An interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer. "I try to write about things I know best"


Phyllis Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer

In October of 1978, Phyllis Malamud, Boston bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, sat down with Singer over two days for a revealing interview, shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ms. Malamud has graciously made a draft of this never published profile available to www.singer100.org.

October 5, 1978

Like the dybbuks he writes about, Isaac Bashevis Singer sounds like an ordinary man. His accent is Jewish, his demeanor humble. "You ask and I will answer." But like his demons and imps, Singer is an extraordinary man: a Nobel Prize winner who in the words of the Swedish Academy brings universal human conditions to life.

Singer himself always begins with the particular. "I consider myself a Jewish writer, a Yiddish writer, and an American writer. But in a way, I write about Poland." Over the years his settings have shifted to New York "since I have developed roots here too." Still, he insists, "I write mostly about Yiddish speaking immigrants. I know them better than those born here. I try to write about things I know best."

The supernatural is one thing Singer is more than acquainted with. "I believe in the supernatural, not that I know exactly the difference between a demon and an imp," but we are "surrounded, surrounded by them and their power on our life. And I believe the greatest of all these powers is God, Almighty. I once said whenever I am in trouble I pray. Since I am always in trouble, I pray all the time."

"I believe there is a plan to this universe. It was not created by accident. Who was the planner and for what purpose we don't know. "

His voice soft, almost weak, Singer says he is "happy to be known as a Jewish writer. I am steeped in Jewish from head to toe." Yet it is not Yiddish writers he points to as inspiration. "The supernatural was not evoked in Yiddish literature," a body of work he describes as having "a sentimental side, a social side, concerned with rich and poor. For the supernatural I went back to the Middle Ages, these roots are older than Yiddish literature."

"The one whom I admire is Edgar Allan Poe. I still consider him a genius, one of the greatest. I've read him in Polish, in Yiddish, in Hebrew, in German, in English and in every language he's great." When asked about A. J. Singer, his elder brother by 11 years, Isaac Bashevis says, "I've said again and again my beloved brother was my teacher, my master in literature. We had many discussions about literature and he influenced me in many ways. He was more of a realist than I am and wrote not about demons but about real life. But behind the line there was a spirit of mysticism in his writing."

For as Singer puts it, mysticism is not taught. "It comes from the genes, not from the yeshiva. Some are born realists, some with a feeling for mysticism."

Brought up in Warsaw and tutored in Talmud by his father, "in a private kind of place,' Singer claims, "I am a man of privacy. Of course I like and love to meet people. Still, I'm not too much of a social person. I have great sympathy with the Yiddish movement but I am not by nature a social person."

It's Singer's way of saying he has not been a leader or mentor to other Yiddish writers. "There's no question, when it comes to character and personality, Yiddish is one of the richest languages. When it comes to technology, it's the poorest language." But the decline of Yiddish-speaking audiences is not something Singer, a fatalist, is worried about. "The leaves are falling but the trunk and roots always stay. It looks bad but our situation looked bad already 3,000 years ago. I once wrote a one-acter about a poor little scribe scribbling away. He was hungry, his wife was hungry. While he worked on compiling some material which he called genesis and exodus, his wife asked, who will ever read this stuff. Things always look bad but they never get lost completely. Jews suffer from many sicknesses, but amnesia is not one of them."

In Miami, Singer is working on a collection of short stories for Farrar, Straus entitled 'Old Love and Other Stories.' He is also working on a collection of Chanukah stories for children, some of the translation done together with his wife Alma. For though Singer insists on writing in Yiddish--"I like to stay with my roots"—he supervises and edits all translations, rewriting them "until I'm satisfied with it. Then I use the English. I once said it was my 2nd original language and maybe there's some truth in it."

"This is a great honor," he says of the Nobel. "I hope to keep on scribbling in Yiddish for the rest of my life. Nothing will change.

"I feel that life itself--that the whole universe--is a great mystery, a great secret and we're living in the secret." Although the answer may not be good, Singer quickly notes. "I am a pessimist. I am not an optimist. I believe in God more than humanity but then a part of humanity is part of God so I believe in humanity too."

[NOTE: Singer was tired and agreed to talk more tomorrow. I will ask him then about his sensual, passionate themes.]

October 6, 1978

"I feel no shame of it. The Bible and the Talmud are full of sex stories. If these saints are not ashamed of it why should I be, who is not a saint?" Delighted to be called a very sexy writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer declared this morning, "there is no reason why I shouldn't be. If sex did not exist, you would not be here. I would not be here. We're all a product of sex. We cannot writer about a human being without writing about sex. We cannot treat the very origin of creation and creativity as something bad. It's ridiculous."

That's one reason Singer tells reporters that Henry Miller deserves a Nobel, "for his fight against censorship, for freedom of literature." For as Singer sees it, sex, and ever more so, sensuality "is one of the greatest pleasures. If we miss this, we miss the main thing. For me, a sexless writer is no writer."

Sounding stronger than he did last night, Singer suggests that writers who do not write about sex "should write about the economy." But a writer who writes "about human beings should have a great feeling for sex and a great appreciation for man's pleasure. There are so little pleasures in this world, you cannot avoid the source of the greatest pleasure.

"There is no question. If there is a god, I imagine him as a lover. According to the kabbalah, all souls in heaven make love there. Jacob continues to make love with Rachel and Leah, with all four of them. Even though two of them were concubines, he does not discriminate. And the angels and the almighty himself have a higher kind of sex, which we may not understand, but they seem to love. If this is the case," Singer argues in Talmudic tones, "why shouldn't I also write about it or think about it or do it."

Singer sounds like one of his characters. You ask a question and you get an answer. References to kabbalah or talmud are punctuation points for a healthy ego. Singer says his friends have been calling him and asking whether he's happy about winning the prize. "How can you be happy when you read a newspaper with a story about my prize and also read about death and injuries to hundreds perhaps thousands of innocent people?"

Did he ever hope to get a Nobel? "Not really. Some of my good friends and well wishers told me I should get it. It is true, maybe I should. But between should and getting is a far cry. I thought maybe they would not recognize Yiddish or a Yiddish writer. This is a prize for the whole of Yiddish literature," or as Singer quickly amends this statement, "Yiddish language."

"Even if demons exist," says one of Isaac Bashevis Singer's typically Jewish characters, "they are not in New York. What would a demon do in New York? He would get run over by a car or tangle himself in a subway and never find his way out…"

Jewish demons, you see, are just plain folk: bewildered, frustrated, ironic, jealous, mischievous and tricky. Inhabiting many of Singer's stories, sometimes as narrators but always as common-sensical characters, they can be like Kuzibah, a young demon with donkey ears and wax horns and feet like a chicken and wings of a bat who is frightened—"of human beings."

In January 1974, I talked to Singer by phone about exorcism. Singer who has often said that he uses the supernatural as a "spiritual shorthand for the world." He quietly confided: "I myself, after years of pondering such things, reading about it and talking about it to people, I do believe that we're surrounded by millions of spiritual creatures and some day we may know more about it. I would say the great majority of Jews do not accept this. They have an illusion that Judaism is a rationalist religion. But being completely religious and rational don't go together."

Left to "a fantasist as myself," Singer softly said, "I believe there is such a thing as haunted houses and reincarnation and I don't think there will ever or could be scientific evidence of it. For if there is, then there is no free choice. Free choice will disappear. If we were sure there is a hell and a purgatory, we would all become saints." Fuente: singer100.loa.org

2 comentarios:

Ana M. dijo...

Ten reason not to read Singer in the summer (or never) http://www.elsenorgordo.com/2012/08/ten-reason-not-to-read-singer-in-summer.html

Lileka dijo...

thank you ana m.

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