National Book Award winners, number 30: 1974’s A Crown of Feathers, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

28 Jul

In 1974, Isaac Bashevis Singer won the National Book Award for his superb, humane, and thrilling short story collection, A Crown of Feathers. It was his seventeenth book. The award was split with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

Singer is a magnificent talent, a writer I’ve given short shrift to for years. I’ll go into why in a minute. This collection is powerful, elegant, evocative. His prose is diamond-hard, sometimes folksy, sometimes charming, always powerful. He wrote in Yiddish, and then helped translate his own stories into English[1].

His life is the life of an immigrant. He carried his Judaism with him, but felt disconnected to any country or place. Europe had betrayed him; America never fully welcomed him. He ended his days in Miami, amongst other aging New York transplants. (There’s something sad about Singer wearing the garb of South Florida excess.)

The stories are touching and humane, yet unsentimental. A common refrain in Singer’s stories is, “Who invented the world?” His characters question God, history, the wind. For Singer’s god is the god of ice storms and blood sacrifices, the maker of Leviathans and tigers, the wind of knives and the great deluge. What can man do in the face of such avaricious indifference?

Marvelous, heart-rending and humane.

Marvelous, heart-rending and humane.

Singer can be relentlessly punishing to his characters. In the title story, a Jewish woman named Aksha lives fifty years of joyless fear before dying, as tough yet rewarding a reading experience as Flaubert’s A Simple Heart. Her sin is denying the Jewish faith. Her penance? A lifetime of extreme suffering.

Here he is, detailing the dissolution of Aksha, in “A Crown of Feathers”:

 

“For the remainder of the night, Akhsa was neither asleep nor awake. Voices spoke to her. Her breasts became swollen, her nipples hard, her belly distended. Pain bored into her skull. Her teeth were on edge, and her tongue enlarged so that she feared it would split her palate. Her eyes bulged from their sockets. There was a knocking in her ears as loud as a hammer on an anvil. Then she felt as if she were in the throes of labor. ‘I’m giving birth to a demon!’ Akhsa cried out.”

He has much in common with Bernard Malamud. Both write about racism, oppression. Both write with terse elegance, folksy humor, and dark spiky surprises rattling around in the sentences. Both carried the terror of the Holocaust inside. The horror of history for the Jews is a reoccurring theme. So is the indifference of god. Here, in “A Day in Coney Island”—a fabulous story—he has a character contemplating the world, as he stands on the brink of deportation back to Poland and certain death in 1942:

 

“…even if I survived, how would another novel or story help humanity? The metaphysicians had given up too soon, I decided. Reality is neither solipsism nor materialism. One should begin from the beginning: what is time? What is space? Here was the key to the whole riddle. Who knows, maybe I was destined to solve it. 

“. . . . I closed my eyes . . . . Through my eyelids the sun shone red. The pounding of the waves and the din of the people merged. I felt, almost palpably, that I was one step from truth. ‘Time is nothing, space is nothing,’ I murmured. But that nothingness is the background of the world picture. Then what is the world picture? Is it matter? Spirit? Is it magnetism or gravitation? And what is life? What is suffering? What is consciousness? And if there is a God, what is He? Substance with infinite attributes? The Monad of Monads? Blind will? The Unconscious? Can He be sex, as the cabalists hint? Is God an orgasm that never ceases? Is the universal nothingness the principle of femininity?

“ . . . . I opened my eyes and walked towards Brighton. The girders of the ‘L’ threw a net of sun and shade on the pavements. . . . No matter how space and time are defined, I thought, it is impossible to be simultaneously in Brooklyn and Manhattan.”

Fantastic writing, a great mixture of ponderousness, intellectual heft and hard-edged in-the-moment reality. There’s humor too, despite the looming darkness, and all of these things, with a swirl of urbanity and a touch of shtetl wisdom and there you have Singer. Plus the possibility of sex. With a soupcon of Jewish mysticism.

Singer felt like a refugee, and many of his stories deal with other refugees, struggling to maintain dignity and identity in alien shores. Many of the stories follow a narrator listening to the tales, anecdotes, recollections and wisdom of other characters, immigrants carrying their history and culture with them into the bright promise of early 20th century America.

2.

I confused Singer with not one but two other writers: Isaac Babel, who I want to like but haven’t yet found affection for; and the intriguing but thin Isak Dinesan, who is female and Danish[2]. I combined all of them into a cute, schmaltzy writer of children’s stories and little comic fables. (I’m not proud of this.)

Like other Jewish writers, he’s more prominent in Jewish circles. Which is a pity. For Singer is a writer of great descriptive power and moral weight.

Singer was born in Poland in 1902, and he didn’t come to the U.S. until the early 1930s. He belongs to the enormous first-generation and second-generation Jewish-American/Eastern Europe wave of talent into the U.S. that includes Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Nelson Algren, Isaac Assimov, Frederick Busch, Robert Bloch, Stanely Elkin, Harlan Ellison, Nora Ephron, Ira Levin, Irving Stone, Edna Ferber, Gordon Lish, Leon Uris, J.D. Salinger, Andrea Dworkin, Budd Schulberg, Nathaniel West, Elie Wiesel, Richard Price, Woody Allen, Chaim Potok, David Goodis, and Ben Hecht. This same heady cultural stew produced most of the great Hollywood writers and producers, and many of the great Broadway writers, too. Hell, standup comedy has its roots in the Yiddish theatre.

The point is that American intellectual history—including 20th century fiction—is in some sense defined by Jewish-American writers and thinkers. And Singer is rightly placed at the forefront of this immensely important, and rich, subculture of American letters. Many of our writers, Jewish or not, draw from the well he and Bellow and Roth and Malamud dug.

3.

Singer wrote with a keen insight and economical concision, moral weight and a questing, often religious intelligence.

For the early seventies, he was a man out of his time. The trend was towards playfulness, deconstruction. It was the era of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Of silly wordplay and the smashing together of high and low brow culture. Of ironic distance and the refusal to draw moral absolutes. Singer stands against all of this, and it is a testament to his writerly skill—Donald Barthelme was one of the judges—that he won the to award. Of course, Pynchon shared the top honors with him, which is as it should be.

He won the award over the young postmodernist turks, like Thomas McGuane (not my cup of tea, really), John Gardner (ditto), Tim O’Brien (a very fine writer), and Toni Morrison (my feelings on her are too complex to go into here).

Gore Vidal published the very fine historical novel, Burr. Rita Mae Brown released Rubyfruit Jungle. Jerzy Kosinski published The Demon Tree. Cormac McCarthy released his grim, ultra-violent backwoods saga, Child of God. Kurt Vonnegut published one of his stranger novels, Breakfast of Champions. Jerome Charyn released Tar Baby.

Around the world: Milan Kundera published Life is Elsewhere. J.G. Farrell released The Siege of Krishnapur. J.G Ballard, Martin Amis, Graham Greene, and Mario Vargas Llosa all published novels.

An impressive year for fiction, but Singer deserved the top award. I will read more of him, and soon.

 

[1] Some critics say he’s better in Yiddish, some say he’s worse. The consensus is his Yiddish is looser.

[2] Ah, the human brain. I used to confuse Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott, and Rod Steiger. Also, Jean Genet, Andre Gide, Celine and later the filmmaker Jean Jeunet. I would feel dumb about it, only other people do this, too. For years, Beth thought that Annie Proulx was Annie Dillard, and she hates Dillard, and thus would badmouth Proulx and neither of us read her. Now, we both love Proulx. Funny, how a mistake of memory can deprive people of pleasure.

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One Response to “National Book Award winners, number 30: 1974’s A Crown of Feathers, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.”

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  1. Books I read in 2014. | simoneandthesilversurfer - January 5, 2015

    […] a Love Story—Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about the Holocaust and a philandering Jew in Brooklyn, as he finds himself stuck between […]

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