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Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life.

Janet Hadda. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 243pp. $27.50 (cloth).

This, as Lord Jeffrey famously declared, will never do. Janet Hadda, professor of Yiddish at UCLA, has produced a thin, patchy, slapdash biography of a writer who deserves much better. Singer (1904-91), it must be admitted, is an elusive subject, and Hadda has been forced to sift through piles of hearsay (just whom did the notoriously promiscuous Singer sleep with?) and endless autobiographical fictions. She has not come up with very much.

There is little here of what Singer's readers and students need. The least one would expect from a life of a major literary figure is a bibliography: Hadda provides none. All of Singer's novels and short stories, in one way or another, wrestle with the absence of God and the agony of Jewish history, but Hadda does not address philosophical or theological issues. She notes Singer's sexist behavior, but ignores his sexist worldview. Evaluating Singer's oeuvre is made trickier by the fact that, while most readers know it only in translation, the English versions often cut or alter the original Yiddish (there are sixty episodes in Mayn tatns bezdn-shtub, but In My Father's Court has only forty-nine). Hadda briefly alludes to this problem, but never seriously deals with it.

Such failures might be forgivable, if Hadda had given us a vivid account of Singer's life, but she does not. Apart from quoting and borrowing from Singer's work, she seldom evokes any concrete sense of the man himself or the places he lived in (Warsaw, Bilgoray, New York, Miami). With typical casualness, she observes that, "The nightmare trip [Singer's voyage to America on an unnamed ship] - eventually somewhat mitigated by flirtation [with whom?] - finally ended on May 1st" (81). All the members of Singer's family, including his mother Basheve, who were trapped in Poland by the outbreak of World War II, presumably perished in the Holocaust; but Hadda does not furnish us with any details. She does not even tell us about any failed efforts she made to track these tragedies down.

Hadda's style is flat and awkward. "The yearning to communicate is natural," she announces. "For Yitskhok, the form it took was story-telling, above all through writing" (66). "The final apocalyptic paragraph [of The Family Moskat] is reminiscent of Prophets" (112). The story ["The Little Shoemakers"] "imitates Biblical style and includes Biblical allusions" (122). "In the fluid way he had with imagination . . ." (200). And so on.

Hadda repeatedly stresses the metamorphosis that Singer underwent from his early years as Yitskhok Bashevis, "the worldly-wise and sharp-witted gadfly" (140), who borrowed his mother's name to distance himself from his conservative father and successful elder brother Israel Joshua, to Isaac Bashevis Singer, the (supposedly) nostalgic celebrator of pious yidishkayt and the lost world of the shtetl. No doubt, some journalists and critics were more comfortable with this tame persona; and Singer himself, especially after he began to win recognition (two National Book Awards, the Nobel Prize), played up to it. Ever the seducer and manipulator, Singer was willing to cultivate his image as a grandfatherly sage (wretched father as he was to his son Israel Zamir), if that was what the public wanted.

But Hadda does not hear the basso continuo of denial and despair that runs through Singer's work, early and late. Singer's reputation in America was launched by Saul Bellow's translation of "Gimpel the Fool" in 1952. There Gimpel cites his rabbi's dictum: "Belief in itself is beneficial." But all Gimpel's own beliefs have in fact been cruel deceptions; and the community of believers is a gang of tormentors. The "true world" he is headed for sounds a lot like nothingness. Again, in a mildly contemptuous treatment of Singer's vegetarianism, Hadda ignores "The Slaughterer," where the demented shokhet Yoineh Meir obviously has the author's sympathy when he screams, "I have more compassion than God Almighty." If Singer's fideism would never let him openly abjure the faith of his Hassidic father, Rabbi Pinkhes Menakhem Singer, neither could he ever convincingly affirm anything supernatural except the omnipresence of demons.

Hadda keeps insisting that the real Singer (i.e., Yitskhok Bashevis) was a "sophisticated" writer (188, 206), without doing any stylistic analysis. She makes few attempts to place him in the context of Yiddish or world literature (for example, by examining his wide, eclectic reading), his affinities with, say, Maupassant or Chekhov. She quotes a story about young Yitskhok stealing some unripe pears (50), but never thinks to connect it with the celebrated parallel scene in Augustine's Confessions.

Above all, Hadda misses the nihilism and pessimism rightly emphasized by David Roskies in his chapter on Singer in A Bridge of Longing (Harvard, 1995). In his book (the best contemporary guide to Yiddish literature), Roskies wrote hopefully that, "At least three full-scale biographies of Singer, by Janet Hadda, Khone Shmeruk, and Leonard Wolf, are now in progress. They will doubtless add much to our understanding of Singer's formative years" (395). Unfortunately, the first part of that prediction has proved false. So, for the time being, the pathos and fascination of a writer working in a literary tradition he once described as "getlekh on a got, veltlekh on a velt" (godly without a God, worldly without a world) will have to await a better interpreter.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Heinegg, Peter
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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