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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Isaac Bashevis Singer

Yitskhok Bashevis (Isaac Bashevis Singer)

Born 1904, Bilgoray (Bilgoraj), Poland. 1923--Warsaw, 1935--New York.

Bashevis is I. J. Singer’s brother--a man to whom he is frightfully similar and to whom he is frightfully different. The pseudonym he selected is an appropriate one, it is his mother’s name and all three of her writer children (a sister is also a writer, but one brother is a rabbi, just like their father was) are strangely similar to her. Both physically and terms of a certain indefatigably curious and critical nature. And accidental half-hour acquaintance with Mrs. Singer was, for me, something of a golden key to her children’s work--but I will reserve the details of that encounter for the chapter on the eldest Singer--I. J. Singer.

Itsik--that’s what we would call him, for we had all known him as a very young boy and we had observed his becoming since that first day when he, a rabbinic little boy thirsty for knowledge, had arrived in Warsaw. Itsik would often tell me about how he thought of us as “classics,” how he looked up to us more or less established Yiddish writers like gods...but at the very same time he already intended to become--such a god as us. He would have the most eccentric ideas, ones so unnatural that it seemed as if he was preparing for his future biography, but it really was like that for that little boy, who had red hair and who would so often turn as red as if he was standing on the top step leading to the baths. Bashevis was so hungry for knowledge it seemed as if he had just gotten over a long illness--and perhaps his long years in kheyder really had felt like a sickness--he would devour the books we lent him. All we got back were tattered scraps. One summer he set up his study in a tree at his brother’s datcha, in the morning he would climb up with a meager bit of bread and a book and, in the course of the day, he would devour both. The first time Bashevis properly tied his tie, the first time he didn’t mix up his black shoelaces with the white waistbands of his underwear (vayse vesh-bendlekh), and the first time we truly took him seriously, we noticed that he was one of the most thoroughly educated (tifgebildetste), funniest, talented, mature, albeit young, Yiddish writers. It really felt as if you had witnessed the very process by which a Yiddish writer comes out of his shell (sheylt zikh oys fun sholekhts)--suddenly a grown man (fartiker) was standing before us.

And above all, Bashevis had a distinct face, his own face, from the very start of his literary career and his face was not merely some contrivance, as so often is the case, it was truly his, had grown together with him. Somewhere in Motl Peyse, Sholem Aleichem says that a face and a hat ought to be cut from the same cloth, just as a writer and the face of their work ought be. Bashevis quickly found his literary rogues’ gallery--concealed, mysterious figures, represented reverentially, but naturalistically, as if they were viewed from the side [minatsad/מן הצד] by an observer, but a very sympathetic, even empathetic, observer. Bashevis’ protagonists are those possessed by dybbuks, those with a tragic fate, often those who bear the mark of Cain. His language is very clear, and clear language always has something to say.

All writers begin their careers on the earth, wandering about, searching out narrow footpaths until they find their own way; Bashevis, however, began his literary career in a tree... It seemed as if he had thoroughly investigated all the footpaths while up in that tree, so that by the time he came down he already knew which path he had to travel, which no one travels, and which would be his one. Bashevis’ path was not that of Nomberg nor that of Yoyne (Jonah) Rosenfeld--although those are the closest to his.

Bashevis was, so thoroughly and from the very start, a professional writer; he never took up other work and he never wanted to. In that, he is surely unique among Yiddish writers. Even Asch was a private teacher (hoyzlerer) for a time. But, in order to remain a professional writer and only a writer, he compromised some of his work, publishing “exciting novels” (shpanende romanen) for the afternoon edition, which excited only for a few months (iber halbe yorn). They say that the end sanctifies the means. We do not accept this contention--we must, however, accept the biographically established fact, that many world literary writers (velt shraybers) who have аchieved a spot in the pantheon of eternity have done the same.


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