Like some unlikely Yiddish-language version of Western author Max Brand, Isaac Bashevis Singer continues to routinely produce fiction well after his death. "Shadows on the Hudson" follows "The Certificate" and "Meshugah" in posthumous publication, but even though this is the novel's first appearance in English, it's not the first time I've seen it.
In 1957, when I was a boy in Brooklyn, "Shadows on the Hudson" appeared twice weekly in the Forward, a Yiddish newspaper. My father was a fanatical reader of these serialized novels, and he would neatly stack the episodes in a large pile and swear retribution on any family member who dared move the papers or, God forbid, get them out of order.
Now that "Shadows" has come out in English (in a serviceable translation by South African Joseph Sherman), it's possible to see both why my father was so fascinated and why, on the other hand, Singer presumably chose not to have this work translated during his lifetime. It was written when Singer was 53, roughly midway between his arrival in America and his 1978 Nobel Prize, and at a time when Saul Bellow's groundbreaking translation of the short story "Gimpel the Fool" had just been published.
Clocking in at 550 pages, "Shadows on the Hudson" is the fattest Singer novel to appear since "The Manor" and "The Estate" about 30 years ago. It is, on the one hand, an unruly and chaotic roller coaster wallow of a book, discursive, repetitive and not exactly refined. Unashamedly melodramatic, with an emphasis on lust, sexuality and the cruder passions, it illustrates tendencies that the more genteel of Singer's Yiddish-language critics often objected to.
Yet for all its rawness--maybe even because of its rawness--"Shadows on the Hudson" is also one of Singer's most revealing novels. Under its rough surface, the author was playing with powerful material, dealing, albeit in lurid colors, with many of his key preoccupations and concerns. An ambivalence toward organized religion, a concern for the place of Jews in the modern era, the centrality of both sex and spirituality to the human condition--all get an airing here. This may be a Yiddish bodice ripper, but it is a distinctly philosophical one; "Melrose Place" joined to "A Guide for the Perplexed." When its characters don't have "their mouths clamped together as though powerless to separate, as though struggling mutely to swallow each other, tongues, gums, throats, and all," they are musing on a wide range of thinkers, from the sages of the cabala and Gemara to Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, even Rabindranath Tagore and Bertrand Russell. Any book that can contain references to the celebrated 16th century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria and a lurid contemporary paperback called "Tomorrow You'll Be a Corpse" is covering an awful lot of territory.
The book is set largely in New York in 1948; the shadows of its title are those that history has spread over its cast of Holocaust survivors. The sense of hopelessness and despair that suffocates those who managed to come out of Europe alive is depicted with savage, almost naked vividness. Illustrated with equal strength is the ambivalence verging on contempt that many survivors (including Singer himself during his first anguished years out of Poland) felt for New York, America and the entire modern world. As one character puts it, with characteristic bile: "If only there existed toilets into which one could fling whole civilizations!"
Though Singer is profligate with characters, creating dozens of people, some of whom appear and reappear after they're thought to be dead, the book's nine protagonists are introduced at an Upper West Side dinner party given by the wealthy but pious businessman Boris Makaver, a man gifted with the ability to "make money from mud."
If Boris is capitalism, each of his other guests to a certain extent stands in for some other belief system. His nephew Herman Makaver is a devoted communist; the ethereal Professor Shrage is a spiritualist; the author Frieda Tamar represents selfless piety and others speak up for intellectualism, cynicism, hedonism and even indecisiveness. Yet such is the despair of this haunted book that each of these systems is found wanting and unsatisfactory, no match for "a world of chaos," in which a "gang of intellectuals had brought the human species to the brink of the abyss."
The prime cause of this despair without end, Singer tells us again and again, is the trauma of the Holocaust, which people survived with bodies intact but souls abandoned to nihilism. "Anyone who didn't see it with his own eyes," says one refugee, "doesn't know what the human species really is." And when Boris' daughter Anna, a capable businesswoman who makes disastrous choices with men, walks by a Manhattan butcher shop window and sees "a whole lamb, its belly slashed open from neck to tail," she calmly thinks: "Well, that could be done to anyone. They might easily have displayed me in the same way. Heaven would not have fallen because of it."
This portrait of a soulless New York that is next door to Hell is a constant theme of "Shadows on the Hudson." Anna sees the towers of Park Avenue as "enormous jails in which entire human tribes languished in comfort." The spiritual Professor Shrage views the city's automobiles as "boiling and rumbling with the malignity of bridled beasts," and Boris has a dream in which "an earthquake had opened an abyss down the center of Broadway within which Gehenna burned and blazed."
Even the relatively assimilated Hertz Dovid Grein, an old friend of the Makavers who was Anna's tutor years ago in Europe, can't get used to a country where the rabbis look like football players. He notices that "the new atom they've revealed to us throws itself about like a demented thing, twisting and turning without stopping" and wonders whether "perhaps it's the ultimate symbol of man today."
Though both are married, Anna and Hertz Dovid begin an intense, consuming affair at the beginning of the novel, and it is their relationships with each other and the numerous other people they're intimate with that form the narrative spine of "Shadows."
In addition to her lover, Anna must contend with her current spouse Stanislaw Luria, an embittered, sarcastic attorney, and the shadow of her disappeared first husband, the actor Yasha Kotik, a mesmerizing conniver and charlatan. And though deeply involved with Anna, the self-tormenting Hertz Dovid keeps up relationships with his wife, Leah, as well as with Esther, his strikingly beautiful mistress of longstanding, who, in turn, attracts not one but two potential husbands.
All this romantic conniving is the source of the book's considerable melodrama. Characters, especially the theatrical Esther, spew forth waves of Yiddish soap opera invective like, "Perhaps in Gehenna they'll fry us both in the same pan," and "Bite your tongue! You're crushing my heart!" and, a personal favorite, "It's the truth, my murderer. I'm dead and buried. I'm a corpse with a telephone." The plot also favors the baldest kind of coincidence, so much so that by Page 493, Anna is forced to admit, "Would anyone have believed all this if it were described in a book?"
Yet when Hertz Dovid, who gradually emerges as the novel's protagonist, isn't wallowing in concerns of the flesh, he spends considerable time considering the fate and future of the Jews in the postwar world. Having lost his children to modernity (he views his son's wife, "a Gentile girl from Oregon," as an alien from another planet), Hertz Dovid wonders "How did the Children of Israel become the Men of Sodom? How did we become the purveyors of lies and vileness? It all comes from our frenzied pursuit of Gentile culture."
Another conclusion that "Shadows on the Hudson" seems to draw is that "faith is the only force that keeps people from insanity" and "without God there are no Jews," but Singer's heart doesn't appear to be in that pietistic philosophy. More deeply felt is his despair at the loss of the more spiritual European world he grew up in, a place where "the holy presence infused everything . . . even during that time when people had gone mad and indulged in the most savage atrocities." The tragedy of the Holocaust, Hertz Dovid Grein insists, referring to his fellow characters in this remarkable, albeit excessive novel, is that "they destroyed the good ones and left this trash behind."