When Singer Was Only a Tune : THE CERTIFICATE, By Isaac Bashevis Singer ; (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22; 227 pp.)
It’s hard enough to put Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish novelist of demons, dybbuks and desperation, and Louis L’Amour, best-selling bard of the cowboy badlands, into the same sentence, let alone the same literary grouping. Yet, due to quirks of their writing methods, both continue to produce books after their deaths, “The Certificate” being Singer’s latest posthumous effort.
L’Amour did much of his early writing, now gathered into finished books, for the ephemeral pulp magazines, and Singer likewise began by writing serialized novels for the Forward, a Yiddish-language daily newspaper based in New York. “The Certificate” was first published in the Forward in 1967 and has only now been translated and put between hard covers.
A speculative, ruminative book, heavier on mood and ambience than on incident, “The Certificate” is a novel more for Singer completists than for newcomers. It is a mildly engaging piece of work, more fictionalized memoir than anything else, a book whose prime interest lies in its links to his more polished books and its parallels to the author’s life. This is Singer’s 12th published novel but it reads, as translator Leonard Wolf notes in a postscript, as though it were written by quite a young man.
“The Certificate’s” protagonist, 18 1/2-year-old would-be writer David Bendinger, back in his native Warsaw in 1922 after four years spent in a rural Polish backwater, has so many parallels to Singer himself, from growing up in that city’s Krochmalna Street to having a novelist elder brother he worships, that his identity as Singer’s double is never in doubt.
But just because David is the author’s stand-in doesn’t mean that Singer is easy on him. Almost as if he is determined to paint the worst possible picture of himself, Singer creates a David who is immature, unfocused and absent-minded, a self-described “studyhouse bench presser” whose nose is always running and who cuts himself every time he shaves.
A person “entirely without a will of my own,” David’s problem is that he feels “adrift on a bottomless sea, physically and spiritually,” with no place he can call his own. And 1922 Warsaw, it turns out, is a city where it is easy for a Jew to be confused about his identity.
The home of a newly liberated lost generation of assimilated Jews, Warsaw offered a variety of options for self-definition. One could be a Zionist, passionate about emigrating to British Palestine and building a new state. Or a communist, a zealous believer in the classless equality of the new world order that had just swept Russia. One could become a writer, a cynical aesthete, or even remain religious, cleaving to the faith of generations.
Though David spends much of the space of this novel trying to obtain a certificate from the British government that will enable him to go to Palestine, neither he nor Singer seem to believe very much in any of these options. Both Zionism and religion are gently mocked, while the novel reserves its greatest scorn for doctrinaire communists who had “left one Hasidic court in order to believe in another. . . . They’ve mounted up in their man-made heaven, where they’ve discovered there is no God.”
A natural dreamer whose head is always filled with the most elaborate fantasies on the order of “thinking of a half-ton diamond I would find on the moon,” David also dreams about the opposite sex, and “The Certificate,” in an interesting prefiguration of “Enemies, A Love Story,” involves him with three very different women.
First there is Sonya, a very traditional shopgirl with conventional dreams. Then comes Edusha, David’s landlady, a fun-loving bourgeois communist involved with a more hard-core party member. Finally there is Minna, the book’s most involving character, the spoiled and sarcastic daughter of a formerly wealthy businessman who wants to accompany David to Palestine so she can reunite with her worldly playboy boyfriend, the rakish Zbigniew Shapira.
As all young people do, David tends to overdramatize the scrapes he gets into with or because of these three women, talking portentously of the way “fate was dealing with me the way the demons dealt with the wicked in hell.” And “The Certificate’s” main weakness is that these kinds of complaints, like David’s endless anxieties, tend to get wearying with continual repetition. In fact, if we didn’t know that the book’s uncertain protagonist would grow up to be a celebrated novelist, we would not be half so interested in his youthful doings.
But Davis is very clearly Singer, and that changes everything. The fictional descriptions of, for instance, his deeply religious rabbi father (the key figure in “In My Father’s Court”) and his celebrated novelist brother I.J. Singer (who also figures in Singer’s memoir of these days, “A Young Man in Search of Love”) are fascinating at least in part because of their link to reality.
So while this portrait of the Yiddish artist as a young man may not quite fit David’s overdramatic claim that his life resembled “a tangled novel that had stretches of bleakness and tension, a book too painful to read, too fascinating to put down,” we forgive it its youthful exaggerations because, even if his protagonist has no idea where he is going, we very definitely do.
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