Cast a Cold Eye


It’s ironic that Isaac Bashevis Singer came to represent the whole corpus of Yiddish literature, since he was often contemptuous of it and his work was always controversial among Yiddish writers and readers. Few echoes of this fierce dislike reached the larger literary world while he was alive, and they only garnished his reputation: he was a modernist, it was said, and out of touch with Yiddish literary traditions; his work was immoral, lurid, obsessed with sex. Leading American critics were happy to agree. Wasn’t this why his work seemed so contemporary? Some of his peers’ disdain could be written off as envy, which Cynthia Ozick dramatized in her best story, "Envy; or Yiddish in America," which combines a lethally wicked portrayal of Singer with a sharp depiction of his frantic rivals. They see him as an uncaring hack who has somehow maneuvered his way to success in translation, with hardly a backward glance at those he left behind. Singer himself responded in kind. In a well-known interview with Irving Howe, he wrote off most of Yiddish literature as a transient development combining socialism with sentimentality. Howe, he suggested, was more connected to Yiddish writers than he was: his own work reached back to different and deeper Jewish traditions.

Certainly Singer used Jewish lore for strikingly modern purposes. Back in Europe his older brother I. J. Singer was the rationalist, the rebel, who rejected Orthodoxy and brought a powerful new social realism to the multi-generational Yiddish novel. Bashevis on the other hand was fascinated by the twilight world of the seventeenth century—of demons and dybbuks, of Hasidic piety and messianic fervor. They spoke to his sense that human motivation is deeply mysterious, for people are propelled by needs and impulses that are wildly irrational. In his first book published in English, The Family Moskat, Singer tried his hand at his brother’s kind of generational novel but was drawn more to personal than to social history. In any case, after the cauldron of World War II and the innovations of modernism, this kind of book was already out of date, and it made little impact. Just a few years later, "Gimpel the Fool" would make his reputation. Much to everyone’s surprise, Singer would become a central figure in the golden age of Jewish American letters, often seen—as he no doubt saw himself—as its most authentic voice.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, when his work began appearing regularly in The New Yorker, Singer did not go on writing in the style that made him famous. Instead of fables and parables that could have been torn from a perverse collection of Jewish folktales, or stories that were part of the literature of the fantastic going back to Gogol and Poe, he belatedly began writing anecdotal, realistic fiction, often with an American setting, that seemed like thinly disguised autobiography. Sometimes he was simply the interlocutor, debriefing other people of their melodramatic histories and setting them down in swift, brutal strokes that seemed like so many gongs of fate. In novels like Enemies and Shadows on the Hudson (the latter translated only after his death) and stories like "Three Encounters," "The Cafeteria," and "The Manuscript," he was even able to grapple with the terrible fate of Jews in Europe, which he had not experienced at first hand, by becoming the listener, the conveyor of other people’s stories. Singer told these tales with astonishing vividness. He was able to evoke a character in a phrase, a whole life in a sentence or paragraph. But in transmitting them he also revealed the real reason why his work was so disliked, for he showed that all along he had been the observer, not the participant, the detached anthropologist of human quirks and foibles, not the empathetic member of a larger community whose emotions were strongly implicated in the lives he described.

The little-known story called "Three Encounters" demonstrates this detachment with breathtaking clarity. The narrator-protagonist is Singer himself but the story tells of three meetings with a woman whose life, like that of so many Jews between the wars, goes through tremendous changes, partly as a result of his own influence on her. The author, after failing to make the grade as a young writer in Warsaw, returns to the traditional small town where his father is a rabbi, where time and Jewish custom seem to stand still. He has lost his faith, and he encourages this woman, Rivkele, to rebel against her arranged betrothal, to strike off on her own as a modern woman, responsible for her destiny, though he himself is scarcely in charge of his own. Two years pass before he sees her again. He has gotten another call to Warsaw and this time scored some success with his stories. He finds that Rivkele had taken his advice, broken off her engagement, and eventually run off with a married man who soon abandoned her. She has sought the young author out, hoping somehow to connect with the man who first ignited her spirit, but he now has his own worries about being drafted and little time for her problems.

He sees her again when he is living in New York, desperately poor. She comes to his shabby rented room, which he keeps dimly lit out of embarrassment, and gives him an account of her later adventures and disasters, which include converting to Christianity and marrying an Italian who is now in jail. Her transformation piques Singer's curiosity and he turns on a bare, paint-spattered lightbulb to get a good look at her. She’s been aroused by an article he wrote about life in their old shtetl, recognizing his work though he wrote under a pen name that disguised his identity. "When I read what you wrote everything came back to me. I want to be a Jewish daughter again." She makes one last appeal to forge a life with him. Just as he once thoughtlessly spurred her to rebel, now he has unknowingly provoked her to return. "Not through me," he says. The story ends with a refrain from a blues song: "He won’t come back."

Though the twists and turns of the last part of the story are too abrupt and melodramatic, what rings true is the Singer’s eerie detachment. He is fascinated by people’s stories out of a passionate, almost greedy interest in human nature but he can neither feel their pain nor take responsibility for it. He has the hard, self-protective shell of the survivor; he does not write to live, he lives to write. Skeptical of all notions of social progress, he sees people as specimens, driven by wayward emotions and unappeasable hungers, pinned ineluctably to their own cruel fate. He cannot intervene in their lives, or even acknowledge how much he has intervened; he can only bring them to life and make them real.

To some degree all writers are observers, balancing the humanity of their insight against the inhumanity of their detachment, their pitiless and cruel remoteness. "Three Encounters" is Singer’s version of Henry James’s "The Beast in the Jungle," the story of a man who somehow failed to live and his impact on a woman who loves him, whose life he ruins. Other Yiddish writers made different choices. They tried to become the conscience of the community, seeing themselves first as Jews, not as artists. Singer’s chosen path and worldwide success galled them, for his immense literary power was tangled up with flaws of character and his extraordinary ambitions as a man and artist, which he realized in an incomparable body of work.