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Worlds in Collision : SHADOWS ON THE HUDSON. By Isaac Bashevis Singer . Translated the Yiddish by Joseph Sherman . Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 550 pp., $28

January 18, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | Turan is The Times' film critic and chairman of the board of directors of the National Yiddish Book Center

Like some unlikely Yiddish-language version of Western author Max Brand, Isaac Bashevis Singer continues to routinely produce fiction well after his death. "Shadows on the Hudson" follows "The Certificate" and "Meshugah" in posthumous publication, but even though this is the novel's first appearance in English, it's not the first time I've seen it.

In 1957, when I was a boy in Brooklyn, "Shadows on the Hudson" appeared twice weekly in the Forward, a Yiddish newspaper. My father was a fanatical reader of these serialized novels, and he would neatly stack the episodes in a large pile and swear retribution on any family member who dared move the papers or, God forbid, get them out of order.

Now that "Shadows" has come out in English (in a serviceable translation by South African Joseph Sherman), it's possible to see both why my father was so fascinated and why, on the other hand, Singer presumably chose not to have this work translated during his lifetime. It was written when Singer was 53, roughly midway between his arrival in America and his 1978 Nobel Prize, and at a time when Saul Bellow's groundbreaking translation of the short story "Gimpel the Fool" had just been published.

Clocking in at 550 pages, "Shadows on the Hudson" is the fattest Singer novel to appear since "The Manor" and "The Estate" about 30 years ago. It is, on the one hand, an unruly and chaotic roller coaster wallow of a book, discursive, repetitive and not exactly refined. Unashamedly melodramatic, with an emphasis on lust, sexuality and the cruder passions, it illustrates tendencies that the more genteel of Singer's Yiddish-language critics often objected to.

Yet for all its rawness--maybe even because of its rawness--"Shadows on the Hudson" is also one of Singer's most revealing novels. Under its rough surface, the author was playing with powerful material, dealing, albeit in lurid colors, with many of his key preoccupations and concerns. An ambivalence toward organized religion, a concern for the place of Jews in the modern era, the centrality of both sex and spirituality to the human condition--all get an airing here. This may be a Yiddish bodice ripper, but it is a distinctly philosophical one; "Melrose Place" joined to "A Guide for the Perplexed." When its characters don't have "their mouths clamped together as though powerless to separate, as though struggling mutely to swallow each other, tongues, gums, throats, and all," they are musing on a wide range of thinkers, from the sages of the cabala and Gemara to Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, even Rabindranath Tagore and Bertrand Russell. Any book that can contain references to the celebrated 16th century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria and a lurid contemporary paperback called "Tomorrow You'll Be a Corpse" is covering an awful lot of territory.

The book is set largely in New York in 1948; the shadows of its title are those that history has spread over its cast of Holocaust survivors. The sense of hopelessness and despair that suffocates those who managed to come out of Europe alive is depicted with savage, almost naked vividness. Illustrated with equal strength is the ambivalence verging on contempt that many survivors (including Singer himself during his first anguished years out of Poland) felt for New York, America and the entire modern world. As one character puts it, with characteristic bile: "If only there existed toilets into which one could fling whole civilizations!"

Though Singer is profligate with characters, creating dozens of people, some of whom appear and reappear after they're thought to be dead, the book's nine protagonists are introduced at an Upper West Side dinner party given by the wealthy but pious businessman Boris Makaver, a man gifted with the ability to "make money from mud."

If Boris is capitalism, each of his other guests to a certain extent stands in for some other belief system. His nephew Herman Makaver is a devoted communist; the ethereal Professor Shrage is a spiritualist; the author Frieda Tamar represents selfless piety and others speak up for intellectualism, cynicism, hedonism and even indecisiveness. Yet such is the despair of this haunted book that each of these systems is found wanting and unsatisfactory, no match for "a world of chaos," in which a "gang of intellectuals had brought the human species to the brink of the abyss."

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