Robert Fulford's column about I.B. Singer's More Stories from My Father's Court

(The National Post, March 20, 2001)

In theory, one advantage of being a great artist is that you never die, but the posthumous life of Isaac Bashevis Singer has given this notion an unexpected dimension. It's now 10 years since he died, a much-honoured elder, the first Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize. But fresh material by Singer continues to appear, and his English-speaking admirers have no idea how much more of it we can expect to read in the future. That's because he wrote in Yiddish, and translators are still burrowing through the mountain of work he left behind.

The fiction that appeared shortly after his death was disappointing, but in 1998 Farrar, Straus & Giroux brought out a wonderful novel, Shadows on the Hudson, about survivors of the Holocaust living in New York in the 1940s. Like most of his novels, it was written in instalments, a tradition that survived in Yiddish long after disappearing from most other languages.

It ran as 100 pieces in the Jewish Daily Forward, from January, 1957, to January, 1958. Forty years later, in Joseph Sherman's translation, it became a surprise gift to his readers, authentic Singer -- not at all like the empty literary leftovers published by Ernest Hemingway's executors.

This season Farrar, Straus has given us More Stories from My Father's Court, the translation by Curt Leviant of 28 pieces that were also originally published in the 1950s in the Forward. His relationship with that paper was probably the last permanent arrangement with a newspaper enjoyed by a major writer. He began contributing in 1935, after he moved to New York from Poland, and he went on the staff, at a reporter's salary, in the 1940s.

The Forward became a kind of laboratory, where he could test out every imaginable kind of prose. He used three pen names, none of them the name by which the world knows him. For fiction he was Yitskhok Bashevis, for light pieces he was D. Segal, and for memoirs he was Y. Varshavsky.

Some of Y. Varshavsky's pieces about being the son of a Hasidic rabbi in Warsaw were translated into English in 1966, as In My Father's Court, one his most memorable books. It differed in an interesting way from his fiction. Whereas Singer's stories often depend on fantasy, these pieces written from memory were realistic and precise, as if he were anxious to get the social tone and the characters letter-perfect.

This was one of many ways Singer surprised his readers and friends. If you talked with him, or heard him lecture, you assumed his Old Country manners indicated someone a bit lost and absent-minded, probably incompetent. In truth, he was a realistic professional who carefully managed his complex career.

He ended up, as he deserved, with the best of both worlds, literary honour and enough success to get his annual income up to half a million American dollars in the 1980s. Barbra Streisand adapted a Singer story as a star vehicle, Yentl, and Paul Mazursky made his novel Enemies: A Love Story into a much-admired film. But Singer never abandoned his original readers. In 1985, when he was 81, he was still sending the Forward, every week, a new instalment of a novel.

More Stories from My Father's Court is dense with the atmosphere of the Warsaw apartment occupied by Isaac and his parents. On Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, the rabbi maintains a "court" where people bring their disputes and their sorrows, and where he serves as judge and social worker as well as spiritual leader. Isaac, self-described as "a boy with red sidecurls, who knew bizarre secrets, was mixed up in the affairs of strangers, and was thinking wild thoughts," hangs around in the background, absorbing the stories and scandals, not knowing yet that he's an apprentice writer.

Young Isaac overhears the lament of a shame-faced gravedigger who admits (to the rabbi's horror) that he tolerates his wife's lover because the fellow brings a little spirit into the dreary life of the family. The boy watches a pious plumber work himself to death and neglect the rest of his family so that his son can become a rabbi, convinced to the end that it was worth it. He hears about the gentile who converts to Judaism but turns into a zealous bore by insisting on rigid adherence to the rules of prayer; he so annoys his fellow worshippers that they drive him back to Christianity.

Singer's portraits of these people, though tied to sharply observed individuals, evoke types that still flourish among us. There's the intellectual corrupted by vanity, for instance. In this case he's a visiting rabbi, convinced of his greatness, who keeps all conversation fixed firmly on himself. When he speaks of books, they are his books; when he speaks of wisdom, it's his wisdom.

Singer's gentle father, a man of great innocence, can't imagine anything beyond the narrow spiritual milieu he inhabits. He can pack a universe of prejudice into 11 words ("When a Jew abandons the Torah, he's worse than a goy.") but his faith makes him want to think well of the people he meets. It astonishes him when a storekeeper cheats him and a lawyer lies to him ("The difference between a criminal and a lawyer is often a tiny one," says Isaac). The rabbi assumes he did something wrong: Otherwise, why would this happen to him?

The rabbi's inclination was to avoid thinking about wickedness. Surrounded by evidence of chaos and evil, he wanted only to forget it so that he could return to writing his commentaries on the Torah.

His son was different. The father forgot, the son remembered. The father was innocent, the son was canny. Isaac Singer inherited the attitudes of his skeptical, practical-minded mother, whose first name, Basheve, he adapted and inscribed in literary history. He didn't expect people to be more pure in heart than he was -- he just hoped to understand them a little. It was partly because he lacked his father's innocence, and understood his own imperfection, that he had the shrewdness to turn his chaotic life and his chaotic era into literature.

Read Robert Fulford's earlier article The Yiddish Bard: I.B. Singer.

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