“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.