A few weeks ago, writing about Antony Polonsky’s history of Eastern European Jewry in the late nineteenth century, I remarked on the way that American Jewish nostalgia and guilt towards the vanished “old world” makes it difficult for us to see that world as it really was. The reputation of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose novel The Magician of Lublin has just been reissued on its fiftieth anniversary, is one a major example of this kind of confusion. A large part of Singer’s popularity is certainly owed to the way he lends himself to being read as a folklorist, writing about dybbuks and holy fools in an age-old Jewish landscape. That the world he wrote about, and the Yiddish language in which he wrote, were practically extinguished in the decade after he came to the United States in 1935, only increases the sense that he was a messenger from another world.
The Nobel Committee’s official biography of Singer, who won the literature prize in 1978, sums up this view perfectly: he wrote about “the world and life of East European Jewry, such as it was lived in cities and villages, in poverty and persecution, and imbued with sincere piety and rites combined with blind faith and superstition.” One commenter recommending Singer’s stories in a web forum puts the basic idea more naively: “If I could have chosen a grandfather, I would have chosen this man for the stories alone.”
Look a little closer, however, and it becomes clear that Singer, far from being gentle and grandfatherly, was as shockingly modern a writer as Dostoevsky. He is a chronicler of spiritual disintegration, exploring the devastating effects of appetite and passion—even of thought itself—on souls unprotected by faith. When devils appear in his work—as in the great story “The Gentleman from Cracow”—they are not quaint folk-devils, but figures of genuine, terrifying evil. And in his post-Holocaust ghost stories, such as “A Wedding in Brownsville” and “The Cafeteria,” he seems to transcend parable, as if only the literally incredible—a party full of murdered Jews who do not know they are dead, the appearance of Hitler in a Broadway café—could be adequate to the unbelievable truth.
The Magician of Lublin may not exactly be “a lost classic,” as the cover of the new paperback claims—it went through several editions in the 1960s and 1970s, and was even made into a movie in 1979, starring Alan Arkin. But its re-publication is still very welcome, because the novel is one of the clearest examples of the ways this modern urban intellectual writer makes use of the materials of the Jewish past. Take the title, which sounds like it could be a Hasidic folk-tale about a wonder-working rabbi. In fact, Yasha Mazur, the title character, is a magician in the sense that Harry Houdini was a magician: he is an acrobat, a contortionist, and an escape artist, who performs at theaters around Poland while he dreams of making it big in Western Europe. Another way of putting it is that he is an impostor, using sleight-of-hand to show people the kinds of miracles they so desperately want to believe in.
In this way, Singer suggests, the magician is a stand-in for the novelist, whose powers of imagination are also a kind of secular enchantment. Yasha serves Singer in much the same way that Moses Herzog served Saul Bellow in Herzog, a novel published a few years later: as a surrogate self, a way of turning his own experiences and reveries into fiction. Certainly the plot of The Magician of Lublin is one that must have resonated personally for Singer, since it is substantially the same as those of Enemies: A Love Story and Shadows on the Hudson: a man suffers a spiritual crisis as he juggles love affairs with three different women.
When we first meet Yasha, he is at home with his wife, the pious Esther, who “wore the customary kerchief and kept a kosher kitchen; she observed the Sabbath and all the laws.” But, crucially, she is unable to have children, and Singer makes much of the fact that Yasha has never assumed a father’s stake in the community. He remains a kind of overgrown child himself, only dropping in on Esther for a few days between performing tours. And once he is back on the road, his assistant Magda, a Polish Gentile, doubles as a common-law wife—so much so that her mother treats Yasha as practically a son-in-law.
As the novel opens, we learn that this comfortable quasi-bigamy has been upset by Yasha’s love for a new woman, Emilia, a professor’s widow who lives a precariously genteel life in Warsaw. It is clear, in the way of a fairy tale, that each of these women also represents (a little too tidily, perhaps) a particular fate: if Esther is Jewish tradition and Magda is artistic bohemia, Emilia represents bourgeois striving. Unlike Yasha’s other lovers, she will not sleep with him until they are married, and she will not marry him unless he converts to Catholicism, takes her away to Italy, and works towards becoming famous and respectable.
The plot, which unfolds over a few days, is driven by Yasha’s uncertainty about which woman, and which life, he wants. There is also the further complication that, to make Emilia’s dreams come true, he will need to get his hands on a large sum of money. For the most part, the book consists simply of Yasha’s restless roaming through the city as he tries to make up his mind. This gives Singer the chance to imagine the Polish capital in the 1870s, in the process of transforming itself into a metropolis:
In Warsaw, wooden sidewalks were ripped up, interior plumbing installed, rails for horse trolleys laid, tall buildings erected, as well as entire courtyards and markets. The theaters offered a new season of drama, comedy, operas, and concerts…The bookstores featured newly published novels, as well as scientific works, encyclopedias, lexicons, and dictionaries.
As he goes from apartment to tavern to synagogue, Yasha also keeps up a frenetic internal debate. Like Bellow, his contemporary and sometime translator, Singer makes a middle-aged man’s joyless womanizing a symptom of a deeper spiritual crisis. In the first few pages, he contrasts Esther’s piety with her husband’s skepticism: “Yasha spent his Sabbath talking and smoking cigarettes among musicians. To the earnest moralists who attempted to get him to mend his ways, he would always answer: ‘When were you in heaven, and what did God look like?’” It is a mocking question, but also, as the book unfolds, a deadly serious one. For it becomes clear that Yasha’s lusts are the product of boredom and despair: “Like a drunkard who drowns his sorrow in alcohol, he thought. He could never understand how people managed to live in one place and spend their entire lives with one woman without becoming melancholy. He, Yasha, was forever at the point of depression.”
But if Yasha is unable to commit to Esther, or to his ancestors’ beliefs and way of living, he is unequally unable to commit to Emilia and break with his inherited conscience. He changes his mind about God and Judaism literally from one page to the next. When he stumbles into a prayerhouse and puts on tefillin for the first time since adolescence, he is filled with a sudden sense of God’s presence: “Yes, that there were other worlds, Yasha had always felt. He could almost see them. I must be a Jew! he said to himself. A Jew like all the others!” So ends chapter six—but as chapter seven begins, he starts to wonder, “Why all the excitement? What proof is there that a God exists who hears your prayers? There are innumerable religions in the world, and each contradicts the other.”
Yasha’s ambivalence finally takes a concrete toll. In a rush of manic self-confidence, he decides to break into a miser’s apartment, where he knows there is a fortune hidden. But whether it is a sign from Heaven or the revenge of his superego, all his dexterity deserts him. Not only does he fail to get the money, he breaks his leg jumping from the second-story balcony. The last part of the novel is colored by Yasha’s increasing pain, and his reckless refusal to get the leg treated—as if he is half-consciously willing himself to die, as the only possible escape from his quandary. “His fingers had become white and shrunken, the tips shriveled like those of a mortally ill person, or of a corpse,” Singer writes. “It was as if his heart were being crushed by a giant fist.”
As it turns out, the novel has a different ending in store for Yasha. His sins will be punished by death, but not his own; and the guilt of this culminating tragedy will drive him into an act of penitence that recalls both the legends of the Baal Shem Tov and the stories of Kafka. The dark power of The Magician of Lublin is nowhere clearer than in its instruction that, for a modern man, to return to God may require a decision as violent and frightening as any crime.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This piece was originally published in Tablet.