Authors: Isaac Bashevis Singer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Polish-born American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Der Sotn in Gorey, 1935 (Satan in Goray, 1955)

Di Familye Mushkat, 1950 (The Family Moskat, 1950)

Der Hoyf, 1953–1955 (The Manor, 1967, and The Estate, 1969)

Shotns baym Hodson, 1957–1958 (Shadows on the Hudson, 1998)

Der Kuntsnmakher fun Lublin, 1958–1959 (The Magician of Lublin, 1960)

Der Knekht, 1961 (The Slave, 1962)

Sonim, de Geshichte fun a Liebe, 1966 (Enemies: A Love Story, 1972)

Neshome Ekspeditsyes, 1974 (Shosha, 1978)

Der Bal-Tshuve, 1974 (The Penitent, 1983)

Reaches of Heaven: A Story of the Baal Shem Tov, 1980

Der Kenig vun di Felder, 1988 (The King of the Fields, 1988)

Scum, 1991

The Certificate, 1992

Meshugah, 1994

Short Fiction:

Gimpel the Fool, and Other Stories, 1957

The Spinoza of Market Street, 1961

Short Friday, and Other Stories, 1964

The Séance, and Other Stories, 1968

A Friend of Kafka, and Other Stories, 1970

A Crown of Feathers, and Other Stories, 1973

Passions, and Other Stories, 1975

Old Love, 1979

The Collected Stories, 1982

The Image, and Other Stories, 1985

The Death of Methuselah, and Other Stories, 1988

Drama:

The Mirror, pr. 1973

Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy, pr. 1974 (with Leah Napolin)

Shlemiel the First, pr. 1974

Teibele and Her Demon, pr. 1978

Nonfiction:

Mayn Tatn’s Bes-din Shtub, 1956 (In My Father’s Court, 1966)

The Hasidim, 1973 (with Ira Moskowitz)

A Little Boy in Search of God: Mysticism in a Personal Light, 1976

A Young Man in Search of Love, 1978

Isaac Bashevis Singer on Literature and Life, 1979 (with Paul Rosenblatt and Gene Koppel)

Lost in America, 1980

Love and Exile, 1984

Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1985 (with Richard Burgin)

More Stories from My Father’s Court, 2000

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Zlateh the Goat, and Other Stories, 1966

The Fearsome Inn, 1967

Mazel and Shlimazel: Or, The Milk of a Lioness, 1967

When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw, and Other Stories, 1968

A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw, 1969

Elijah the Slave, 1970

Joseph and Koza: Or, The Sacrifice to the Vistula, 1970

Alone in the Wild Forest, 1971

The Topsy-Turvy Emperor of China, 1971

The Wicked City, 1972

The Fools of Chelm and Their History, 1973

Why Noah Chose the Dove, 1974

A Tale of Three Wishes, 1975

Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus, and Other Stories, 1976

The Power of Light: Eight Stories, 1980

The Golem, 1982

Stories for Children, 1984

Translations:

Romain Rolland, 1927 (of Stefan Zweig)

Die Volger, 1928 (of Knut Hamsun)

Victoria, 1929 (of Hamsun)

All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930 (of Erich Remarque)

Pan, 1931 (of Hamsun)

The Way Back, 1931 (of Remarque)

The Magic Mountain, 1932 (of Thomas Mann)

From Moscow to Jerusalem, 1938 (of Leon Glaser)

Biography

Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish writer who transcended his ethnic category, skillfully employs modernist fictional techniques to pose questions about human beings, God, and existence. In his writing Singer reveals the conflicting elements of his upbringing. His father, Pinchas Mendel Singer, was a Hasidic rabbi who told his son stories of demons and spirits. His mother, Bathsheba Zylberman Singer, whose first name he eventually adopted in its Yiddish form, was on the contrary a rationalist who talked of their Biłgoraj relatives. This difference in temperament between his parents is evident in “Why the Geese Shrieked,” one of the tales in A Day of Pleasure. When a woman brings two dead geese to Rabbi Singer because they have continued to make strange noises, he seeks a supernatural explanation; his wife remarks that the sound is merely air passing through the severed windpipe and that if the woman removes the windpipe, the shrieking will cease, as indeed it does.{$I[AN]9810000888}{$I[A]Singer, Isaac Bashevis}{$I[geo]POLAND;Singer, Isaac Bashevis}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Singer, Isaac Bashevis}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Singer, Isaac Bashevis}{$I[tim]1904;Singer, Isaac Bashevis}

Isaac Bashevis Singer

(©The Nobel Foundation)

Singer’s two older siblings also influenced him. His sister Hende Esther, thirteen years his senior, enjoyed telling him love stories. Most important to his literary growth was his brother, Israel Joshua Singer, who also became an important author; for many years Singer was better known as Israel’s brother than as a writer himself. When Singer was four, the family moved to 10 Krochmalna Street, Warsaw, which serves as the setting for Shosha and some of Singer’s best short fiction. In 1917 he and his mother left the Polish capital for Biłgoraj to escape the hunger and disease caused by World War I. During the four years he remained in the hamlet, he observed the rural Jewish life that later played so large a role in his writing.

After a brief attempt at rabbinical training at the Tachkemoni Seminary, Warsaw (1921-1922), he returned to Biłgoraj, then went to Dzikow, where his father was serving as rabbi. In this village he found the Hasidic tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. One may regard Singer’s fiction as the inverse of Rabbi Nachman’s: Both are haunted by the supernatural, but while Rabbi Nachman’s always have a happy ending directed by God, Singer’s reveal a more ambivalent attitude toward Divine Providence.

In 1923 Singer’s literary career began when his brother invited him to become proofreader for the Yiddish magazine he was coediting in Warsaw, Literarische Bletter. To supplement his income, Singer also translated popular works into Yiddish, and he began to write himself, publishing his first story in 1925 in his brother’s periodical. When Israel Joshua left for America, Singer worked for a time as associate editor of Globus magazine. In 1935, convinced that Nazism posed real dangers, he followed his brother to New York, where he began his long and fruitful association with the Jewish Daily Forward.

Singer’s first significant recognition in the United States came in 1950, with the English-language publication of The Family Moskat, a family saga modeled on his brother’s work. Saul Bellow’s translation of “Gimpl Tam” as “Gimpel the Fool” in the Partisan Review three years later added to a reputation that has continued to grow. Singer went on to win Newbery Awards for his children’s stories (which he did not begin writing until he was sixty-two years old), National Book Awards, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.

In presenting the Nobel Prize to Singer, Lars Gyllensten of the Swedish Academy remarked that in his works “the Middle Ages seem to spring to life again, . . . the daily round is interwoven with wonders, reality is spun from dreams, the blood of the past pulsates in the present.” Seven of Singer’s novels and most of his successful short stories are set in the vanished world of Eastern European Jewry, a world he neither sentimentalizes nor romanticizes. His chief critics have been Yiddishists who see him as pessimistic and irreligious, but Singer countered that he is merely realistic: Not all Polish Jews were honest, God-fearing, and chaste, and tragedy was their lot at least as often as comedy. Singer mingles his mother’s rationalism with the surrealistic realm of demons, dybbuks, and other supernatural beings that he had learned from his father and through whom he explores the unfathomable nature of the universe.

One of the reasons Singer has given for his delight in writing for children is that young readers want a good story, not a message. His writing instead highlights the unfathomable nature of the world. How can the existentially isolated individual survive? How should he live? How can he relate to the rest of suffering humanity? “If God is wisdom,” Haiml Chentshiner asks in Shosha, “how can there be foolishness? And if God is life, how can there be death?” Cybula in The King of the Fields wonders why any creature must suffer. As puzzling as these questions are, they must be faced. Characters such as Jacob and Wanda/Sarah (The Slave) or Gimpel the Fool are saved because they are willing to believe in a Providence they cannot see. Recognizing their estrangement from God, the source of wisdom, they still reveal a sense of compassion for his creation, a compassion that ultimately redeems all foolishness. Whether set in upper West Side Manhattan or primitive Poland, Singer’s fiction portrays the ongoing struggle between the forces of good and evil, between humankind’s highest aspirations and deepest sensuality.

BibliographyAlexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. An introduction to Singer’s stories in terms of their themes, types, and motifs, for example: moral tales, holocaust stories, supernatural tales, tales of apocalypse and politics, stories of faith and doubt. Focuses on Singer’s universal appeal rather than his Jewish appeal. Includes a section of quotations from Singer about his work, as well as essays on Singer by Irving Howe and two other critics.Allentuck, Marcia, ed. The Achievement of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. A collection of eleven essays devoted to various aspects of Singer’s work. While most articles focus on themes in individual novels, the collection does include pieces on Singer’s memoirs and children’s stories, and examinations of “The Spinoza of Market Street” and “Gimpel the Fool.” Though inevitably uneven, the volume is generally straightforward and easy to read.Buchen, Irving H. Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Eternal Past. New York: New York University Press, 1968. Buchen provides an interesting though not painstakingly detailed look at Singer’s early career. While his efforts to relate the author to other contemporary writers and the overall tradition of English and American literature are excessive, he explores and understands the balances of Singer’s writing. Includes a chapter on selected early stories and a good bibliography.Farrell, Grace, ed. Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996. An extensive introduction on Singer’s critical reception and the issues that have preoccupied him and his critics. Collects both contemporary reviews and a wide range of essays, including Leslie Fiedler’s “I. B. Singer: Or, The American-ness of the American Jewish Writer.”Farrell, Grace, ed. Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. A collection of interviews with Singer that reveal the connections among his philosophy of life, his perspective on literature, and his mode of living.Guzlowski, John. “Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray and Bakhtin’s Vision of the Carnivalesque.” Critique 39 (Winter, 1998): 167-175. Argues that Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque illuminates Singer’s and that Wolfgang Kayser’s theories of the grotesque oversimplify his message; concludes, however, that Singer departs from Bakhtin is in his less hopeful belief about society’s ability to build a new order out of carnival.Hadda, Janet. “Isaac Bashevis Singer in New York.” Judaism 46 (Summer, 1997): 346-363. Discusses the transformation of Singer from Bashevis, the sharp-witted, conflicted, occasionally harsh, literary genius, to Isaac Bashevis Singer–and even Isaac Singer–the quaint, pigeon-feeding vegetarian, the serene and gentle embodiment of the timeless values of Eastern European Jews.Hadda, Janet. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Focusing on both the forces of family and that social environment that influenced Singer, Hadda uncovers the public persona to reveal a more complex man than heretofore understood.Kresh, Paul. Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Magician of West Eighty-sixth Street. New York: Dial Press, 1979. A lively account of Singer’s first seventy-five years, told in an often seemingly day-by-day account that creates a delightful sense of intimacy for the reader. Kresh incorporates refreshing quotes and anecdotes and includes thirty-two photographs. His careful attention to facts clarifies the often ambiguous details of Singer’s works in terms of creation, translation, publication, and reissue. More than four hundred pages, with a good index and a bibliography.Mulbauer, Asher Z. Transcending Exile. Miami: Florida International University Press, 1985. A thoughtful contemplation of exile in the works of three writers: Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and Singer. The fifty-page chapter on Singer focuses on three novels–Shosha, The Slave, and Enemies: A Love Story–but is mindful of thematic parallels to the short stories.Noiville, Florence. Isaac B. Singer: A Life. Translated by Catherine Temerson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. For those unfamiliar with Singer, this biography serves as an excellent introduction to the man and his works. Noiville gleans information from interviews with Singer’s wife, son, friends, and colleagues, as well as his autobiography, In My Father’s Court. She focuses on Singer’s life struggles, his relationships with others, and the adversity he had to overcome as a Jewish writer. This is an informative biography written in language that is concise and easy to read.Sinclair, Clive. The Brothers Singer. London: Allison and Busby, 1983. A fascinating examination of Singer and his work in the context of one of the most important personal and literary relationships of the author’s life. Sinclair effectively interweaves biography and literary analysis, conveying a deep understanding of the lives and works of Isaac and Joshua Singer.Spilka, Mark. “Empathy with the Devil: Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Deadly Pleasures of Misogyny.” Novel 31 (Summer, 1998): 430-444. Discusses Singer’s preoccupation with demonology and sexuality, focusing on his struggles with misogyny; claims the admonitory sequences of Singer’s fiction exemplify the risks and hazards of his own personal and fictional struggle to make sense of the pre-and post-Holocaust world he inherited from his parents.Wolitz, Seth L., ed. The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. A collection of essays focusing on Singer’s use of Yiddish language and cultural experience, themes that persist through his writing, his interface with other times and cultures, his autobiographical work, and a translation of a previously unpublished “gangster” novel.Zamir, Israel. Journey to My Father, Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Arcade, 1995. A lively memoir by Singer’s only child that paints a complex portrait of the writer.
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