BOOK REVIEW / Possessed by several dybbuks: 'The Certificate' - Isaac Bashevis Singer Tr. Leonard Wolf: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99 pounds

THIS NOVEL is the second to be translated from Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yiddish oeuvre since his death two years ago at the age of 86. Scum (1991), his first posthumously published work, was one of three untranslated books which took as their subject matter the Warsaw underworld at the turn of the century. During his lifetime, Singer rejected Scum and, being a severe critic of his own writing, intended to rework it before his death. Instead, his preparatory sketches towards a finished work were published as if they were always intended for an English readership.

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game