Love and Death

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 7 1998 3:30 AM

Love and Death

I.B. Singer's lustful, tormented ghosts.

Shadows on the Hudson
By I.B. Singer
Translated from the Yiddish by Joseph Sherman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 650 pages; $28

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So many I.B. Singer novels have been posthumously published in the last few years (Scum, The Certificate, Meshugah) that death is coming to seem like just another problem of translation for the great Yiddish writer. But Singer, who died in 1991, wrote so much and so well in his long career that it would be wrong to conclude that his publishers are cynically raking their way through a justly neglected backlog. Shadows on the Hudson, published in English for the first time in 1997, was written in the 1950s, when Singer was at the height of his literary powers. He had emigrated to the United States from Poland some 20 years before, and though his translated work was already acquiring a following, he was a long way from becoming the puckish purveyor of Old World culture who charmed the American public and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978. He still inhabited his own liminal realm--a Yiddish writer living in America, an American writer creating fiction in Yiddish. Shadows on the Hudson, produced inside the intimacy of the Jewish language and serialized in the Jewish Daily Forward, has an unself-conscious energy and honesty that gives it, even after 40 years, a shocking power.

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Set in New York's Upper West Side in 1947, the novel follows the lives of a group of refugees linked by blood, friendship, sexual intrigue, and Old World ties. Many are from Poland, but assimilation and war have blown them through Germany, Russia, Cuba, and Paris until they fetch up, in various states of spiritual and physical exhaustion, in Manhattan. They gather in the spacious Central Park West apartment of Boris Makaver, who has rebuilt the wealth he lost in the war and reclaimed the religious piety that his associates have mostly abandoned.

These are men and women who have lost homes, hopes, wives, husbands, children, illusions. They sit and argue, between mouthfuls of strudel, about communism, God, the destruction of Judaism, the horrors of American culture. "I know one thing, Shloymele," Makaver says to one of his friends, a German-educated physician. "Our fathers were Jews, we've become half-Jews, and our children are ... well, I'd better not say anything." The refugees are also half in love with death. Stanislaw Luria, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, speaks incessantly of torture and the dead, until Anna, his second wife, cries out: "You're starting with the horrors again! Why should anyone want to come up to our apartment when you speak about such things." Dr. Shrage, a mathematician whose wife died in the Warsaw Ghetto, devotes himself to psychic research, desperate to contact her.

But if these wounded souls are in some sense ghosts themselves, as we are meant to think, they are nevertheless carnal ghosts. The plot is set in motion when Anna, daughter of the pious Makaver, decides to run off with Hertz Grein. Both are married--Anna to the morose Luria and Grein to the long-suffering Leah, with whom he has two grown children whom he regards with a kind of detached disgust. Having raised his family without the religious principles he long ago rejected, Grein finds himself horrified by their alien, American otherness.

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G rein's hypocritical disdain for his own family is the natural state of Singer's characters, shaped as they are by multiple cultures--Eastern European Jewish piety, radical secularism, American self-invention. It is in part to drown out these competing impulses and to squelch despair that his lovers fling themselves into each other's arms. Grein is the central consciousness of the book, a man who, once a brilliant Talmud scholar in Poland and then a student of secular philosophy, is now a half-hearted mutual-fund manager in America. His head is filled with biblical and liturgical ruminations, Nietzschean doubt, American optimism, and a loud wail of self-diverting lust--all of which is expressed internally in a jumble of Yiddish and Polish and English and Hebrew. Singer is very good at evoking the palimpsest imprints of his characters' layered lives in a way that gives them more modernist complexity than his rather conventional conception of character and plot might otherwise have allowed for.

He is also good at making their highly personal adventures seem the outgrowth of historical and metaphysical circumstances. Singer's decision to set his novel in 1947 allows the book to spin on a historical axis--the aftermath of the Holocaust, the creation of the state of Israel, the birth of the Cold War. The Holocaust, for instance, does not simply inspire the characters' large, despairing gestures; it filters into their casual foreplay: "Do you remember how we once turned on the gas and sat in the bathtub together?" Esther, another of Grein's lovers, reminds him breathlessly.

One of the bracing elements in the novel is the casual darkness with which his characters discuss the world. Mickey Sabbath, the irreverent, renegade hero of Philip Roth's apocalyptic Sabbath's Theater, would hardly raise an eyebrow here. "Why should it matter to me if they massacre types like these or burn them in ovens?" Grein thinks, disgustedly contemplating the coarse Florida Jews who have snubbed him and his new lover, Anna. "The tragedy is that they destroyed the good ones and left this trash behind." Asked what became of her first husband, a profligate actor, Anna remarks matter-of-factly: "It was thought he was murdered by the Nazis but what's the saying? Scum floats to the top." The actor, when he does miraculously turn up to embark on a successful Broadway career, admits he destroyed his first wife's happiness as if it were the most natural thing in the world: "Well, the daughter of a Hasidic family, the child of a wealthy man, came on the scene and I ruined her. In those days, I wanted to ruin everything. It was a sort of an ambition with me." This is a man who, seeing a full moon rise beautifully in the sky, feels moved to announce, "Oh, if only I could piss all over it!" That God himself might be a Nazi is a thought that several characters comfortably entertain.

It would be wrong to see in all this merely the warping effects of the Holocaust; Singer is chronicling something larger and more complicated than that. Most of his characters, despite Orthodox childhoods, began their rebellion against God before World War II, in the '20s and '30s when Jews were stepping out of shtetl culture for the first time in a thousand years. This was true of Singer himself, who has a good deal in common with his hero, Grein. The Holocaust merely added a horrible twist to their rebellion. Ernest Jones, Freud's English biographer, famously observed that Hamlet, wishing his father dead, was unable to survive his father's actual murder because he was so crippled by guilt. In other words, the prince's real tragedy was that somebody fulfilled his fantasy for him. One might say something similar about Singer's characters. Having rebelled in their youth against Judaism's commandments, having come to revile its restrictions--having, in some sense, wished it dead--they were forced to watch the Nazis fulfill their fantasy by actually murdering the thing whose destruction they inwardly willed. No wonder so many of them feel implicated in evil.

This peculiar double death adds anguish and guilty energy to the book. Grein has the fundamentalism of the fallen Orthodox: He sees only the faith of his father or a full embrace of sin. He cannot believe in a middle way. Ultimately, he becomes a penitent, fleeing his sexual entanglements, his family, his responsibilities, and taking up refuge in Palestine. This stab at return is both unconvincing and at the same time what makes Singer and this novel so interesting. For what Grein comes to resemble, in his selfish flight from the past, from responsibility, from moral choices, is nothing so much as a Yiddish Huckleberry Finn. He isn't going back to Palestine, he's lighting out for new territory. He has become an American at last.

Jonathan Rosen is the editorial director of Nextbook and the author, most recently, of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature.