Isaac Bashevis Singer, trs Leonard Wolf: Hamish Hamilton 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
'I MYSELF was an entire cosmos. Yet I was also very fearful: I was a cosmos that had nowhere to spend the night.' The year is 1922, and this Jewish cosmos, David, a rabbi's son, is having a hard time of it in Warsaw, in the wake of war and revolution. He is poor. He is accident-prone. Perhaps he'll get to Palestine. He moves in his halfhearted way to secure a certificate that will take him there, a certificate that requires a 'fictive marriage' to a local girl.

David fancies that he might make a fiction of his troubles and of his fictive marriage, and Isaac Bashevis Singer's version looks like the authorised version of some of his own early uncertainties. This is a book about uncertainty, and it is also a book that can sometimes cause it, with little harm to its remarkable appeal.

Singer's cosmos, the cosmos of his life and works, incorporates three convergent worlds. One of these worlds contains an archaic Judaic wonderland and suffering- ground, full of meals and prayers and dooms and 'balls of devil-dung': a furious and momentous scene, and yet an ornamental one, too, which can produce reminders of the Firbank or Beerbohm stylish tour de force. His other worlds, centred on the city life of Warsaw, where he attended its rabbinical seminary, and of New York, where he went to live in 1935, attract a simpler, sparer but no less interesting language, an urban language in which an ancient past survives. The Eastern Europe which was experienced and dreamt of by Singer was to emigrate with him to America. Even in America there are demons, or might-be demons.

His narrator, David Bendiner, is one of The Certificate's 'constant complainers', and there are Jews who might want to think of him as a schlemiel. He is a man of many falls who makes mincemeat of his strokes of luck, a man of holes and corners and tatters. There is never any doubt, though, that a schlemiel doesn't have to be a fool. He can be a serious person. David's serio-comic thoughts about space, time, God and Spinoza are more than ornamental.

A schlemiel can also be like Woody Allen. A conference on Singer recently ran for three days at University College London, and among the lecture and seminar titles was one that linked the two men. To propose such a link could be thought to raise issues, with regard to the present book, which are controversial. The self-

absorption and loud complaint of the Woody Allen of the films have raised issues in their time: Kingsley Amis has said that the Woody Allen persona has made him ashamed to belong to the same species as the man responsible for it. David Bendiner would not make Kingsley Amis feel ashamed. But he is open to criticism all the same, and on related grounds.

David goes about kissing girls and making himself cry. The likeable girls who befriend him are having an even harder time of it than he is himself. But he is no great noticer of this. Singer notices it, while allowing him to carry on complaining. His likeable young man belongs to a comedy of complaint which has its touch of uncertainty: there are lots of ironies at his expense, but it's difficult to be quite sure what they amount to.

Warsaw's Jews are a set of divided communities. There are the once well-to-do, who provide the fictive brides, and there are those who have always been poor. There are the devout and the secular - old-world Jews, in their beards and wigs, and 'modern Jews', as Singer calls them elsewhere. There are the Zionists and their enemies the Communists, whose counterparts among the Jews of Russia are reported to have launched a new anti-Semitism.

Out of the Jewish long-ago, David's rabbi father arrives in town to read the Torah with him. David, a hesitant modern Jew, is embarrassed. Just before this, one of his women friends, bound by now, it would seem, for an uninviting rustic marriage, has suggested that she and David spend another of their uncomfortable nights in each other's arms. David is shocked. He doesn't want to and anyway, Singer slyly has him add, the watchmen would not let him in. The suggestion leads him to reflect on the tragedy of modern man. This tragedy has to do with women choosing to sleep with one man and then with two, and maybe three. 'How can a modern man know if his children are his?' Modern man has 'turned the mother of his children into a whore'.

His escape from religion has clearly been an imperfect one. Here, as on some other occasions in Singer's work, it is not all that easy to know what we are meant to make of such escapes. Nor is it always easy to know what to make of his fictive demons, of the sense of sin which accompanied him, as rather more than a subject-matter, to America. Singer, we may often think, is secular. A modern Jew, in love with the lore and history of the Jews. But we then have to ask: how secular?

In 1991, the year of Singer's death, a book of his was published in this country, with an epigraph from his own work which spoke of 'flesh and corruption' as one and the same and as 'the scum of creation', God's opposite. Some unbelievers must find this a bit strong. They may even be heard to liken it to a ball of devil's-dung. But they would do well to accept that it will be a long time before we see the last of religion.