His devils made him do it

Jeffrey Meyers has published 20 biographies, most recently "Modigliani: A Life." He is at work on a biography of Samuel Johnson.

ISAAC SINGER’S fiction is, like Hawthorne’s, gothic and grotesque; like Gogol’s, fantastic and satiric; like Dostoevsky’s, feverish and horrific. His dominant themes are the conflict with evil, the search for God, the vital connection between demonic possession and creative power, the attraction of the mystical, the pull of the perverse and the slavish pleasures of sex.

Singer wrote in Yiddish, a Germanic language written in Hebrew letters and read from right to left. He maintained that this dying language was perfect for describing the spirits of the dead -- the ghosts and goblins, dybbuks and devils -- that inhabit his work. He never wrote about the Holocaust but, like the painter Marc Chagall, re-created the Jewish life and culture that was obliterated by the Nazis.

A gifted linguist, he also knew Hebrew, Polish, German and English; he began his career by translating Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Erich Remarque and the Norwegian Knut Hamsun into Yiddish. When he later helped translate his own works into English, he cut and changed the text, tightened the narrative and created what he called a “second original.” His books were translated into other languages from the English, not the Yiddish, versions.

The best biographies of Singer are by Paul Kresh (1979) and Janet Hadda (1997). Florence Noiville’s new “Isaac B. Singer: A Life” is thin, superficial and patched together, short but extremely repetitive and has nothing new to say about Singer’s life or work. In fact, Noiville does not begin to do justice to her fascinating subject.

Descended from seven generations of Hasidic rabbis, Singer was born in 1904 in Leoncin, Poland, on the Vistula River, 20 miles northwest of Warsaw. Like many writers, he had a weak father and strong mother. In 1908, the family moved to Warsaw, where his father held a rabbinical court on Krochmalna Street. Singer had a strict rabbinical education but, becoming secular and rationalist, rejected that traditional calling.


Well aware of the Nazi threat, in 1935 he followed his older brother, the writer Israel Joshua Singer, to New York. The city then had a flourishing Yiddish culture, and he joined the staff of its leading Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward. For the rest of his life (much as Dickens had done in England), he serialized his novels in that paper. The more successful Israel Joshua, who had helped him get work and encouraged his writing, died of a heart attack in 1944. In a truly absurd gloss on this event, Noiville asserts that Isaac, who had nothing to do with his brother’s death, had “symbolically killed his father.”

Singer became famous in the United States when Saul Bellow published a brilliant translation of the masterful story “Gimpel the Fool” (partly inspired by Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”) in the May-June 1953 issue of the Partisan Review. The striking style and idiosyncratic tone of the opening sentences immediately seized the attention of a new generation of readers: “I am Gimpel the fool. I don’t think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that’s what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck.”

Singer had a bald pink skull, watery blue eyes, a beaky nose, thin lips and a heavy Eastern European accent. Despite his unprepossessing appearance, he attracted many women. He had an illegitimate child (brought up in Palestine), born in 1929 -- by which time, he cryptically observed, “I had already accustomed myself to my queer behavior.” In 1940, he married the German-Jewish Alma Haimann Wasserman, whom he had met in the Catskills and who left her wealthy husband and two children for him. Completely devoted to Singer, she then worked as a saleswoman at Macy’s and Lord & Taylor and remained his wife to the end.

Singer kept three separate furnished rooms for his assignations and, like his fictional characters, was sometimes torn among three women. “I’ve never had a woman who didn’t make the first move,” he insisted. “Never in all my life. If she doesn’t approach me, nothing happens. I would not know how to seduce a woman.” But the shy reprobate managed to rack up a total of 30 lovers, including several adoring translators. While teaching writing at Bard College in the 1970s, for example, the 71-year-old Singer became involved with the married, 21-year-old Dvorah Menashe. She became his secretary and daily companion; he was both her lover and child.

Though his love affairs have been discussed in a number of memoirs, Noiville is primly discreet about them. Instead of explaining Alma’s feelings about his persistent adultery, she unhelpfully says that Alma “turned a blind eye. She knew there was nothing she could do.” When in 1978 Singer won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he took his wife to the ceremony and left his disappointed mistress behind. In the last two months of that year, his novel “The Magician of Lublin” sold an amazing 150,000 copies in Sweden. Six years later, he began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. He first became paranoid and cruel, then sat in a wheelchair with an expressionless face and blank stare. He died in 1991, leaving Alma an impressive fortune of $3 million.

Noiville asks, but doesn’t answer, many questions; makes many vague and cliched assertions (“from these tiny fragments of life, he extracted timeless human truths”); and gives potted history as Singer moves from place to place. When four members of Singer’s mother’s family died in a cholera epidemic, Noiville writes that his mother was “upset ... by this news.” She contradicts herself, saying that the Germans entered Warsaw in July and in August 1915, and mistakenly claims that Isaac Babel, who wrote in Russian, belonged to “the tradition of Yiddish literature.” Proposing a darker view of Singer, Noiville states, but doesn’t show, that he is “one of the modern virtuosos of anguish, repression, and humiliation.”

Bellow, who thought Singer ungrateful for his help, called him, in a witty put-down not quoted by Noiville, “foreign, ethnic, ‘Jewy’ ... like a Chinese stage manager, supplied with props from the shtetl.” The first novels by the 20th century’s wave of talented Jewish writers -- Bellow, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth -- appeared between 1944 and 1962. Singer’s tales of Orthodox Jewish life provided the vital cultural context for these books and opened an astonishing new world to American readers. *


From Isaac B. Singer: A Life

WRITE in English? He doesn’t say he can’t; it’s just that he never intended to. He “knew” -- with deep certainty -- that he would write in Yiddish all his life. After the Holocaust, no further doubt was possible. Isaac said so explicitly: the work he wanted to fashion would also be a surviving testimony to a murdered people, a vanished culture, and a dying language. This preoccupation is already present in “The Family Moskat.” Singer wanted to write about the Jewish Warsaw that no one would ever know again. Asking to be forgiven for the comparison, he said in response to Richard Burgin, “Just like Homer ... felt about Troy, I felt about Warsaw in my own small way.”