His penetrating blue eyes widened in disbelief. It was 1976, two years before his epochal Nobel Prize for Literature, and Isaac Bashevis Singer looked frankly skeptical when a young Washington Post reporter hinted at his growing celebrity.
"I don't even think that I am famous now, but if you say so, who am I to say no," Singer told me. He punctuated his lilting, accented English with the most elegant of shrugs before adding the coup de grace: "Today, to be famous, you have to be a Frank Sinatra."
In 2004, things are different, even by Sinatra standards. It's the 100th anniversary of Singer's birth and a Caribbean cruise, an official website and celebratory literary events in Los Angeles and New York (as well as St. Cloud, Minn., Moscow, Idaho, and Brigham City, Utah) are planned.
The centennial's centerpiece is a three-volume Library of America collection of more than 200 of Singer's short stories, weighing in at nearly 2,600 pages. For the first time in its 22-year history, the publisher also is issuing a handsomely illustrated biographical guide to a writer's life and work, "Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Album." Eat your heart out, Henry James.
This kind of fuss may seem inevitable for only the seventh American to win the Nobel. If you didn't look too hard, Singer, by the time of his death in 1991, had become a beloved and respected figure on the U.S. cultural landscape, despite having written all his stories in the glorious yet moribund language of European Jews, Yiddish.
The first writer elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences to use another language, he led the New Yorker to break its anti-translation policy, shared the 1974 National Book Award with Thomas Pynchon, had streets named after him in New York and Florida and got one of his eight honorary doctorates from Texas Christian University. He wrote a string of children's books and won a coveted Newbery honor. What's not to like?
Quite a lot for some people. Singer's works at one time were banned from Israel's religious schools because "his values do not conform," yet he was asked to lecture West Point cadets about freedom. For every person like venerable Jewish American author Anzia Yezierska who considered Singer "the last of the great Yiddish fiction writers" there were those like Inna Grade, widow of novelist Chaim Grade, who recently told the New York Times: "I profoundly despise him. I am very sorry that America is celebrating the blasphemous buffoon." As Singer put it to me, "They looked at me really as a strange kind of plant, until today they don't know what to do with me."
What is indisputable is that he was considerably more complex and improbable than the facile figure being celebrated. For though Singer was translated into dozens of languages and accepted as perhaps the quintessential Jewish writer, he was both of the tradition and apart from it, a man whose contradictions belied his one-size-pleases-all image. This collection lets us re-examine him on a deeper, more sustained level, to experience his mastery and appreciate the powerful forces that shaped him and made his multiple transformations and personal reinventions not only possible but essential.
The story of Singer's metamorphosis from blocked, despairing immigrant to literary wonder rabbi is as unexpected and marvelous as the tales of dybbuks and demons that fill his pages. Given how long his celebrity was in coming, how many personal, professional and cultural obstacles he overcame, it's no wonder he had difficulty believing he was headed for the Sinatra side of the street.
The new books also allowed me to explore my connections with Singer, which began before that interview in his high-ceilinged apartment on New York's Upper West Side and extended, in a fashion he would have appreciated, after his death. Because his transformations, his American journeys, have to a certain extent paralleled and echoed my father's, even my own.
Though he was born and began writing in Poland, it was America that first unmade, then made Singer, a country that simultaneously fascinated, attracted and repulsed him, gave him the freedom to write as he pleased and the wide audience that made that freedom sweet, but not immediately and not without costs.
Singer was astoundingly prolific. These stories come from 12 free-standing volumes as well as a group of translated tales that were never published in book form. This would be impressive if he were only a short story writer, but a baker's dozen novels also were published in English under his name, as were numerous volumes of memoir and 14 children's books. Bibliographers estimate that his untranslated works exceed 4,000 pieces, including 11 novels, an equal number of novellas and a considerable amount of journalism. Because he also used at least six pseudonyms in Yiddish periodicals in New York, Paris, Warsaw and who knows where else, it is "unlikely that there will ever be a comprehensive list of all his contributions," writes editor Ilan Stavans.