Ladies man goes sort of crazy

Book:MESHUGAH by Issac Bashevis Singer Hamish Hamilton £15.99
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The Independent Culture
FOR SOMEONE who died in 1991 Isaac Bashevis Singer is sustaining a remarkably active literary life. His output - a novel per annum - puts most living writers to shame. He used to joke that he was half a devil. Perhaps he wasn't joking.

His power over women also seems undiminished. Nili Wachtel, the translator of Meshugah, tells in her postscript how she went to Singer's apartment one morning and announced - like so many of his heroines - that "everything - the daily routine, the daily struggle - seemed so pointless", Singer apparently sighed and agreed. Was that what Ms Wachtel wanted to hear? I suspect not.

I cannot help wondering whether he really intended to call this book - originally serialised in the Jewish Daily Forward between 1981 and 1983 under the title Lost Souls - Meshugah (which is Yiddish for crazy). Ms Wachtel tells how he wrote the word "in ink on the first page of the typescript", but he could equally have meant that the translator was driving him crazy, or that the idea of publication was itself crazy. The fact that Ms Wachtel was forced to make a deduction from this evidence betrays how ill Singer was at the time.

Meshugah is actually a sequel to Shosha (1978). The hero of both books is Aaron Greidinger, more the author's ego than his alter ego. Shosha tells of his adventures in pre-War Warsaw, Meshugah continues them in post-War New York, among the survivors of Hitler's Holocaust, the lost souls of the title. It was never Singer's way to sentimentalise these people, but to show them genitals and all.

Adventures? Rather misadventures. Aaron is a ladies' man with butter fingers; Miriam is the lady he almost drops. She is already married to Stanley, a homicidal poetaster, and mistress to Max Aber-dam, a larger- than-life "ghost" old enough to be her grandfather. She is a latter-day Eve who has, in addition, worked her way through the Karma Sutra. Max is a sort of crazy deus ex machina who engineers an affair between Aaron and Miriam which ends, uncharacteristically, in marriage. "That was the quietest wedding since the one between Adam and Eve," says someone on the last page. Knowing what follows in the book of books Aaron sensibly refuses to have children. "You and I," he says, "the last of a generation."

On the day he first met Miriam, Aaron said to himself, "God in heaven, this day has been uncommonly long and rich in events, the writer in me was thinking. This is how literature should be, packed with action, with no space left for clichs or sentimental brooding." The days that follow are no less action-packed, as life continues to indulge his imagination. The wonder is that he has any time to put his literary theory into practice.

In fact Greidinger is writing a novel. He keeps worrying what to do with its main characters, Calman and Clara. At which point Singerologists will realise they are reading a self-portrait of the author at the time (circa 1953) he was writing The Manor. At the very least, then, Meshugah is an intimate footnote to a masterpiece. It is also a defiant assertion of the novelist's duty to tell the truth as he sees it, to serve his imagination rather than his people. In order to survive the Holocaust Miriam became a whore and worse. Even so Greidinger cannot let her be. "Who am I that I should judge?" he writes. And again, "I was filled with great pity for this young woman who, at 27, had experienced so much of life's bitterness..."

Singer's compassion, maverick courage and in-sistence upon unflinching honesty are all apparent in Meshugah. I await his next novel with interest.