- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006


By Florence Noiville

Translated from the French by Catherine Temerson

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23, 192 pages, illus.

Towards the end of “Isaac B. Singer: A Life,” Florence Noiville recounts the circumstances surrounding the ceremony in 1978 at which the venerated storyteller accepted the Nobel Prize for literature:

First there was the commotion at the Stockholm airport when reporters bombarded the author with questions: “‘Mr. Singer, why do you still write in Yiddish?’ ‘Which writers influenced you most?’ ‘Mr. Singer, Pope Paul VI just died. Are you happy that the new pope is a Pole?’ ‘Are you a vegetarian for religious or health reasons?’ The last question was one to which Isaac replied, deadpan, ‘It is the health of the chickens with which I am concerned, not my own.’”

Wry, elusive, a man of paradoxes, in this incisive biography, Singer appears less the lovable, one-dimensional icon the public thinks they know. Ms. Noiville, a journalist at Le Monde (and one no less inquisitive or determined than the crowd in Stockholm) honors her subject without lionizing him. At her own admission, hers is not a “scholarly” biography but a telling of what she could piece together from letters, family reminiscences and Singer’s own autobiographical writings.

Given that the greatest source of Singer’s literary imagination was a world that can no longer be found, this is no small task. Of where Singer’s story begins Ms. Noiville writes:

“The opening sentence could be Alfred Jarry’s grim statement about Ubu Roi: ‘The action takes place in Poland, that is to say, nowhere.’ This is true even in geographical terms, for, at the beginning of the [20th] century, Poland was divided and under the iron rule of three empires, Russia, Prussia and Austria.

“‘Nowhere’ could be used to describe Singer’s native village, too, for today, a hundred years after his birth, every last trace of Jewish life has been obliterated from the landscape.

“The Poland of Singer’s memory is nowhere in human memory. All the eyewitnesses to his 1904 birth have died. If they were still alive today, they would be 110 or 115 years old, assuming they had managed to flee Poland before the Second World War, or were among the roughly 120,000 Jews — of the country’s original population of three million prior to 1939 — who survived the Holocaust.”

Leading the reader from Singer’s modest beginnings in Leoncin on the Vistula through Radzymin, his childhood village, on to the Jewish Warsaw between the wars and then to his immigration to the United States in 1945, Ms. Noiville gives us a vivid portrait not only of genius but of a lost land and language.

In reconstructing the first 30 years of Singer’s life the intrepid biographer traveled to all the significant places in which it was shaped, particularly the site of 10 Krochmalna Street where the young Isaac listened to his father, a rabbi, adjudicating cases involving Jewish law. Ms. Noiville writes, “What a kaleidoscopic overview of life and passions! What a microcosm of humanity! Isaac couldn’t believe his ears. All of this was so different from the disembodied austerity that had surrounded his family up until then.”

Ms. Noiville traces the growth of the rather shy but attentive child with the piercing pale blue eyes into a young man who, at 19, “was ready to throw himself heart and soul into the service of what he called his to ‘idols,’ the two causes he would thereafter serve unfailingly: women and literature.”

Yes, Singer was a womanizer, and, yes, he could have treated his first wife and young son much better, but Ms. Noiville handles these issues with a light touch, leaving her greatest energies to examining the role of the Yiddish language in Singer’s life and work.

The question of Singer’s writing all his fiction in Yiddish is at the center of this book. Ms. Noiville writes persuasively about the role of this language that, according to linguists, “first appeared in the Rhineland in the ninth century. It is similar to medieval German, the ‘high middle German,’ spoken between 1100 and 1500. But it also includes elements from the Hebrew, Aramaic and the Romance and Slavic languages.”

Mainly, however, it was the language “spoken in his mother’s kitchen; it was the language of his childhood, the one in which he expressed himself in the Forward [the Yiddish newspaper in America].”

The Yiddish linked the author to an immigrant community in New York and earned him a following. But as Singer’s fame grew his use of Yiddish too became a lightening rod. Some Yiddish speakers believed his works too sexy. Others found his reluctance to write about the Holocaust a disappointment. And still others believed that there were other Yiddish writers more deserving of the Nobel Prize.

And then there is the matter of translation. Singer not only wrote his fiction in Yiddish, but after 1954 he “adopted a ‘hands-on’ approach to the translation of his books into English.” This came after Saul Bellow gave the world a “powerful, colorful, fluid translation” of the famous Singer story “Gimpel the Fool,” a translation that caused Singer to turn his back on Bellow for many years.

When the two met at a cocktail party some years later Singer explained: “If the translations had been too good, the public would have confused translator and author.” Saul Bellow helped bring Singer his broad American readership but also caused Singer to forever retreat from anyone famous translating his work lest they overshadow him.

In the end, this politically conservative man who was more influenced by Gogol than Sholem Aleichem, this lover of women who at the end of his life seems to have made amends with many whom he let down, triumphed. And when it was time to accept the award that acknowledged such enduring works as “The Spinoza of Market Street” and “Enemies: A Love Story” and a lifelong dedication to literature, to the astonishment of the audience he began his speech in Yiddish, noting: “In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

Florence Noiville’s book, gracefully translated by Catherine Temerson, goes far in helping restore the lost world that Isaac Singer dedicated his life to preserving.

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