Isaac Bashevis Singer: Criticism

Not everyone admired Singer's fiction.

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Different Readers

Yet Singer's great artistic leap--the one that made his Yiddish readers castigate him, and the one that his non-Yiddish readers never even noticed--was that he domesticated this force of irrational evil, shifting it away from political rallies and angry mobs and shrinking it down into the kitchens and bedrooms of his characters, even though nearly all of his characters were Jews living in spheres so small and politically meaningless (an isolated village, a Jewish market town, a tiny community of refugees) that their minuscule sins could have no effect on the larger world. The demons who haunt his characters wreak their petty havoc on an intimate scale.
For Yiddish readers, haunted by their own involuntary encounters with evil, the artistry of Singer's fiction was eclipsed by its failure to acknowledge the monstrous proportions of  real irrational hatred that dwelled not within their bedrooms, but just outside their doors. But to non-Yiddish readers, for whom an irrational world was a blissfully novel idea, this was simply art, at its most original and daring. His characters were victims not of the horrifying whims of others, but of their own failures and desires, of demons who were private rather than public. Such a world was closer to the one non-Yiddish readers lived in. For them, the problem of evil wasn't a vast and unexplainable force, spanning centuries and continents, that reliably murdered their children.

Instead it was something private, correctable, "human." Unlike Yiddish readers, they could simply sit back and enjoy. And of course, it is this very ease of enjoyment--the harmless exoticness, the sense of "authenticity," and most of all, the portrayal of the most hideous aspects of human nature as being fully the fault of the characters themselves--that makes Singer the consummate American writer, one whose inverted version of morality comes out sounding almost like what American readers value most in fiction and in life: free will, self-reliance, forgiveness, and hope.
Today, we might venture a different sort of hope: that a few readers will read his work and discover, for the first time, the true power of this horrifying writer. And then the real conversation about Isaac Bashevis Singer can begin.

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Dara Horn

Dara Horn is the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning In the Image and The World to Come.