The Archives: Isaac Bashevis Singer

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Magician of Lublin, Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, wrote a short introduction to the FSG reissue for reviewers and booksellers. We’ve reprinted it here with his permission.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904–91) occupies a unique place in American literature. Although he left Poland for the United States in 1935 and lived here until his death, he never wrote a single story in English. He was the only Yiddish writer ever inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the only Yiddish writer ever to receive a Nobel Prize, yet he wrote for the American mainstream. His novels were serialized in Yiddish by the Forward, but—starting with The Magician of Lublin, published fifty years ago—all his books first appeared as English translations.

Singer supervised these translations closely, even jealously. (He fired one early translator, Saul Bellow, fearing that Bellow would get the credit for Singer’s own achievement.)

Early in his career, Singer determined to write for an English-speaking public as a matter of artistic survival. “It’s sad,” he wrote to a friend in 1935, “because here in New York I see even more than in Poland that there is no Yiddish literature, that there is no one to work for. There is a crazy Jewish people here which keeps slightly kosher and peddles . . . but it doesn’t need Yiddish literature. We built on a paper bridge.”

opens in a new windowThen came the war; and the world as Singer knew it became a ghost land. “For the Yiddish writer who comes from there,” he wrote in 1943, “the very ground from which he derived literary sustenance has been destroyed along with Jewish Poland. His characters are dead. Their language has been silenced. All that he has to draw on are memories.”

It took many years for Singer to write about Jews in America. In the meantime he became a kind of spirit medium, drawing on memories of a Poland that might as well have been a dream. The memories themselves were dreams, though reviewers frequently mistook them for folklore. As is common in Yiddish fiction, his stories often borrowed the techniques, the sound, of folktales. So did his memoirs, such as In My Father’s Court (1966), about growing up the son of a Hasidic rebbe. Here, even as Singer describes the collapse of traditional shtetl life during World War I, he evokes a mythical Old World governed by ritual, legend, mystical visions, and the supernatural—a dreamworld conjured into existence by a grief beyond nostalgia.

In fact, Singer had left Hasidism behind as a teenager. Although he had tried one year in rabbinical seminary, he always knew it would never take: “I couldn’t be the sort of Jew that my pious parents wanted to make of me; I couldn’t be, and didn’t want to be, a non-Jew. I could live neither with, nor without, God. I aspired to the big, free world, but I had understood already that the world was nowhere near as big and free as I had envisioned.”

This sort of religious doubt is one of two big anxieties that inform The Magician of Lublin. The other, as so often in Singer’s work, is sex.

We have been taught, by the baby boomers, to think of the 1960s as a period of sexual revolution. In modern times, every generation thinks it discovered sex. It could be argued that Singer’s generation really did. The young Jewish women Singer met when he moved to Warsaw in the 1920s had turned their backs on arranged marriages, on wigs, on mikvas. They were adherents of free love. The writers’ club to which Singer belonged rented out one floor to a brothel. Yet even by the standards of the day, the slight, pale, delicate Singer was a whirlwind of erotic complications. Like Yasha Mazur, the hero—or, at least, the protagonist—of The Magician of Lublin, Singer was a serial polygamist. Like Yasha, he never really felt at ease unless he was juggling several women at once. His absurdist rendering of a magician in crisis is, beyond question, a self-portrait.

Juggling, walking a tightrope, picking locks, mesmerizing, performing miraculous escapes: Yasha’s magic act is one big metaphor for his philandering. For Yasha, escaping from women has become an addiction, and the addiction has left him in pieces. Part of him would like to go back to Lublin and be a good husband to his dutiful Jewish wife. Part of him would like to move to Italy with his wealthy gentile mistress. Part of him would like to seduce her teenage daughter—part of him’s already halfway there. And part of him longs for deliverance. But if he doesn’t believe in the existence of God, if he himself hardly exists except as a bundle of wayward desires, then what on earth can save him?

Although Singer sets The Magician of Lublin in the Poland of the 1880s, Yasha is a modern man. And the novel is a modern novel par excellence—one of Singer’s best. Funny, troubling, obsessive, it has all the charm of a trickster tale and all the force of a confession. By reissuing The Magician of Lublin on the fiftieth anniversary of its first appearance, we hope to reintroduce Singer to a new generation of readers, those who know him from their parents’ bookshelves, who remember him as a popular preserver of Yiddish culture, but who may not realize how strange, how sophisticated and provocative, a writer he really was.

Lorin Stein