BOOK REVIEW / Possessed by several dybbuks: 'The Certificate' - Isaac Bashevis Singer Tr. Leonard Wolf: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99 pounds
Saturday 15 May 1993
Most of Singer's fiction, over nearly half a century, was serialised in the Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward. Singer used this journal to publish early drafts which he would then rewrite in translation. This process of reworking is the key to understanding the quality of his writing in English. Singer took great pains to create a distinctive non-Yiddish fictional canon.
That The Certificate consists of journal material published in Yiddish in 1967 (which Singer himself did not wish to see in book-form), raises serious problems in assessing it. Moreover, Singer was an extremely playful author. He would write his memoirs as if they were fiction and his fiction as if it were autobiography. Much of The Certificate is, in fact, taken from his autobiographical Love and Exile (1985) although this is not unusual for an author who often indulged in outrageous bouts of self-plagiarisation. David Bendiger, the novel's 18-year-old hero, bears an uncanny resemblance to the youthful Bashevis in his memoir. But Singer was always inventing versions of himself and it would be a mistake to confuse Bendiger entirely with his guileful author.
The Certificate deals centrally with one of Singer's main preoccupations. The portrait of a young man who leaves a pious provincial background in the 1920s to become a worldly writer in a large city is not only the story of Bendiger but also that of Bashevis Singer. Like Bendiger, Singer left the devout Yeshiva world of his Polish-Jewish parents for the sacreligious world of his incorrigible imagination. Singer always had an abiding sense of guilt at abandoning rabbinical certainty for the sake of a monstrous self-deceiving artistry. Such guilt is reflected in Bendiger's sense of himself as a 'victim of compulsive thoughts', as if he were possessed by 'several dybbuks'. Bendiger believes that he is not only of the devil's party but, worse still, that he has turned into a 'living corpse'.
Bendiger's inability to completely shake off his parent's demon-ridden faith results in a Singer-like inbetweenness. His great fear is that he has 'ceased to be myself and was unable to become someone else'. When Bendiger arrives in Warsaw in 1922 he brings with him his unfinished novel and a much criticised essay on Spinoza and the Kabbalah. He is, in other words, merely a 'fictive writer' who tries, in vain, to bridge the worlds of reason and spiritual transcendence. At one point in the novel, Bendiger complains that literature has 'always ignored modern man's character-
lessness'. But The Certificate is, above all, a study in the characterlessness of its youthful protagonist.
Throughout The Certificate, Bendiger is at home neither in 'God' nor the 'world' and finds that he has escaped a 'world of religious lies' only to end up in a 'web of secular lies'. Much of the novel concerns his self-defining discovery that he cannot simply replace his parents' unreal faith with the 'real world' of secular Warsaw. He indulges in a 'fictive marriage' with Minna in a bid to get a 'certificate' to travel to Palestine and, at the same time, lives with Edusha, a passionate communist, who tempts him with an all-transforming class struggle. But neither communism nor Zionism adequately resolve his inbetween sensibility.
In the end, Bendiger rejects his 'fantasies of power' - with his imagination placed at the centre of the 'entire cosmos' - and, instead, attempts to return home. Unlike Singer, who emigrated to New York from Warsaw in 1935, Bendiger waits patiently in a queue for a train ticket home. This poignant ending captures something of the unresolved conflict which drove Singer obsessively to recreate the lost world of his parents in the 'ghostly' language of Yiddish.
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