Books: Backwards with the Forward
Publishers have betrayed the Nobel laureate of Yiddish New York, argues Bryan Cheyette
Saturday 08 August 1998
by Isaac Bashevis Singer,
translated by Joseph Sherman
Cape, pounds 15.99
Since Isaac Bashevis Singer died seven years ago, a steady stream of his posthumous novels has appeared. Singer left a massive amount of uncollected material from the New York Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward (known as the Forverts). was published there in twice-weekly instalments between January 1957 and January 1958, one of a dozen novels that Singer, always a sound judge of his own fiction, left to rest in peace.
When Singer was alive, he revised his Yiddish fiction in English translation. Writing so much and so quickly for the Forverts meant that this raw material had to be thoroughly refined. Singer's American publishers (and his literary executors) claim that is a lost masterpiece. But this novel is merely a first draft and to pretend otherwise is the triumph of marketing over editorial judgement.
Written in great haste, it reads more like a soap opera than a novel. Each chapter is divided into sections which invariably end melodramatically. Emotional cliff-hangers are followed by bizarre twists with characters reappearing after 400 pages and then disappearing again at breakneck speed. With a cast of thousands, individuals tend to blur into one another. All rail against the perfidies of the modern world and all philosophise endlessly about the existence of God.
There is a basic structure holding together this baggy monster. It revolves around Hertz Grein and his three women (many of Singer's male protagonists have a female troika). Grein has a wife, a lover, and also elopes with another woman he had known in Berlin. The problem is that he can never quite decide which of the three he prefers. Guilt-ridden beyond belief, he is divided between the devout Yeshiva world of his parents and the pleasures of the flesh.
Singer always had an abiding sense of remorse at abandoning rabbinical certainty for the sake of a monstrous imagination. All his heroes reflect this constant unease. Because is set in the late 1940s, the mood of rage and despair is magnified with the memory of the Jewish dead still fresh. What is more, most of these characters either went through the death camps or, like Singer, escaped just in time.
The "shadows" that hang over the book are those European Jews, especially from Poland, who did not make it to the banks of the Hudson. All the characters belong to the "living dead" of a world "sunk in banality, foolishness, greed".
One of the most moving scenes concerns the survivors who try, through a spiritualist, to get back in touch with their lost relatives and friends. For Singer, Manhattan is still full of angels, dybbuks and demons and, above all, the ghostly presence of the past.
Singer had always been in danger of writing one-eyed tirades against the modern world. While still alive, he managed to qualify this often bigoted side of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing with the wit and range of his imagination.
Here, there are no such qualifications. This book is full of extreme misogyny, on the grounds that women are temptresses who bring evil into the world. In a tacked- on subplot, Singer also gives full vent to an astonishing form of red-baiting which sees Communism as dominating artistic life in America. No wonder he did not want this novel published.
This work could easily have doubled its 550 pages. Full of biblical injunctions, undigested newspaper articles, and commentary on contemporary events, it simply spins out of authorial control. That Grein ends up a "penitent" is a purely arbitrary decision and makes little narrative sense. Singer rightly won the Nobel Prize for Literature because of the quality of his work in translation. This moralistic blockbuster does a grave disservice to his legacy.
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