I did not know that it would be a defining, numinous moment of my life, but it most certainly was. It was 2004, I had just finished my summer program in London, and was staying for a day or two at the house of my father's extremely wealthy graduate school friend of thirty-five years earlier in Hampstead Heath before making my way up to see Scotland and the Edinburgh Festival.
On her bookshelf were two volumes which caught my eye. One was Dubliners by James Joyce, the other was The Spinoza of Market Street by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I don't know what made me pull down the Singer - perhaps it was the sense that Singer would be a much easier read. I later discovered that Dubliners was utterly unintimidating, but what I discovered that afternoon by pulling down the Singer was the most visceral reading experience of my life.
I don't expect gentiles, perhaps not even many other Jews, will understand just what makes my relationship with Isaac Bashevis Singer so personal, except to reiterate that Emerson quote I seem to pull out here from time to time: "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."
It would seem that Singer was ahead of me on every thought I've ever had about the state of Jews and Judaism. For once, within all that jingoistic moralistic morass I grew up with about the superiority of the Jewish community and Jewish values, here, finally, was a writer available to confirm to me that Jews can be pretty goddamn terrible people, at least as full of cruelty and vanity as any other ethnic group. All which separates them from the cruelty of their goyisher torturers is their powerlessness, which in the paranoid delusions of the goyisher world, is often mistaken for omnipotence.
I didn't just grow up with living connections to the Yiddish speaking shtetlach in which he set the majority of his stories, or even the Yiddish-speaking American communities where he set most of the others, I grew up in a modern-day American shtetl where everyone from the highest macher to the lowest schlemiel was a Jew. I barely knew a non-Jew until I was sixteen, my only contact with the gentile world being the violin lessons in Towson to which I'd venture once or twice a week. Even if Singer's world was geographically distant from my own, he wrote of a world I knew all too intimately.
Furthermore, insofar as I ever believed in a world of spirits, either through conscious credulous belief or (I should not be ashamed to write this, yet of course I am) under the coercion of mental illness, here was a writer who gave me a specifically Jewish vision of that world beyond the world. In a sense, there is little more dangerous for a person under psychotic duress to read than to read books in which the supernatural so often takes flight. On the other hand, there is great comfort in it. It's not as though Singer could at all keep up with the hyperactivity of my own imagination at its worst. Instead, Singer's imaginings were a kind of company, of knowing that these extraordinary visions were, in some senses at least, shared by someone.
These and many more were the reasons that Singer's writing spoke to me on a primal level to which, until recently, no other writer has ever reached. Jew or non-Jew. Roth and Bellow could speak to the Jew in America, Zweig and Joseph Roth could speak to our cultural aspirations, Primo Levi and Kafka could speak to our existential dread as Jews and human beings, Isaac Babel and Grossman to life for our Soviet relatives, Oz and Amichai to what it's like for our Israeli families, but except for certain parts of The Bible, only Isaac Bashevis Singer has ever articulated the inner experience.
I don't know why it was such an enormous shock that Isaac Bashevis Singer's older brother could speak on the same subterranean level, a place that previously was could only be reserved for Singer and Chagall and certain Biblical Poetry and certain turn-of-the-20th-century composers.
Before there was Yud Bet Singer (Yitzhak Bashevis Singer), there was Yud Yud Singer (Yisroel Yehoshua Singer). Israel Joshua Singer was eleven years older than his now much more famous brother. They somehow shared the same head tonsured by Alopecia universalis, and clearly wrote their fiction by dipping their pens into the same alchemical stream. For the moment, Time has eclipsed both brothers, who wrote in a language which none but the world's most religious Jews use anymore as their everyday language. But if Isaac Bashevis's reputation has waned, then Israel Joshua's has vanished.
During the older brother's lifetime, he was the exponentially more famous Singer. It may be difficult to believe, but in 1936, an English translation of The Brothers Ashkenazi sold on par with copies of Gone with the Wind. More than forty years later, the younger Isaac Bashevis would be called to Stockholm for a Nobel Prize in Literature, but in the mid-30's there was already talk that the elder, but still only 40ish Israel Joshua, would get the prize.
In Jewish circles, there is much written about how Israel Joshua was the dominating personality - an outrageously brilliant intellect whose Orthodox Rabbi father could not refute his penetrating arguments, and so Israel broke irrevocably with traditional Judaism and lived the secular life of a Jewish intellectual which became so common among gifted Yeshiva students of that era who refused to join the Rabbinate.
But while the younger Isaac always looked with unfulfillable longing for the simplicity of the Shtetl world and its naive religious belief, the elder Israel Joshua had a cold intellect which longed for secular knowledge about the wider world. Both writers dip from the same alchemical stream, but after dipping, Israel Joshua turned around and used it to illuminate the world with it while his younger brother turned his pen directly into the alchemical stream of the inner life, and captured as much of its explosive power as a page can render.
The more famous younger brother, Isaac Bashevis, writes in the colloquial style of folk storytellers. Just as there is in Kafka, there is plenty of 20th century sophistication underlaying his deceptively simple surface. Isaac Bashevis wrote plenty of novels, but none of them have the power of his older brothers' novels. Isaac Bashevis was one of the very greatest short story writers. His stories are less stories than parables about faith and sin. Singer was greatly influenced by Chekhov, but extraordinary as the good Doctor was, Singer's power exceeds Chekhov's 'merely' human illumination. What is almost continually at stake in Singer is the existential issues of life and death, salvation and damnation, redemption and perdition. This is a writer to keep company with history's apocalyptic heavyweights: Dostoevsky and Kafka, Milton and Dante. But unlike the aforementioned four, there is no coldness to Isaac Bashevis, one can no more miss the human warmth of his best tales than one can mistaken them for sentimentality. Isaac Bashevis breathes a rarefied spiritual air, particularly for the materialistic twentieth century, and perhaps he can only mix the world of the earth with the world of the spirit so well because of that unique Jewish alchemy, which thrives on complexity and ambiguity, and thinks nothing from the Bible to Lena Dunham of mixing high tragedy with low comedy.
But if Isaac Bashevis creates a Yiddish world of the spirit, then Israel Joshua created a Yiddish world of flesh and earth. The title is obviously redolent of Dostoevsky, but the substance is much, much closer to Tolstoy. More than any novel I've read save War and Peace, there is an epic sense in this book of the world as a giant machine that constantly expands and contracts, that whirls itself into events beyond the control of any person and then comes to rest at its own caprice. In a world where Donald Trump comes so close to the Presidency, this tale of Lodz and Petrograd a century ago is all too vivid and chilling.
People call this the great Yiddish Russian Novel, but this tale is so much darker than anything in Tolstoy. Israel Joshua was a near-exact contemporary of Babel and Bulgakov and Pasternak, and his world contains at least as much graphic violence and dark human interaction as anything in Red Cavalry or Master and Margarita or Doctor Zhivago.
Like his younger brother, Israel Joshua creates a world that can almost seem apocalyptic. In Isaac Bashevis Singer, there is just as much depravity as in his older brother's work, but there is always a spiritual charge and hope to offset its worst moments. But in the more rational worldview of the older Israel Joshua, there is no such spiritual hope. There is only depravity, and oh my god, this tome is as pitilessly depraved as anything in I, Claudius or Game of Thrones. This is very much a realist novel, but it is a realist novel of our nightmares in which the author forces us to look unflinchingly at man's inhumanity to man. In peacetime, acts of cruelty feed on themselves themselves to create a world of still greater cruelty, which then leads to class struggle, which then makes war inevitable, which then makes revolution inevitable, and as the cruelty of these acts makes the world more chaotic, the chaos makes the characters subject to still greater acts of cruelty.
Isaac Bashevis did not truly become the giant he was until after World War II. After the Holocaust, Isaac Bashevis was the only experience that many people, indeed many Jews, had to conjure the Jewish world that was, a world about which they never knew anything, and which disappeared utterly in the span of merely six years. But there was one other horrific event which paradoxically launched his giant literary career at the end of World War II. The death of Israel Joshua, his beloved elder brother who brought him over and saved him from certain death and mentored him literarily and intellectually.
It's hard not to believe that Isaac Bashevis felt freed by his brother's death, no longer beholden by the relentless intellectual inquiries of the elder Singer to miss whatever was worthwhile about the simple religious life they left behind, he was free to explore the world that was and portray it as Jews once experienced it, warts and all, superstitions intact.
But in losing Israel Joshua Singer, we lost perhaps the one writer who could give us a true Holocaust novel. The Brothers Ashkenazi is, at bottom, a novel about Jews pitilessly caught in the grips of the Russian Revolution. In the Early 30's when The Brothers Ashkenazi was written, it was difficult to imagine that there would ever be a more consequential event in Jewish life than the formation of the Soviet Union, which so dramatically (traumatically?) affected the lives of every Jew still remaining in Europe. But when Israel Joshua passed away in 1944, there were two enormous events lurking on the horizon. One might argue that Amos Oz's memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, is, finally, the novel about the founding of the State of Israel which the world needs. But there has never been, and perhaps could never be, a novel about the Holocaust which does justice to the subject. It's difficult not to believe that the one writer who might have been able to do it died only a bit before he got the chance.
Man Booker International Prize judges
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