24.9.14

Isaac Bashevis Singer - Love and Exile

Rating 8.0

Given that the latest book by Isaac Bashevis Singer I read turned out to be a big disappointment, I didn't lose my trust in one of my favourite authors overall.

With Love and Exile the good old I.B. I knew came back to send his regards from a very special time: his formative years.

Although the cover of the book boasts that this is 'An Autobiographical Trilogy', what we have here is an account of the first thirty-five years of Mr Singer's long life. This means that the size of the book is a manageable 352 pages which won't put off any eager readers but with limited time on their hands.

On a personal note, I would have loved if Isaac Bashevis had written even more about his early years than he did here. Not to mention including something on his following fifty-three years. But I noticed how many great authors who flirted with their memoirs were somehow reluctant to include their more mature and successful years in those books. Vladimir Nabokov, Stefan Zweig, Gregor von Rezzori,  Gyorgy Faludy, Witold Gombrowicz and Stanislaw Lem come to mind and I.B. Singer joins the club.

So, let's talk about what Isaac Bashevis chose to tell us. Yes, let's talk about Love and Exile which is a very carefully chosen title indeed.

First comes love.
You might not know or suspect this but young I.B. was no short than a womanizer. If you can picture a penniless, skinny, poorly dressed, red haired proofreader playing the Don Juan in Warsaw in the late 1920s this is what Mr Singer was. Some of his conquests were women who could have been his mother, others were communist tomboys, and others were nevrotic and opinionated beauties who were just looking for a cultivated lover.
By reading about this women, I could recognise the hectic behaviors and sexual perversions of many a female character narrated by I.B Singer in novels such as Enemies, The Slave, Shadows On the Hudson and - alas! - even from that awful King of the Fields. 
True, Isaac Bashevis Singer wasn't only going from a bed to another one in those turbulent years for him and for Warsaw alike. He was also talented a writer for his young age, but in the Yiddish-Polish circles of his time there were dozens of authors who had published more than him gaining money and reputation.

The Union of Jewish Writers and Journalists of Warsaw membership card of Isaac Bashevis Singer 
One of the shining stars of Yiddish literature in Warsaw was another Singer, Israel Joshua (I.J.) who happened to be Isaac Bashevis' elder brother. It was I.J. who brought home novels by Hamsun, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky along with scientific publications, newspapers. It was I.J. who contested the status quo of the Singer's household engaging in theological arguments with his father, a pious rabbi portrayed by Isaac Bashevis as a holy man twice removed from modernity.
It was I.J. who introduced his younger brother in the Warsaw literary scene finding him the post of proofreader in the magazine where he was editor in chief. And again, it was I.J. who became the Polish correspondent for an American-Yiddish newspaper while Isaac Bashevis soon found out that he wasn't made for journalism.

The respect, admiration and awe that the future Nobel Prize for Literature felt for his elder brother are  expressed umpteen times thorough Love and Exile. Young Isaac Bashevis knew very well that he lived in the shadow of Israel Joshua's success to the point he was often confused with him and yet in this book one can only find words of gratitude for this brother.

Second comes exile.
The exile from a country, Poland, that both the Singer brothers loved in a way, but that they couldn't fully perceive as their homecountry. Isaac Bashevis explains that he could read books in four or five languages (including Polish), but that Yiddish was the only language he spoke well admitting that 'women in Warsaw were constantly correcting my Polish'.
Now I can certainly relate with such a statement myself, but I'm a foreigner while I.B. was born and bred in Poland. Well, bred to some extent as he spoke Yiddish at home, attended cheder instead of Polish school and later never went to university. The author here makes crystal clear that he's at the same time proud of his Jewish heritage and ashamed for having not had the possibility of learning Polish well which I've found touching.

Anyways. Let's go back to the exile.
Guess what? It was Israel Joshua who moved first to the US and it was I.J. who sent his brother an affidavit to come and join him in New York City. Isaac Bashevis arrives in the United States with only one published book in his portfolio - Satan in Goray - and out of fear for what he feels will happen to the Jews in Poland. As far as we know, he never looked at the US with keen or curious eyes before. Among the novelists he read the most, the future Nobel laureate mentions Aleichem, Peretz, Hamsun, Mann, Rolland, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, not a single American one, save Twain.

And yet, because Israel Joshua migrated to the US - not before having his novel Yoshe Kalb translated into Polish: quite an accomplishment - Isaac Bashevis goes with the flow and leaves Europe behind.
The chapters regarding the trip to the US by ship are among the most interesting ones in this book. The sense of claustrophoby and discomfort felt by Mr Singer on board is described very well. He only pines for loneliness and gets discriminated for his asking to eat alone and for being a vegetarian. These pages are poignant and disturbing at the same time. One cannot help but asking themselves what I.B. Singer did for being treated so badly by the crew and the injustice of this treatment hurts.

The final part of the 'trilogy' depicts the arrival and the first years of the novelist in the US being hosted by (I bet you know by whom)...his brother Israel Joshua.
Once more, it's I.J. who finds Isaac Bashevis a job in the newspaper he has been writing for and buys him an Yiddish typewriter. And later on I.J. will even rescue his younger brother from a writer's block crisis by helping him to put an order and give a sense to the drafts Isaac Bashevis is working on.  

Unfortunately, Love and Exile ends up before two crucial events in the life of I.B. Singer: the sudden death of his elder brother at the age of 50 and the publication of The Family Moskat a masterpiece that will be dedicated to Israel Joshua, mentor and model for Isaac Bashevis.

The Singer siblings portrayed by Hazel Karr. From left to right, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Esther Kreitman Singer (who was herself a writer), and Israel Joshua Singer.

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