Monday, August 10, 2020

'Literature Must Deal With the Past'

Much attention has been paid in the bookish precincts of the internet to what people have been reading since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in March. My customs haven’t much changed except for purposely avoiding books with content devoted to earlier epidemics – Thucydides, Pepys, Defoe, Camus. Instead, I’ve read Charles Doughty, Vasily Grossman, Jean Stafford, Nabokov, Peter Taylor, Chekhov, Joseph Epstein and A.J. Liebling, among others –perhaps a bit more fiction and less poetry than usual. No pattern, intentional or otherwise. Years from now, when I recall the pandemic and its impact on my life – which has been slight compared to many – the writer with whom I will likely associate it will be Isaac Bashevis Singer. I realized this on Sunday when a reader sent me a tweet posted by the film director Whit Stillman, linking to Singer’s interview with Paris Review. Stillman tweeted:

“Perhaps the last century’s greatest writer -- but less-recognized as his genius was in the short story not the novel.”

I first read Singer’s stories in The New Yorker in the sixties, and then his story collections and novels as they were subsequently translated and published. Back in April I ordered his three volumes of stories published by the Library of America, and I’ve been reading them ever since, without system, not chronologically, usually one or two a night. All, of course, were originally written in Yiddish and rendered in English by Singer working with a pool of translators. In the author’s note appended to The Image and Other Stories (1985) he writes:

“A writer should never abandon his mother tongue and its treasure of idioms. Literature must deal with the past instead of planning the future. It must describe events, not analyze ideas; its topic is the individual, not the masses. It must be an art, not pretend to be a science. Moreover, belief in God and His Providence is the very essence of literature . . . Literature is the story of love and fate, a description of the mad hurricane of human passions and the struggle with them.”

How fitting, how true to America and its enduring promise, that its two greatest fiction writers of the twentieth century, Singer and Nabokov, were born in Poland and Russia, respectively. Such a gift the Nazis and Bolsheviks have given us. When Terry Teachout reviewed the three Library of America volumes for Commentary in 2004, he wrote:

“The composer-critic Virgil Thomson once remarked that the way to write ‘American music’ was to be an American, then write whatever music you wished. Judged by a similar standard, Singer was an American writer, and he was at least as much of a New Yorker as I am, since he spent most of the last half-century of his life in a Manhattan apartment four blocks north of where I live. And though his work may not mean to me what it does to an informed Jewish reader, it is hardly without personal meaning for me.”

Now that’s cultural appropriation.


Faze said...

Wonderful post, but I must take issue with Whit Stillman: The novels are no less great than the stories. Most startling is the most recently available, "Shadows on the Hudson" - a revelation. No one should ever hesitate to read a novel by Singer if one comes to hand. Singer's novels are like Wodehouse novels, in that there are lots of them, and any one you pick will be rewarding.

Wurmbrand said...

I remember an appearance of IBS on public TV’s Dick Cavett Show, perhaps shortly before Singer won the Nobel Prize. They discussed public interest in an author’s life and Singer said he wouldn’t go out of his way to see an author, not even Tolstoy. Cavett asked, What? You wouldn’t cross the street to see Tolstoy? Vell, Singer said, maybe I vould cross the street. But I vouldn’t go to Flushing.

Something like that.

Richard Zuelch said...

If you'd be interested in reading more short stories, the "Oxford World's Classics" series, back in the early and middle '90s, published two volumes of Anthony Trollope's stories. Volume 1, "Early Short Stories," has 22 stories, and Volume 2, "Later Short Stories," contains the remaining 19. Two or three of the stories in Volume 2 are long enough to be divided into chapters. No matter. Trollope is worth it, as he always is.