Chronicler, Novelist, Storyteller
By CONOR ROBIN MADIGAN.
AN EXHAUSTIVE PUBLISHING of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s children’s stories during his lifetime and well after — beginning with Zletah The Goat in 1966 and ending in 2015 with The Parakeet Named Dreidel — has made the novels and work preceding the juvenilia more interesting and powerful. But the general reader has not been encouraged, as thoughtfully, to mine the novelist’s previous efforts of control in the expansive The Family Moskat and constrained Enemies, A Love Story, and may well embrace as adults those novels’ worlds as well as the worlds of Singer’s juvenilia.
In trying to illuminate the entanglement between two of Singer’s novels, I am inherently championing their strengths in translation, though the effort may only invite criticism of a Yiddish text long misunderstood, and another whose translator died halfway through, leaving the novel’s ending untidy (as with with East of Eden, which, when first published, featured some missing periods, quotation marks, and an accelerated style for a few chapters). Meanwhile, translated Yiddish texts constitute just 3 percent of the US English-language market (compared to translated Italian’s 50 percent). They are something of a difficult sell in the Anglosphere and most of those have been genre works, or translations of prize-winning authors—and even still fewer are read today than fifty years ago. But, to be sure, in translation, both of Singer’s texts are clear and easy to read, as their author went to great pains to clarify and make precise a Yiddish rich with words English can lack, and an English difficult to tame; his contemporaries like Bellow, and others, made a ‘bouncy’ language, as Roth put it. The number of Singer’s collaborators grew with his fame; there were many with Enemies, A Love Story, but few with The Family Moskat, and fewer still as that novel lost its original translator, as mentioned. But, we’re richer for the two novels, and the more so that they were written years apart from each other, making a figurative divide much as the Holocaust created a narrative rift. But between them a clear effort on Singer’s part to define the Holocaust without touching it.
Of the two works, I first read Enemies as a learner to Moskat. That is out of order of authorship, and noted because of the twenty-two years between them. I was told to do so by an author who had read more than I, and in whom I trusted most things literary. Enemies takes charge of the page from word the first, and chapters end in suspense, or with a modicum of relief diminished by extreme weather, illness, or looming money-problems—something Moskat predicts for those hungry to leave Warsaw for America, gentile and Jew alike, until a few actually get there.
Unlike Moskat, the raising of the dead, a strong feature of Enemies’ dramatic rise, occurs to dash a relationship developing from love to marriage; occurs to slam shut a few doors as they open. In Singer, because of my exposure to his short stories early on, I’m always looking for the actual devil Satan, or undead—by raising the dead here, I mean it figuratively in both novels. People come back to life to people who believed them dead, a narrative design he employs in both novels to flow suspense under drama.
In Moskat, a love believed dead returns; but within a few subchapters and more to accelerate love between two than to shut down any. Asa Heshel returns to Warsaw, to Hadassah, his love, after marrying Adele Moskat abroad. In returning and loving Hadassah, he doesn’t seem to understand how he treats both women, with an icy kind of off-and-on extreme; emotional love strangled by his philosophy (a treatise on birth control) that will soon give way to communism. Love is markedly different in the two works. I took this to mean something, but often allowed the shifting character of Love their shadowy rooms because Singer so often employs Love, Death, Time, as a chorus allowing for their rôle to complete a chapter without a central character having to do much more than sweat or weep, or a Russian regiment to catch lice.
The dead returns to life in Enemies as Herman’s wife Tamara, believed shot dead via an eye-witness, appears in New York at his uncle’s home, where she establishes herself and reaches out to her husband, who’s married a gentile woman, Yadwiga. In Moskat, a Yadwiga plays a similar character to Enemies, a gentile maid watching over Asa Heshel Bennet’s household when he’s married Hadassah. From the earlier novel we have repeat characters in Yadwiga and Masha. It is as if from the earlier novel, Singer read to glean the dramatic nature of the two; Masha, a grandchild of Meshulam Moskat, marries Yanek, a polish colonel after converting to Christianity, and she attempts suicide, vaguely; Yadwiga still plays a kind of minor-comic character. They are in themselves a kind of intertextual resurrection, much as Asa Heshel resembles Herman. And I love this work between texts, that a character has a life before a life—as if the chronicler endows the novelist his tools of lenses and faces, moods and flights.
THE DEPTH of Enemies, as the shorter work, is astonishing. Two generations live in New York after fleeing Poland or finding their way through Europe from Russia. Character monologues often depict the Holocaust, scenes from the camps, the road, movement of people, the body, the bodies, ashes, and new lives in America, with precision and nimble toughness—this only from female characters. Herman lived out the war in a hayloft. “Sometimes it seemed she must be making them up,” Herman thinks of the brutal stories Masha, and later Tamara, tell. A preface to the novel notes Singer did not witness Hitler’s Holocaust, and he shares this with Herman, but I’m not the type of reader who connects one to the other—in any art, ever—though the outsiderness of Herman’s character rings a high harmonic the entire work through. Often, in what I’ve read others characterize as a perverse way—one of Singer’s collaborators wanted to toss the manuscript for Enemies—Masha tells of rape in the camps, and working in Russia, to frame the narrative role playing for sex with Herman, and this too happens in Asa Heshel’s affair with Hadassah. But the role playing in Moskat isn’t connected to war; rather to passion, breaking with traditional norms. In both novels women feature as the purveyors of sexual imagination. Perverse yes. But Herman’s insights, his exasperation and attraction to Masha’s extreme stories and plots for their affairs undoes the Holocaust-witness seriousness. An uncomfortable high-comic atmosphere, relentlessly blown aloft by Singer’s pacing, frames the female characters closer to death, to pain, as they relive the Holocaust, but constantly poke through the tension as they see through his lies and interrogate Herman. In one early scene, before we know we cannot trust his ability to keep his lies straight,
Herman was eating potatoes and schav when Masha asked him about the relative who had gotten in touch with him. He almost choked on the mouthful of food he was eating. He could not remember the name he had given her on the phone. (Enemies, 91)
In his lies, he undoes himself and much of the tension, the seriousness of history, and herein the minutiae of their cunning to undo him, his lies. In Moskat we begin to see the framework for Herman in Asa Heshel, but Asa Heshel does not lie, even if he keeps a constant string of new women as prospects once he’s found love. Abram Shapiro, Meshulam Moskat’s son-in-law, hits some of the high notes Herman does, with the added torment of a weak heart, always on the verge of exploding, and a constant cigar at his lips, and his love all over the place. He races from scene to scene, or rather, he catches droshkies and slowly ascends stairs—examples of Singer’s brilliant ability to move quickly while Abram slogs, heart-weary, through his last days. Like Herman, Abram is constantly chased, just not by imaginary Nazis, but Death.
None of the women of Moskat feel quite as morbid as Masha in Enemies, nor do they seem to be all-knowing or powerful—and we attribute this to a kind of knowledge gained in the camps, at war, in suffering, a mysterious knowledge Herman can never quite understand, and one Abram and Asa Heshel never will know. To be fair, Asa Heshel, has a bit of prescience of doom, but the goal wasn’t to create drama but cast a shadow upon the liveliness of celebration as the families approached 1938. It’s awfully easy to want to attribute ‘knowing’ and ‘power’ as gendered, but Singer’s abilities pull an otherworldly non-gendered presence, as with Yadwiga’s “animal warmth” (Enemies, 179); or the all-knowing, “He’s a liar, a faker. He’s even too stupid to know how to get away with it” (Enemies, 92), Masha being prescient of Herman’s lies before she knows for sure he’s lying; examples both of an otherness not quite gendered, as in maternal, or wife-instinct, but animal or, in Masha’s case, all-knowing. Comparing Yadwiga to an animal happens a few times, but in this case it is Herman’s wonder, as Herman himself never feels the warmth she has, and is, to his detriment, “always cold.” Yadwiga experienced the Holocaust as a gentile in Poland, one who looked away but housed a Jew the war through, his protector. I wonder that she plays a kind of unknown to him in her ‘Christian’ life, and doubly as a person barreling headlong to conversion into a religion he questions. Jews are “hypnotized” (52) by the bible, “Herman the Jew ignored the sabbath,” (105), “There is no God, do you hear? And if there was I’d defy him,” he says to her as she begins to observe. She is, to him, another holy unknown, a person with confidence in her faith, with love in her heart. Is this too learned from proximity to the Holocaust? Doubtful. A kind of race to be married and protected consumes women of Singer, in a way constantly undoing what men will be able to provide. Even the financially stable fail their wives. The well-off and consummate businessman, the stolid of faith, is always undone by the artist, the superfluous man who’s lost his stack through independence or sheer stubbornness.
All-knowing beings are most often related to God, Satan, and, I would argue, for Singer, proximity to the Holocaust. Asa Heshel has prescience on the first mention of Hitler in Moskat. Masha is full of one-ups, a shade of all-knowing, on Herman: “Mama, you know the proverb: ‘God protect me from my friends, I’ll protect myself from my enemies” (40). “One can murder without a knife” (94). The power she totes with experience immediately disarms Herman, and makes her love for him the more powerful as she continues to flee and return, threaten suicide, and yet lingers on. The dynamic happens a little in Moskat; in Koppel’s life with Leah, most of its drama is off-stage and in dialog as remembrance, a secret relationship long-lived and shared between lovers, but consummated only in marriage, and once consummated, via divorce and remarriage, final and in America. Leah is not all-knowing, though she does know of her impending death, but it’s written as a natural dreariness among the throng of family on one of her visits back to Warsaw from America. In Enemies, nothing for Herman, Masha, Tamara, Yadwiga, is final, excepting death and history. But experiencing war before the Holocaust, having war in history as experience, isn’t the same. Nor is the prescience Asa Heshel has with mention of Hitler. Asa Heshel, who experiences war, atrocious acts of humanity, prison, beatings, tends to himself and protects himself from love in a way we don’t see any other character in either story, save for Meshulam Moskat, the empire builder of Warsaw. For Asa Heshel, it’s poverty, frustration, until he’s betrothed once more and up to his eyes in debt, a second child to support, and soon he is as chased by anti-bolshevik Polish police as Herman is by imaginary Nazis, and gives in to a new love, Barbara, and even beyond Barbara, a younger girl, a friend of his daughter’s. Asa Heshel is consumed by his lust, possibly a prescient dread of Hitler. “They were all doomed” (578). His prescience comes at little narrative cost, and is added without much work—much like prescience. And as clear as Hadassah’s ailment was, her suffering, I’m not entirely convinced of her burden on Asa Heshel as a partner:
He could never learn to stifle emotions of pride, shame, regret. His arguments with Hadassah had turned into a kind of madness; they screamed, cursed, even struck each other. Yadwiga, the servant, would cook their meals, but the food would become stale while they quarreled. The little girl would cry, but her mother would pay no heed. Hadassah took sedatives; she still could not sleep. Time after time Asa Heshel resolved to make an end of the constant disputes, but he found it impossible. She never stopped complaining; she accused him of visiting his son too often and spending too much time with Adele. She talked about his love affairs in Russia. She suspected that he was carrying on with the girls of the Chavazeleth, and was even jealous of Masha, Stepha, and Klonya. … Asa Heshel began to fear that Hadassah was losing her mind. (519)
Their struggles never leave him wondering if he loves her but more that he “cannot carry the burden anymore,” of family, which Barbara would never ask for, and Dacha’s young friend couldn’t. Whereas Masha’s prescience in Enemies, comes at the ultimate cost; earned through survival, and an enduring love. I take this to mean Singer’s witnesses of the Holocaust, the ones he gives time to in novel form, have a complexity and energy absent in others, regardless their own life trials, and especially women who survived.
THE PAIRING of Asa Heshel and Abram Shapiro at the beginning of Moskat introduces Singer’s ability as a novelist to incorporate varying levels of simultaneity, though we are most assuredly in a linear mode. Their long-lasting friendship gives Abram as much of the spotlight as Asa Heshel. Constantly moving in social circles, and quick between homes, I began to lose sense of time with Abram’s nervous energy. Like Koppel—who plays a cool-as-ice gentile, but churns internally having stolen some of Moskat’s fortune—Abram hides his desolation and poverty behind a constant side-hustle, constant movement, and a desperation with women verging on helplessness, and though it’s a little beyond him he really does live a life Spinoza would be proud of, one of celebration, of the moment, of love. Koppel, too, cannot seem to keep his hands to himself. It’s as if time for this generation is different than time for Asa Heshel. The two older men aim for escape as their families pin them to the floor in Warsaw. Koppel even succeeds, getting to America, gaining wealth, but returns to Warsaw having diluted Leah’s children to ‘somehow gentile and Jew’ (448). He is upended legally back in America, caught bootlegging. Warsaw is loved and it is hated; those who leave are ‘somehow’ unbuttoned, weakened. Leah’s son Mendy cannot stand Warsaw, longs for New York, and feels to me like Singer’s ideal pre-war American emigre. He longs to return home, his mind “full of baseball, football, and horse races.” Koppel and Abram are most definitely agents of change, but nowhere near the dire level of Asa Heshel, who storms between lives as a cold, “loveless” man Hadassah sums up as a man for whom the physical is the only love, but she so longs for his touch and his loving she sticks with him, mesmerized by him. So, in Moskat the men have power, are on traditional footing with women as agents of change, the women married into roles of power, or divorced into roles of independence undone by remarriage. The lens of the Holocaust will not only transform power roles, but America will further complicate the dynamic, adding to the dire situation.
In America, Herman comes up with lies to tell his first wife, Yadwiga, daughter of a man who kept Herman in a hayloft the war through, a gentile. Placing him in the hayloft removes him from the experience of the Holocaust in a way setting him in stark contrast to Masha and Tamara, his loves. He lies to Yadwiga that he is a traveling book salesman, always out of town; when, in truth, he is with Masha, a survivor, who continually pleads with him to ditch his gentile wife and marry her and give her a big belly. Tamara, his first wife, upon her resurrection, will come to design Herman’s life for him, a temporary relief for him once his lies for her stop. Like Tamara, Adele in Moskat provides a structure for Asa Heshel in Switzerland, demanding of him a certain kind of giving in. Giving in always fails couples in Singer. Even in success, as in Koppel’s winning over of Leah and his divorce of Beshelle, we find a kind of dilution of the children’s lives, their Judaism lacking what Pinnie considers a soul. Meshulam Moskat was on his third wife when he died, and her daughter Adele, along with the upstart Asa Heshel, both new to the family Moskat, give in to each other entirely, running away together only to be miserable and barely alive once they return to Warsaw.
While I read Moskat I kept referring back, finding likenesses and continuance in Enemies, seeking out Singer’s project, which wasn’t just chronicling and denoting a people, but examining people of the Holocaust before and after, but never the thing itself. And here I began to think of the two texts as one great Holocaust novel, a piece of work defining the Holocaust in its absence on stage, and through its lens giving us characters wholly changed, metamorphosed into their greater tragic selves, closer to Greek plays, where gods pull the strings of life, only here the strings are attached to the greatest atrocity in history. Like Malamud’s The Fixer, Herman has a subtle spotlight on Spinoza, and often in Enemies and Moskat I found myself writing The Fixer in the margins as prison scenes and the movement of people, racism, and poverty rang similar bells. And Spinoza played a huge role in Jewish philosophical life, and so it was my initial ignorance that wanted to consider the focus on him some kind of message to the reader. Instead, the inward gazing of the men to the philosophy suggests finding reason for escape, for otherness within community, and a lengthening of the time they spend away from their complicated loves. In The Fixer, a very different novel, set against a very different time and place, the philosophy of the character gets him nearly killed as a freethinker, notably distancing himself from Judaism. The gentiles don’t know which is worse, a Jew or a freethinker. That Malamud must have read Moskat, and possibly in Yiddish. I’m not entirely sure what Singer’s literary project was, but that in Asa Heshel and Herman there are similarities, entanglements, and continuations. Their surroundings are different: in Enemies we are within two generations in America, where grandparents are often comical, dark, and knowing; and in Warsaw, we are in three generations, with the fourth in the belly. The pregnancy in Enemies turns out, like life in America, to be a medical malady. Life in Warsaw has its maladies, but it’s often softened by love and community. Food and the older generation in Enemies can provide temporary relief, but the community, no.
Freedom in America is quite different in Enemies. Freedom is a complicated word for what Herman has. It’s not so much liberty as the ability to move freely from one problem to the next without, save the weather, a hiccup—this makes a lightning-fast pacing, like Abram’s movements in Warsaw. But Enemies’ energy and quickness feels so in contrast to its precursor you’d expect Singer had some philosophy behind the decision to stylize the two in contrast. You’d be right. But I have no proof save the texts and a little from his personal essays, that one must not make a reader bored. Ever. That Enemies is a post-war story, and Moskat is a pre-war, we are brought along at the pace of life allowed by those two situations; the first, many lives living in Warsaw, wealthy, poor, tired, energetic, sick, pregnant, wildly in love, wholly undone by outsider Asa Heshel, a Warsaw on the brink of annihilation; the second, four lives and their minor orbiters, beauty and terror, hunger and satiety, lies and love, contrasts woven tightly into a short and concussive framework of drama, of emigre Americans looking back, or trying not to look at all. Moskat has views of America, and they are almost perfectly of Enemies as if seen from off shore until Koppel and Leah take their children to America and thrive—once they’ve returned to Warsaw, images of America become more like a prosperous open-armed country, albeit with continued presence of antisemites. All are warned how hard one must work in America to have anything at the slightest mention of escaping Warsaw. And right they would be in the confines of Enemies, wherein Herman cannot find work save for a daunting job writing for a rabbi as ghost-writer. A job made perilous by Herman’s life decisions, all at odds with the Talmud, which if found out would get him fired, and does for a time. And Masha has it no better, initially, working tirelessly at an automat. Things do not end well for anyone in Enemies. It’s as if the intuition of what America can be for Warsaw’s prewar Jews became the fact of the matter after the Holocaust, after the world had abandoned them. We’re caught between versions in a very intriguing way; we’re knowing two Americas. And we know two Zions. The 1917 Balfour Declaration Palestine, a place of hard work and sun and relief from European antisemitism; and post-war Israel, a place Herman defies for various reasons. The later novel likely answers many of the escapists’ queries in the prior—the ones who got away, got out and survived, will be allowed to live in America, but will suffer. Excepting Yadwiga, who will plead and plead to convert, it seems the entire cast of Enemies was in The Family Moskat in some form or another, be it Asa Heshel, who easily could have been hid away in a barn while Hadassah, sent to sanatorium, is lost in the throws of war, the two to unite in America long after, when she eventually finds her way to him—surely by now he’s lost his faith, married a Yadwiga, and gone full-in on a job ghost writing for a rich rabbi. And I could see Singer looking back to Moskat and finding dramatic scenes to define scenes the more so dramatic in Enemies. It’s an energetic refining, or slimming down, into the American aesthetic of 1970s publishing; where food is less Talmudic and nourishing, and sex is somehow drawn from conversations about the past as much as meaning is. “They lay together without speaking, overcome by both the complexities and the contradictory demands of the body.” (Enemies, 144). A line that would never occur in Moskat.
And food, the abundance of food in America features in Enemies, where bodies are often fed or famished by the hold of the past, on the ability of a character in their present to feel worthy of food, as the dead had hungered, and as Jews were starved, moved, kept, and placed, forced and annihilated. Food plays the role of constant disrupter for Herman, but can comfort, as when Masha’s mother, Shifrah Puah, a survivor, bakes for him. As the quote before notes, Herman is always with a mouthful when someone says something to put him off. Food in Moskat comes from social gatherings, rarely are we in company of a person eating alone, unless it is on a sickbed. Food for the Moskat world is the social triumph of community and tradition. Order and comfort; food and love.
The Holocaust, the hellish prism through which narrative and character may be compressed in Enemies, chaotic and highly Americanized, the chapters terse and punctuated, accented by concussive regularity and matter-of-fact storytelling, plays a role in Moskat, but one of a known-known, then unknown because we know. By that I mean the characters themselves know what comes of a furious, poor gentile Europe, and they consign themselves to what they know from before, movement, food shortages; but everywhere signs of a more menacing and evil future abound. In Enemies, every thread is pulled, as if telling us, before the annihilation of so many, before Warsaw was ‘sanitized’, lives were messier, more ambiguous and gorgeous, enlightened and wise, ancient and youthful in their living and growing old and dying; but also suicidal, perverse, ugly and tormented, on the verge of collapse and estranged, a people on the edge of their own undoing as their ultimate undoer, Hitler, approached. And in America tea becomes shortened; pillow conversations quickly end for sleeping pills or last all night in some frantic insomnia; the gestures of the old world somehow known but kept from hand, kept from mouth, its many-peopled card games and artists flops filtered through a tight prism to small apartments, fast meals, prayers mumbled through rather than sung from a tabletop to God. A most Singeresque detail from Moskat: Asa Heshel returns to his childhood home, Tereshpol Minor, for a time as a miserable Russian soldier; “A gentile swine-slaughterer had moved into his grandfather’s house” (370). The nadir of Asa Heshel’s disgrace, a slaughterer, we know Singer found most disgraceful as his descriptions in The Slaughterer conjoined or melded his disgust for slaughtering animals to slaughter of humans. And this, a swine-slaughterer! Details like this abound in Moskat, and run like an underground river through Enemies.
AS I’M READING Singer, much as he was a prolific short story writer, I’m wondering that his novelistic integrity and scope is widely ignored in America because it’s translated and there were so many after FSG became his publisher. I found the translated texts pitch-perfect, even if there wasn’t an experimentation with style apparent. There is a moment where Asa Heshel reads Spinoza and a tense shift occurs, but nothing like a Hemingway shift for hundreds of pages. For the continuity of narrative style, and voices of the characters, we are truly at the behest of a chronicler in Moskat. Unlike Tolstoy, whose chronicling at times could be more propelled by ‘integral structure’ or device of estrangement, as Shklovsky calls it, and pointed out by Wood as a strength, which he was the king of, Singer alights from the front steps to the street, down the block, and through the shadows every character’s internal scope, their entirety for the sake of the chronicle, and in them finds in the chaos of relationships the turmoil of having to cope with the constant harassment of a people. And he does this with clarity. Of course I’d like to know that his Yiddish is as clear as the translators’ English, but often with such tremendous talents it is; greatness translates. But not once do we see Singer engaging in the bag of apples toppling down to the bridge to depict the bones hitting the wood of the bridge, a man shot dead next to a character, as in War and Peace. Singer never seems to be struggling to attract our attention. The drama of scenes for Singer is sheer movement in Moskat; sheer conversation in Enemies. And in this way as a depicter of scene, we are somehow more tucked into character life and voice. I do think Tolstoy had a theory of prose that Singer may not have found useful; Tolstoy’s kind of complaint in his “perceptions shattering his faith”, as Shklovsky puts it. Singer’s sure hand and kindness in his quickness is translated effectively, and really does the job of making reading a pleasure. Often, for me, until I got to the Maude translation after attempting to slog through the Pevear and Volokhonsky, I found Tolstoy’s terrain as a chronicler more of a trial with little pleasures now and again, where Singer’s world unites and unifies under a clarity of purpose, leading towards one of the finest last sentences of any novel.
CONOR ROBIN MADIGAN is the author of Cut Up, (The Republic of Letters Books, 2011), and several short stories. His fiction has been in The Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Anthology, Contrary Magazine, and has won the Rick Demarinis fiction contest for 2023. He is at work on a trilogy.