You all probably know Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” and you also probably know his famous quote that “[w]hat really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
One author I have always wished was “a terrific friend” whom I could call on the phone whenever I felt like it was Isaac Bashevis Singer. And while I did have the good luck to speak with the great Yiddish Nobel laureate a few times as a journalist, I never did have the chutzpah to call him up just to chat.
Boroson on books I’ve just come across a book, while browsing through the used-book rack at a local library, that is the next-best thing to calling him. Called “Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer,” by Singer himself and Richard Burgin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), it is an edited compilation of interviews beginning in the1970s. (The book first was published in 1978.)
Burgin, a literature professor who compiled a similar book of conversations with the fantasist Jorge Luis Borges, asks Singer just about everything under the sun – and the moon and the stars. And Singer’s responses are wise, funny, insightful, provocative, and instructive about life and literature.
In his introduction, Burgin warns the reader that “Singer is a remarkably honest man, but because he thinks, lives in, and creates a world of deep and vivid contradictions, it is not a ‘simple’ honesty. As with Robert Frost, it’s easy not only to misread Singer but to misperceive him as a human personality as well.”
The comparison with Frost is apt. It’s all too easy to pigeonhole him as a provincial New England poet, and to miss his breadth and depth. Similarly, it’s all too easy to pigeonhole Singer as a provincial Yiddish writer whose subject is a lost world, and to miss his universality and complexity.
Meanwhile, here’s a sampling of the “conversations”:
He has a great deal to say about writers and writing, and you may be surprised by quite a lot of it. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are among his favorites. Asked what he thinks of the novels of Franz Kafka, Singer says (and you may or may not agree with him), “They go on, they drag on. I feel in Kafka … a great power, but the truth is that the literary idols of this generation are not my idols – neither Kafka nor Joyce. I have to make an effort to read them and I don’t think that fiction is good when you have to make an effort….
“We have now a whole bevy of writers who take pride in annoying the reader. They make him feel guilty and bore him…. The great writers always gave joy to the readers even in their tragedies….”
He does not care for “stream of consciousness,” which he calls “a way of avoiding the story, of avoiding describing character…. However,” he acknowledges, “when it comes to exceptional talents, all these rules are not valid. A great talent can even give you a lot of revealing action within a stream of consciousness, but I don’t think it has been done yet in a very convincing way.”
Later he says that “[t]he real writer’s gold mine is the outside world, its constant changes, its bizarre complications, the various human characters, man’s passions, follies, errors, hopes, disappointments, especially in love.” (And we can see that he has mined them in his own work.)
What about religion and literature, for example the Bible? “Religion becomes literature,” he says, “only when people don’t take it seriously anymore…. The very essence of religion is not in reading sacred books but in living what is written there. If you read the Bible as poetry or prose or history, then you are no longer a religious person.”
Singer is himself religious, but in a very individual way. He’s “inclined to believe that God and the world are identical. God is everything: all spirit, all matter, what is, what was, and what will be, as Spinoza conceived Him.”
And yet, “Since there is no evidence that God exists, I doubt all the time…. Actually, doubt is part of all religion. All religious thinkers were doubters. Even the Bible, although it is full of faith, is also full of skepticism. The Book of Job you can call a Book of Skepticism.”
Does he pray? “When I’m in trouble, I pray. And because I’m in trouble all of the time, I pray almost constantly.
“Religion is not a simple thing and neither is love. You can love a woman and still betray her.”
Later he says, “I myself try to think that I have made peace with human blindness and God’s permanent silence, but they give me no rest.”
There is so much that is memorable and quotable in this profound and delightful book that I could fill several pages writing about it, but I will just cite one more “conversation” about something that particularly interests me: vegetarianism.
Most readers know that Singer was a vegetarian. He said, in other contexts, “For the animals, every day is Treblinka,” and that he is a vegetarian not for his own health but “for the chickens’ health.”
In this book, Burgin teases him by asking, “How can you be certain that vegetables don’t have souls, too? They grow, they live.”
“You cannot be sure,” Singer says, “but you cannot go so far [as to stop eating vegetables, too]. That would mean that every person who is a vegetarian should actually commit suicide, which is also not right. We have no proof that vegetables suffer, [but] we have not yet heard of a potato running away from the pot.”