The Passions of a Nobel Laureate

Given that I haven’t been posting much lately, I thought perhaps I would fill the gap by publishing an interview I did for Andy Warhol’s Interview back in the early 1980s with Isaac Bashevis Singer, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As I recall he was prickly but quite game — qualities evident in the interview below, with the man I came to think of as “The Yiddish Yoda.”

The Passions of a Nobel Laureate:

Isaac Bashevis Singer by Tom Teicholz

Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. The son and grandson of rabbis, Mr. Singer was born in Leonczyn, Poland in 1904. Al­though he attended rabbinical school in Warsaw, Isaac Singer chose not to enter his father’s profession. Rather, he chose to become a writer and follow the example of his older brother, the author Israel Joshua Singer (I. J. Singer, who wrote “The Broth­ers Ashkenazi” and “Yoshe Kalb,” passed away in 1945). After working as a journal­ist for the Yiddish press in Poland, and as a translator of German works into Yiddish (most notably Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain“), he published his first novel, “Satan in Goray” in 1935. The same year, he emigrated to the United States and be­gan to be published regularly in the Yid­dish language newspaper, “The Jewish Daily Forward,” to which he continues to be a weekly contributor. Almost all his works have been serialized in, or written in serial form for “The Jewish Daily For­ward.” Mr. Singer continues to write all his first drafts in Yiddish, a highly expres­sive language of the Diaspora that, al­though written in Hebrew characters, is quite distinct from either ancient or Mod­ern Hebrew.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work first came to the attention of the English reading pub­lic in 1953, when a short story of his, “Gimpel The Fool” appeared in “ThePartisan Review.” The short story was trans­lated by, coincidentally, our other living American Nobel laureate for Literature, Saul Bellow. Since then his works have been steadily translated. His stories fre­quently appear in “The New Yorker,” and his novels, collected stories, memoirs and children’s books include: “Gimpel The Fool” (1957), “The Magician of Lublin” (I960). “The Slave” (1962), “In My Fa­ther’s Court” (1966), “Sosha” (1978). “A Young Man in Search of Love” (1978), “Collected Stories” (1981). “The Golem” (1982). This fall, Farrar, Straws and Giroux will publish his latest work, a novel. “The Penitent.”

The world of Isaac Bashevis Singer is a world of small Polish villages and Amer­ican emigre communities, of believers and blasphemers, of religion and mysticism, of satanic and holy forces. It is also a world of passion and obsessions: of lust, greed, marriage and divorce; and of the most basic human forces: life and death, treachery and loyalty, love and hate. Though his tales are always replete with meaning, it is always the story that is paramount. For above all, he is a master storyteller, and to read his work is to be drawn into a world that although at times surreal, is never unreal.

The following conversation took place in the study of Mr. Singer’s large and cluttered apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Tom Teicholz: Your works are known for their lush sensuality, and the perversion in which your characters indulge. Why does this interest you so much?

Isaac Bashevis Singer: Why shouldn’t it be interesting to me? Isn’t it the thing about which people think and act on all their lives? Isn’t sex the way—don’t we all come from sex? You might as well ask why people are interested in food.

TT: But it’s not always the subject matter of literature.

IS: I wouldn’t say it always is, but then I don’t do things that are always done.

TT: One imagines, though, the world of the Hassidim and Polish Orthodox Jewry to be a world of many restrictions.

IS: It’s true. My father was a Hassid, but I am not exactly a Hassid at this stage in my life. I am a religious man. I believe in God, but I am not a Hassid. I do not believe that man’s love and passion is something against God. He created it.

TT: But do you think that a life in which there are restrictions imposed leads to greater or more unbridled passion?

IS: I think that if you restrict one energy, it will come out in another energy. If you restrain yourself from sexual achievements, you will get other things. Your desire for literature or photography or any other work will be greater. This energy is in us. Of course, it can also become religion—it can become anything. The truth is that, if people didn’t restrict themselves, they wouldn’t be able to exist together. Our whole civilization and culture is based on restriction.

TT: Do you think in modern life today there are the same restric­tions or are—

IS: There are not the same restrictions, but we restrict ourselves just the same.

TT: Do you think life today is more passionate?

IS: I think that in people who restrict themselves, there is more passion because the passion doesn’t want the restriction. It tries to get out of the restrictions, so there is more of a battle. But in the end, there is some bookkeeping in life, so that if energy is spent in one way, it will not be spent in another way and so on.

TT: In one of your books, you talk about how as a young man, you wrote many rules for yourself, one of which was that one should only be married for fifteen years. Do you still believe that?

IS: I would say I believe that: if marriage is a contract, it should not be a contract for life. It should be a contract for a number of years until the people bring up a family. Then, if they still love one another, it should be prolonged.

TT: But is fidelity possible?

IS: I think it is possible. If it weren’t possible, people wouldn’t talk about it as a matter of fact, every human being restrains himself one way or another.

TT: But your stories are all about people who don’t, or can’t, restrain themselves.

IS: Well, they do, but sometimes their passion is so great that they burst their restrictions. I would say that the whole civilization is built on restrictions. You would not be able to do anything if you would only let go.

TT: In terms of literature, do you think there are some writers who are memorable for their writings about these passions, about sex? IS: Many, like Henry Miller and also Chinese writers and other Asiatic writers and writers in African languages.

TT: Which, for you, are the most memorable writers about sex?

IS: Well, we still think that Boccaccio knew his profession quite well.

TT: Do you think the elements you write about between men and women are so basic—do you think that’s why your works are read all over the world?

IS: I have the illusion that I am read because people like what they are reading. Why they like and what they like, I don’t know.

TT: Or what they understand?

IS: I don’t write so that my writing is obscure, so that I need commentaries. I try to make it clear.

TT: Do you think that fiction should be moral; that writers have a moral responsibility?

IS: I don’t think that a writer should sit down and try to write a moral story or a novel. But if he is a moral man, and a man who thinks about ethics and culture—real culture—there will be some message and insight. But if a man sits down to write and says, “This novel is going to make people better and bring the glorious future they are hoping for,” he will never succeed.

TT: So you feel that your ethical training . . .

IS: Was not lost. Except for a real outcast, no writer features crime or something like this. There are such writers too. I am sorry to say, but I don’t belong to them.

TT: What does God think of all the passions?

IS: I know that after this interview, you are going to interview the Almighty so that He will tell you all about it. I don’t know what He thinks.

TT: Well, what do you think about Him?

IS: All I can say is that I can see very well His great and divine wisdom. I cannot see His mercy all the time, but He has to hide something. He’s not going to tell me all the secrets.

TT: When you create your stories, do you feel more in touch with your Creator?

IS: I think I feel in touch with Him every minute of my life. I feel that He is there, and His providence is there, and His computer is so great that it can take care of all the billions of people and all the planets that have people.

TT: But you believe in free will?

IS: Yes.

TT: So He doesn’t predetermine?

IS: According to Maimonides, both are true: determinism and free will.

TT: How so?

IS: Maybe you don’t understand how so—it looks like a contra­diction, but it’s only a contradiction to our way of thinking. Not to God’s way of thinking. In a way, it’s possible, even in this world. You can say that under such and such a circumstance a man is going to feel this way, and he really does. That doesn’t mean that he did not have free choice. He had free choice; only he decided not to use it.

TT: What about suicide? You once said, “For me. a person who does not think about suicide is almost not a person.”

IS: I think a person who does not think about suicide does not see the tragedy of humanity. So he is not a highly sensitive person. I think a highly sensitive person would, sooner or later, play with the idea that a man can put an end to it if he really wants to.

TT: Do you still think about suicide?

IS: Why not? We all do.

TT: You’ve been quoted as saying that you believe we’ve all been here more than once.

IS: I believe in it. but I have no evidence that it is so.

TT: No one has called you from the Beyond and said it’s so.

IS: No one has called me, but when I walk in the spring and I see the leaves and the roses, I recognize them from last year. They are the same. In a way, they have been here last year. The same is true about us. We have been here the last century or so. It’s not a ques­tion of evidence, only a question of feeling.

TT: Are you as curious today about the world as you were as a young man?

IS: Yes. I almost wanted to say more so, but if I am as curious as I was, I am very curious.

TT: Have you found any answers to your questions?

IS: No answers at all. We find parts of answers, answers in certain circumstances, some personal answers. But the great answer to why we were born, why we are here, why we have to die, why we have to witness, and why we suffer, can never be answered in a really satisfying way. I would say that man is going to ask these questions to the very end of his existence.

TT: Are there still some questions that you think you will find answers to?

IS: Small ones, I find all the time. I write a story, and I ask myself should I finish it so or differently, and I find an answer. But when it comes to the so-called “Eternal Questions,” I don’t think that any answer is waiting for us.

TT: But. do you still believe, as Gimpel does, that anything is possible?

IS: I wouldn’t say anything. If you would tell me that we could walk on the ceiling, I would have my doubts. But knowing what causality is and what human will and human freedom are and what the human passions are, many things have happened—many things which limited people think cannot happen. But these things can happen and do happen and have already happened.

TT: You’ve been writing since the 1930s and have only been published in English since the 1950s. There is a lot of material that continues to appear in English without any regard to its chronological order. How do you choose what to release?

IS: What I think is worth being translated, I translate. Where I think I did not succeed 100 percent. I would leave them [untranslated].

TT: Do you re-work them?

IS: If I find time, I do.

TT: So some of the old material is as good as the new material?

IS: I don’t think we have time to search and search and find them. I think there is a lot of my material which should be translated. There is a lot of material that I would like to re-work.

TT: Work that has been published in Yiddish?

IS: Yes, published in Yiddish. There are unpublished things also, but mostly things that have been published in The Jewish Daily Forward. TT: Stories or whole novels?

IS: Stories, even novels and novellas—all kinds of things. Essays— scores of essays that I wrote just because I had to deliver stuff every week to the editor.

TT: Do you feel that being a serial writer was good training?

IS: I think it was good for me. It was good in the Nineteenth cen­tury. Many writers wrote like this. It has its shortcomings too. One of the shortcomings is that the writer is bound to repeat himself. But this repetition does no damage if the writer later edits his stuff and takes out the repetition. It is a very wonderful discipline for a writer. It is a whip that drives you to write, and in writing he tries not to be obscure because what he writes today, 20,000 or 40,000 people will read tomorrow or next week. You know that you are really talking to people and not to yourself. You don’t try to be an obscure writer who needs commentators to explain his work all the time.

TT: What is lost in translation in your work?

IS: I would say a lot would be lost if I didn’t work on them, but I work on the translations. I have learned enough English to work on them, and I am a reader myself. If I see that something is not right and I don’t like it and would not publish it, I will rewrite it. I would say that I do a lot not to lose anything. Sometimes I even gain through the forces of translation because while I read it I get new ideas. I would say that people who read me in Yiddish and people who read me in English, if they know both languages, will see how many changes I’ve made in the process of translation.

TT: With your present knowledge of English, are there any works that were translated 20 years ago that you think deserve to be re­translated?

IS: No. I have no complaints about the translations because my nephew, the son of my brother, I. J. Singer, was quite a good trans­lator. I think I would find mostly faults in my writing, not in the translation.

TT: How did Saul Bellow come to translate “Gimpel”? Was that just a coincidence?

IS: He undertook to publish a kind of anthology of Yiddish stories, and his assistant, a Mr. Greenberg, knew that I wrote “Gimpel the Fool,” and he read it to him. Bellow knows Yiddish, but not too much. He knew enough for an American man. He liked it and he translated it. This was the only time that he translated a story.

TT: In many ways, it launched your career in English.

IS: In a way, yes. It was published in The Partisan Review. That was read by most of the writers, and I got some attention.

TT: Does wearing the cloak of being one of the last Yiddish writers carry a burden with it?

IS: If I wear that cloak I am not conscious of it. When I sit down to write, I don’t think about whether I am the last or the first or whether I will help Yiddish or do damage to Yiddish. I think about the story— is it going to be a good story or a bad story? So because of this, other things I leave to the critics. If they want me to be the last Yiddish writer—actually, no one knows. No man knows if he will be the last one. There will always be someone else.

TT: Do you see yourself primarily as a writer of short stories?

IS: No, I have written novels. Of course, I love the short story. The short story is a great challenge to a writer because you have to say, in a few pages, a lot of things. I think that the short story should really be short. I think that the short stories in The New Yorker are almost all longer than my stories. Mine are really short. But if you manage to really say a lot and to bring out character and personality in a story, or bring out suspense, you have achieved almost the impossible.

TT: And what about your career as a writer of film treatments and as a playwright?

IS: I would not say that I am a playwright, at this point, certainly not with film—I wrote one little treatment once. I think of myself seri­ously as a writer of novels and short stories. If I succeed in making a play, I consider it a miracle.

TT: Now Yentl is being made into a film.

IS: It is being made into a film. That’s true. What kind of a film, I don’t know.

TT: Have you seen any of it?

IS: I wrote a script, but they didn’t take it. Barbra Streisand wanted a musical with songs. There are no songs in my script. So they made a different script and there will be songs. It is not really my child.

TT: But more and more you’re writing children’s books?

IS: I have written ten or eleven books—small books. Each one contains a story or maybe two. but never 20 or something like that

TT: Does this come from being a grandfather?

IS: I think I began writing for children before I became a grand­father.

TT: But you like writing for children?

IS: I love it. They are a great audience. Children are really inde­pendent readers. You cannot hypnotize them with reviews or advertisements or by authorities. The child has to like it. If he doesn’t like it it’s rejected. So they are real independent readers.

TT: You’ve been called a curator of a lost world. Do you feel more able to write about this lost world because you did not witness its destruction?

IS: First of all, the lost world is the world of my childhood, of my younger days. This is the world between the time of my being born and the time of my leaving—I’d say I was about 30 years old when I left Poland. So a large part of my life, though not the largest part, I lived in Poland. We are bound to write about the things of our younger days and to remember them better than the things that hap­pened yesterday or the day before. Of course, I write also about people here in America, but mostly I write about people from Po­land—Yiddish-speaking Poles. Jews—I do this to be sure that I write about people that I know best. I know their language best and their way of thinking. I would almost never write about people born in this country. Once in a while I will bring in someone, but just for a while.

TT: What about assimilation and the loss of culture? Your work seems to emphasize being true to one’s ….

IS: I don’t believe in assimilation. I think assimilation is when a man, who is a member of a minority, tries to adjust himself to the culture of the majority. I think this is not right. You should stay what you are and stay with your roots and not adjust yourself to people because they are more in number or stronger and so on. For in­stance, I don’t mind if you know all about Shakespeare. But if you know all about Shakespeare, and you don’t want to know anything about the Jews or the Jewish writers, I would say that you are trying to adjust yourself to a strong majority. I consider that wrong from an ethical point of view, and from the point of view of human dignity.

TT: Why from the point of view of human dignity?

IS: Because it’s not dignified for a man to deny his home and to try to imitate and own what belongs to somebody else. In other words, if you have parents and a home and a language and you say, “My parents and home and language are nothing. But my neighbor—his parents are important. His home is important His language is important”—you have no dignity.

TT: You can’t imagine that the two together can become more than the individual?

IS: Yes, I can imagine it, and it is so. But it is not so when one party is completely weak or nonexistent. That really means that you have decided that you are nothing and the other one is great because he has more power, or more numbers, which is not as the thing should be.

TT: You studied to be a rabbi, and your works are full of scholarly religious references. Do you keep up with this? Do you still read the Talmud and the commentaries?

IS: If I open it, I read it. Sometimes I am curious and I read it, but I have no discipline where I have to study every day so much of the Talmud or so much of the Bible. Sometimes I take out the Bible and I will read it for two or three hours wondering, since I have read it scores of times, why do I read it? But I always find something new in it. This would be true about the Talmud or all of these old books.

TT: You’ve called vegetarianism the greatest achievement of your life.

IS: I don’t mean a financial achievement. I mean an achievement in the sense that I had the courage to do what I wanted to do for many, many years and I didn’t.

TT: When did you decide this?

IS: I would say I made my last decision about 20 years ago.

TT(teasingly): But when one writes a great deal, one is killing many trees.

IS: Well, I don’t worry about the trees. I have not yet heard any tree crying. Let the Almighty worry about the trees. We will worry about creatures of flesh and blood, like ourselves.

TT: When did you feel comfortable as a writer and a journalist?

IS: I never felt comfortable. I always felt like I haven’t done enough and haven’t polished enough. I should polish more and improve more. So going around feeling comfortable is not in my nature.

TT: And today?

IS: Today I don’t feel comfortable at all because I am thinking about my next story and what I should do about it. Who wants comfort?

TT: Is there any recognition that you haven’t… I mean, you’ve received practically every prize there is to get

IS: I would say that I’m getting recognition, but I did not really work for recognition. This was not my sole condition [for becoming a writer]: either recognition or nothing. I would have done the same thing if I had not gotten any recognition. I would still do my work. Of course, I was glad that some of it I got, but recognition and money are not everything.

TT: Although your father wrote commentaries, he didn’t believe in secular writing.

IS: No. He was very much against it. He considered secular writing, as a matter of fact, sinful writing. He had no respect for secular writing and always warned me not to go in this direction because my brother I. J. Singer did it. He believed that a Jew, especially his son, should have one thing in his life and that was religion.

TT: Was it difficult to make the choice to go against him?

IS: It wasn’t difficult for me because he was against it—I didn’t want to bring him grief or spite him. I loved him too much to enjoy opposing him. But I had no choice. I didn’t have his belief that every restriction and all the laws, which rabbis have handed down gener­ation after generation, were really given by Moses on Mt. Sinai. Without this belief, I couldn’t have become a rabbi. I couldn’t have become a man who studied the Talmud all the time and does nothing else. It was a conflict between my beliefs and my love for him and my mother, which never diminished for a moment because I knew they wanted the best for me. But what they considered the best, I did not consider the best. Their intention was certainly very good.

TT: Did they ever read anything you wrote?

IS: Very little of it. My father, almost nothing. They read once in a while and what they read, they criticized. They never went around boasting about their son the writer.

TT: Do you think they would have been shocked by some of the material you now write about?

IS: I’m sure that if my father were alive now, he would still not read anything of my writing. He would say 1 had made the mistake of my life. My mother would be a little more tolerant, but not too much so.

TT: Is there a point at which you limit yourself, at which you censor yourself?

IS: Yes, I would say that if I hadn’t censored myself, my stories would have been even more sexy. I would have written more about sex than 1 do today. But I don’t believe in four-letter words—this I really dislike. I think it adds nothing to literature—it diminishes literature. I would have been more outspoken, but I think literature can do very well without it because my readers know as well about sex as I do; they know what it is all about I don’t have to explain it to them.

TT: What’s the difference between erotic literature and pornography?

IS: Pornography to me is a man who sits down to write just to excite people and has no other goal. It’s very boring. I tried to write, once in a while, a pornographic book. It’s boring, it’s repetitious, it adds nothing to literature. If you read Boccaccio you can enjoy both the story and what he writes about

TT: I’m sure you’re asked the same questions over and over.

IS: I don’t mind.

TT: Is there any question that you would ask of I. B. Singer that hasn’t been asked?

IS: No. I would leave him in peace.


Originally published in Interview Magazine, August 1983.

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