Nobel Prize Winner Isaac Bashevis Singer on Life, Sex and the Storyteller's Art
It is just after high noon in the swelter of Miami Beach, and the little man in the seersucker jacket, sunglasses and worn straw what is in his way out to lunch. The restaurant across the street is already crowded with elderly diners, but as soon as he is recognized the man is shown a quiet booth in the back. He orders a bowl of potato soup and a glass of skim milk. "So I will indulge later," he says in a rich Yiddish accent. One of the most celebrated writers alive, 77-year-old Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer seems as unassuming today as when he first arrived in America in 1935, a much-bewildered Jewish immigrant from Poland. Singer's prodigious literary accomplishments over the years include eight novels (among them The Family Moskat, The Slave and Shosha), hundreds of short stories, 15 children's books and four volumes of memoirs; many of his pieces originally appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward and the New Yorker. Now his longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has released a glowing Singer sampler, The Collected Stories ($19.95). Singer is also the subject of a new book by friend and translator Dorothea Straus (Under the Canopy, George Braziller, $10.95). Shortly before returning home to Manhattan after his usual five-month Miami working vacation with wife Alma, Singer spoke to Allan Ripp for PEOPLE about his work.
How do you account for so much recent interest in Isaac Singer?
I will tell you. I never sat down to write expecting to become famous. I was 45 years old before my first book was translated into English. Even then people weren't so sure. The short story is dead, they said. Why write about magic and ghosts? Why continue to write in Yiddish? Such questions have always been asked of me. Gradually the people who asked these questions saw that I was still writing all these years and began reading my work. Of course the Nobel Prize probably helped a lot.
Has winning that prize in 1978 affected your life in other ways?
In the beginning the telephone never stopped ringing—with congratulations, invitations to write, to speak. I am not the sort of person who can ignore a ringing phone. But there came so many calls that for a month we had to take a room in a hotel. Finally we had to get an unlisted number. Other than this our life has changed very little. We have our apartment in New York where we've lived for 17 years. When it gets cold we go to Miami. And we still travel to Israel, to Switzerland, around America. More people come up to greet me now and press my hand or ask for an autograph. There is a great unnatural interest today in celebrities. But it is enough that I am a celebrity in my own neighborhood. This is how I get such a good table at a restaurant.
How were you able to persist at writing during those early, difficult years?
It wasn't always so easy. When I first came to New York I was disoriented. The only English I knew was "Take a chair"—for the visitors who came to my room in a boarding house. But there was no chair in my room, so what good were these words? For a long time I was miserable, not writing anything and often not seeing anyone. I would sometimes sleep 14, 15 hours a day. It seems I was waiting for a big inspiration, a showdown with God. Well, this showdown never came, but it was then that I decided simply to write.
Why did you choose to write stories?
Even when I was a small child in Poland, many people came to our house to discuss their problems with my father, who was a rabbi, and I overheard plenty of stories I'll never forget. So at 7 years old I knew the kind of trouble and mischief the world is made of. I couldn't solve these things like my father, who knew all the laws. So I chose to write about them.
What is the secret of your art?
The secret is simply to tell a story. Storytelling is the essence of literature, from the Bible to the great masters like Tolstoy and Flaubert. It is a misfortune today that so many writers couldn't care less about stories. They are more concerned with political messages and experiments in style. Instead of saying "He ate bread," they must say "Bread ate he" or "Ate he bread." This notion that every line must be original is sheer vanity, and boring. I stick to the story.
Why do you still write in Yiddish after mastering English?
Yiddish is the language I was born with. It is also much richer and more alive than English. In Yiddish you don't turn on the light, you "make the light." It is a language of creation. People say Yiddish has no home, but wherever it is spoken, that is its home. I don't feel I should give it up just because I happen to live in America.
Is that why you object to assimilation, in particular of the Jews?
I am against assimilation wherever it occurs because it means someone has surrendered his roots to another culture, the majority culture. Why should a Chinese laundryman have to learn English if he manages to do his business? I know, I know. This goes against the idea of America as the great melting pot. But tell me, what's so great about being melted?
Are you a very devout Jew?
I don't go to synagogue much or even observe many of the rituals. But I do feel my fate wrapped up in Jewish history. Like most Jews I feel restless all the time, uncertain. Yet of course I believe in God. The people who claim the universe was formed by a Big Bang are preaching sheer nonsense. I am sure there is a plan, but it always mystifies me. Just recently there has been a tremendous blizzard in New York—in the middle of April! Is it possible the Almighty could have forgotten the calendar? Who knows? Still, I believe.
You have always been candid in your writing about sex. Did this ever create problems with publishers?
No, because I have always tried to deal with sex honestly, never telling too much, or too little. I read a story recently in which the writer, a woman, described at length a visit to the gynecologist, but when it came to sex all she had to say was, "They made love." Even a prostitute does more than that. What kind of love? Long? Short? Nervous? Violent? Readers should not be pandered to, but neither should they have to guess at something as important as lovemaking.
What do you think has attracted women to you over the years?
This is a question for the women. I never trust a man who boasts of having had lots of women. Such a Casanova must be a terrible lover. A man can have one woman all his life and still be a great lover. I would call this kind of love between men and women the last vestige of goodness in humanity. My own attraction to women has changed. When I was younger I was drawn to much older women, sometimes 20 years older. Now I am attracted to younger women, but they have to be very special women.
Is your wife Alma one of these women?
My wife is a saint. For the 42 years of our marriage she had to put up with a lot of nonsense, including supporting my writing as a buyer for department stores in the days when one article for the Jewish Daily Forward earned $25. Alma is like my Rock of Ages. Or maybe the Rockette of Ages.
Have you spoken to Barbra Streisand about the movie she is making from your short story Yentl the Yeshiva Boy?
She came and talked to me a few times, but mostly she wanted to hear my opinion of what she had to say. I hope it turns out better than the movie they made from The Magician of Lublin, which I disliked intensely. I have my doubts. I hear she wants to direct the movie as well as star in it. This doesn't sound like such a good idea.
How much interest do you have in popular culture and current events?
It seems I live in my own little corner of the world, away from many things. I don't drive a car. I don't watch TV unless my wife turns it on—she's the corrupter. What I need out of life I get: food, companionship with my wife, personal contact with others—preferably with the opposite sex—and perhaps a nice walk.
What do you expect of the future?
When I read in the paper about troubles in Israel, South America and now between Britain and Argentina over those tiny islands, then I know not to expect any real rest in this life. If people would only keep the Ten Commandments, even this little earth could be maybe half a paradise. And so I hope for the best. Lots of people ask me why I don't smile so often. I tell them that life is a serious business. The only one who should smile is a bride on her wedding day. Even she's got plenty to worry about.
Do you ever look back to your early life as "the good old days"?
I am an old man, so naturally I look back more than I can look forward. But I wouldn't say that any days were more special than the others. Every day on this earth is a godsend. Even a pessimist like me can be thankful for that.
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