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Monday, October 5, 2015

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How about Isaac Bashevis Singer for light summer reading?

Tags: Columnists

Hurrah! The Canadian Jewish News will continue! And it’s summer – great news for us in the rain forest.

Summer reading – what a joy. What should it be? War and Peace? Chick lit? Or something a bit scarier?

Devil in the White City, which I read on holiday, got me thinking about devils, demons and imps. Who better to turn to than Isaac Bashevis Singer, master of all the jinns?

In his works, you find humour, sin and debauchery, sad neglected imps, and especially devils in human form. Singer’s goblins can be mischievous. They cause human victims to lose their way, misplace things, and have their hearts broken. Imps kidnap people from their own homes, imitate long-lost loves or themselves fall prey to heartbreak.

While Singer could weave tales of humour and tenderness, he’s better known for tales of darkness in which humans construct their own personal hell.

His masterworks, The Slave and The Magician of Lublin  have no demons in them, but they speak to the vagaries of the human heart: love, lust, betrayal and final redemption.

Yasha (born Jacob), the Lublin magician, is a man who, by his own account, has broken every commandment. He has cheated on his wife and on his own lovers, and contemplated theft and apostasy. As his many crimes begin to corner him, he has an epiphany. Looking at a lecherous couple in their restless sleep, “[h]e had seen the hand of God. He had reached the end of the road.”

Knowing his own soul, he sees it reflected everywhere, even on a street corner, where “the streetlamps were lit but it made little difference. They scarcely illuminated their own darkness.” So it is with him, in spiritual darkness, until he realizes that only by withdrawing from the world can light prevent his lusts from destroying him and everyone around him. Finally, as his life was extreme, so must his penance be.

Just as the Buddha withdrew from the world after being faced with the realities of life, so does Yasha. At the last moment, he becomes a penitent and has himself bricked up into a cell where he will do penance for all his crimes.

The Slave is set after the Chmelnicki massacres in 17th-century Poland. Its protagonist, Jacob, has been captured and become the slave of a Polish peasant. He finally flees slavery with the gentile daughter of his master and reappears in a faraway town with her. Sara (nee Wanda), pretends to be unable to speak so that no one will know she isn’t a born Jew.

The novel is titled The Slave, yet for much of this Jacob’s life, he’s not an actual slave. His bondage is the situation he finds himself in. Bound first to a wife he doesn’t love who is murdered by the Cossacks, he’s enslaved after the massacres and finally married to a woman he must always conceal. Liberty seems unattainable.

So what demons haunt the wastrel magician and enslave the prisoner? No devil enslaves them. Both are imprisoned by their own passions and must answer for them. It’s no coincidence that both (anti?) heroes are named Jacob. Singer was surely aware of the struggles that consumed our patriarch Jacob throughout his very troubled, yet exalted, life. Jacob had his own demons. He was a passionate man, not very loveable and not always wise. As a model for Singer’s Jacobs, he could not be more apt.

Singer knew first-hand the power of passions and the pessimism that can descend on a writer. Nevertheless, in his 1978 Nobel Prize speech, he said: “The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence, but mighty passion for redemption of mankind. While the poet entertains, he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion, he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice.”

Unlike Anne Frank, Singer did not believe that people were good at heart. But he never stopped believing in the redemptive power of the written word.

All is not gloom. I will read next his stories for children – except I can’t find them. Could an imp have hidden them?

Happy summer reading.

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