I.B. Singer's 'Shadows': Haunted by God

January 18, 1998|By J. Bottum | J. Bottum,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Shadows on the Hudson," by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Translated by Joseph Sherman. 548 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.

This is not a novel that belongs in 1998. But then, "Shadows on the Hudson" didn't even belong in 1957, when it appeared as a serial in a Yiddish newspaper in New York.

Part sprawling morality tale straight out of Dickens, part picaresque in search of God akin to Dostoyevsky, and part potboiler of social manners, a la Victor Hugo, Isaac Bashevis Singer's big, baggy monster is set in the Manhattan of the 1950s in which it was written. But - with its huge cast and its measureless confidence about what fiction can tackle - the novel feels as though it were a manuscript from the 1850s. We just don't do it like that anymore.

Of course, the Nobel Prize-winning author was always something of a man out of his time. Born in 1904, Singer grew up in the strangely eclectic world of Polish Jewry before World War II: almost medieval shtetls in rural villages matched with thriving modern ghettos in the cities.

Originally a journalist for the Yiddish press in Poland, he was drawn increasingly to fiction in his 20s. When his marriage failed in 1935, he followed his brother to the United States -escaping almost without intention the Nazi slaughter that would obliterate Eastern European Judaism and haunt his fiction: even his happiest tales of pre-war Jewish life rendered poignant by knowledge of the looming Holocaust.

Success came in 1950 with the simultaneous publication in English and Yiddish of "The Family Moskat." Before his death in 1991, he would produce numerous plays and children's books, nine volumes of short stories, and 12 more novels, including "Yentl," "The Magician of Lublin," "The Golem" and "Enemies, A Love Story."

Now published for the first time in book form, "Shadows on the Hudson" is the fourth and certainly the best of Singer's posthumous volumes. Set among successful Jewish emigres, the novel opens with most of the characters gathered at a party - heatedly arguing about most of the book's themes: God, morality, money, sex and death.

Singer's central story involves a comically doomed adultery between a former mathematics prodigy, Hertz Dovid Grein, and a woman named Anna. As the many characters' lives diverge and intersect, Anna remains the link, elaborately connected with all of a rich array of other characters.

Or perhaps God is the real link among the characters, as He is in all Singer's work. While Grein juggles his wife, Anna and yet another mistress, the thought of God keeps making him stumble xTC - just as it makes Boris mistrust his wealth, Luria mistrust himself and Kotick mistrust everyone. Ironic or sincere, comic or dour, all the characters in "Shadows on the Hudson" are God-haunted and the world they inhabit makes sense only when defined by the presence or absence of God.

And that, of course, is what makes Singer's novel seem so out of its time. But then, that's also what makes it seem so good.

J. Bottum is a former philosophy professor at Loyola College and Coppin State College in Baltimore. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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