It has long been known that Isaac Bashevis Singer’s public persona, that of the grandfatherly storyteller, had been carefully crafted for his readership. Behind the facade of folksiness was a conflicted, calculating man. His editor at the New Yorker, Charles McGrath, said that “the public Singer was a creation. He pretended not to be interested in his fame, but he was consumed by success, literary stature, and his popularity long past the age when most people are interested in those things.” Saul Bellow called him “a conniving old Ganev [thief]” who “cherished his eccentricities a little bit too consciously.” Bellow recalled an anecdote about Singer he had heard from Philip Siegelman. Singer had visited the University of Minnesota to give a talk. Then a graduate, Siegelman was tasked with looking after him. On the way to the talk, Singer requested that Siegelman ask him a particular question during the question period. But when Siegelman happily obliged, Singer said, in front of the whole lecture hall, “That’s the stupidest question I have ever been asked in public.”
Singer wrote that his writings “search for what is hidden from the eye.” With Singer himself, one must likewise look for the person beneath the persona. This is something Old Truths and New Cliches, a new collection of Singer’s selected essays edited by David Stromberg and out in mid-May, helps us with.
Stromberg tells us that Singer, in the '60s, had considered following the European tradition, exemplified by Albert Camus, as an author who wrote both literary and philosophical works. But he soon realized that his popularity was based on his image as an old-world storyteller. He thus shed his intellectual robe, yet he never gave up his philosophical speculations. Indeed, Stromberg writes that the selected essays reflect “the aesthetic, spiritual, and moral vision that undergird all of [Singer’s] writing.” They treat such topics as literature, philosophy, Yiddish, and Jewishness. Critics have often regarded essays written under the pseudonyms Yitskhok Varshavski and D. Segal as inferior to the fiction signed Isaac Bashevis Singer, but Stromberg seeks to rescue Singer’s intellectual credentials. He calls him a thinker “whose critical eye penetrates beyond everyday illusions.”
Much like W.H. Auden wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” Singer calls literature “a force without a vector.” In the essays under review, he argues for the centrality of storytelling in fiction. He has firm, not to say fixed, views of how it ought to work, and he complains that modern writers have neglected “literature’s laws.” Novelists must remember, he writes, that “their object is not humanity as a whole but a single person or a few people, a single situation.” For Singer, the very essence of fiction is character and individuality. It is thus a mistake to make literature into a psychological or sociological case study or, worse, into socialistic propaganda. “The so-called psychological writer is a psychologist in literature, and a litterateur in psychology.” He notes that Dostoevsky never explained precisely why Raskolnikov committed murder — one of the many lessons he learned from Dostoevsky was the necessity to retain a layer of mystery. Those who explain the motives of their protagonists inevitably “surrender style.” Perhaps most importantly, good literature must be enjoyable: “In art, as in sex, the act and the enjoyment go together.”
Among the laws of literature that novelists have forgotten is the Aristotelian story structure, consisting of three acts. “Modern prose writers can no longer tell a story,” Singer grumbles. Even Thomas Mann fails in this regard — his prose is “all patches.” Nabokov is similarly reprimanded for being too essayistic. One of his recurring criticisms is of what he calls solipsistic modernists. He repeatedly faults James Joyce and Franz Kafka, claiming that they are “stuck in their own dreams and moods.” Their prose is full of tricks and gimmicks, too self-conscious of style. With Finnegans Wake in mind, he writes that “deciphering riddles may be pleasurable to some pedantic minds — but it does not afford artistic enjoyment.” What Singer wants from literature is study of character and coherent plot. In that sense, he is the very opposite of Thomas Bernhard, master of the one-paragraph novel: “Whenever signs of a story begin to form somewhere, or even when I just see in the distance, behind a prose-hill, the indication of a story emerging, I shoot it down.” For Singer, story is everything.
It is easy to notice autobiographical parts in Singer’s fiction — his childhood infatuation with the neighbor’s daughter, his early fascination with the street magicians of Warsaw. Yet it is still interesting to read Singer himself explain how he came to write Satan in Goray after he became convinced of the Kabbalistic notion that one must lift the holy spark that fell from the World of Emanations. His reading of the Kabbalah inspired his belief that God is a sort of struggling novelist whose writings can be found in nature. Thus, when he writes in The Slave that “the world was a parchment scrawled with words and music,” he means it to be more than a metaphor. But while these glimpses have biographical value, they give little new insight into his fiction — they tell us little that close reading of the stories themselves wouldn’t tell us.
Singer combines Spinoza with the Kabbalah, the Ten Commandments with various 19th century occultists, into what he calls skeptical mysticism. On top of this, he places his vegetarian ethics. The whole universe, he claims, is split between feminine and masculine principles into “a series of countless potentialities and combinations.” This means that there might well be angels, demons, and “other beings that are and will remain forever unnamed.” Singer’s fervid imagination makes for fascinating reading. He thought, for example, that “psychical research” was primed to yield such insights into the “laws of the soul” that it would revolutionize the 21st century. While he believed in his worldview’s truth, he openly admitted that he fashioned his notion of God after himself “precisely to suit my taste.” Much of the book consists of Singer’s breathless expositions of his mysticism — he waffles like only a Nobel Prize winner can afford to waffle.
If Singer’s views of religion were somewhat idiosyncratic, he nonetheless thought it crucial for novelists to believe in God. He exhorted Yiddish writers to create works with “spiritual value” because he was convinced that if there were to be a renewal in Yiddish literature, it would “not be the product of enlightenment, atheism, self-hatred, and self-mockery” but rather “a product of faith in God.” Without belief in something higher than human beings, he claimed, modern novelists could no longer “write truthfully about human beings.” Nor can those of genuine talent remain atheists for long “for the simple reason that by their very nature they must wrangle with the higher powers.” While 19th century writers had “regarded the world from the point of view of good and evil, virtue and sin, God and Satan,” writers in the 20th century were unmoored from pious ideologies. This explained, in Singer’s mind, why there were no new geniuses like Tolstoy or Chekhov. He thus piles unexamined statements upon each other in swift succession, never stopping to consider counterexamples — Chekhov, of course, had no religion.
It is easy to forgive literary writers for leaving gaps in their thought, provided their style is rewarding. But with Singer, one encounters a steady rhythm of flat, slack sentences with little insight — we’re told that a “person without feelings would be as dead as a computer.” He tells us that “long before people discovered fire, they knew that an act of love was creative and that hatred was destructive.” Here is the banal invocation of folk wisdom to bolster the supposed verity that only love is creative when, in reality, hatred has gotten lots of writers out of bed in the morning. The collection’s title is taken from Singer’s stated preference for old truths over new cliches, but he recycles several old cliches himself: faith eternal, redemptive love, the unity of ethics and aesthetics, the struggle between good and evil, and so on. Stromberg claims that the selected essays will make us think of Singer as an intellectual, but he comes across more like an intellectual dilettante. It would be unfair to Singer’s marvelous talent for storytelling to say that he was a philosopher in literature, but he certainly was a litterateur in philosophy.
Gustav Jonsson is a Swedish freelance writer based in the United Kingdom.