Singer’s Shadows, Part III: It’s His Book of Job!

In the last installment of my serialized response to Shadows on the Hudson , Isaac Bashevis Singer’s long-lost and initially serialized novel, I promised to unveil what I felt was a primal Singerian vision revealing itself in Shadows . It’s a promise I’m going to make good on, a vision whose intimations are born out in the final third of the novel although-it could be argued-that the end, the very end of the book, collapses or contradicts that vision. I’ll deal with that objection by way of a comparison to Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata , but first let me attempt to unscroll the signature Singerian trope I’d referred to as “blazing simultaneity.” Beginning with what seems to be, at first, a throwaway passage about a derelict.

It’s a passage in which Hertz Grein, the novel’s antihero, the former prodigy turned prodigal adulterer, simultaneously torn by lust and self-laceration, wanders out of a synagogue where he’s made a first hesitant step toward penance for his sins. Emerging from the dim interior into the painfully blazing sun of a Central Park morning, he comes upon a sleeping derelict:

“On the sidewalk, next to a trash can, lay a drunk, his face battered, unshaven, inflamed as though with plague, babbling and slavering while his eyes cried out with the pain of those who have lost all control over themselves. This derelict seemed somehow ignited from the alcohol, as if he might burst into flames at any moment like a paper lantern.”

We never meet this derelict again, but in some essential way, he may be the single most emblematic character in the novel. That derelict: He is Grein, seeing himself. He is us seeing ourselves. He is, one senses, Singer’s tormented vision of himself and-in another, deeper sense-of the nature of his own fiction.

The paper of the paper lantern metaphor is the hint: What are Singer’s fictions if not word-intoxicated inscriptions on the paper lanterns of his pages, inscriptions that ignite and blaze up in our brains? What are Singer’s characters but paper lanterns always on the verge of igniting and consuming themselves in the intoxicating fire of their conflicting passions, in the fires of God-intoxicated heresy, of unholy longing and holy remorse simultaneously.

Simultaneity, it seems to me, is the key, the vision of blazing simultaneity at the heart of the heart of human nature in Shadows in Singer’s cosmos. As I raced through this amazing novel, reading and writing about it simultaneously, I found myself struck by the recurrence of the word “simultaneous” or “simultaneously” and explicit images of simultaneity.

Let me begin with the explicit uses of the word. In a dream, Hertz Grein is in a room with a corpse. “Someone was searching for the corpse, but the person was not dead. He was sitting in a chair in the gloomy daylight, yellow, terrified, his melancholy eyes glazed in unearthly stupor, and Grein was giving him a loaf of bread with an egg. He was simultaneously both the deceased and the mourner. But how was that possible?”

How possible? One way, one might suggest, is that the dying corpse in his dream is Grein’s own dying soul, the soul he’s mourning for. The dream is not surprising in the light of a previous passage, in which he leaves his wife to run off with another woman. Here, Singer tells us, “Grein did things and was astonished at what he did, almost as if he were a being divided into two, with one half watching the other.”

Grein is not the only one in the novel who expresses or apprehends simultaneity. The word blazes forth on the paper lantern of Singer’s prose in frequent, occasionally unexpected, manifestations. The painter in the novel, Anfang, is “simultaneously smiling and sorrowful.” In a cafeteria, Grein finds “a short fat man was simultaneously eating and doing a crossword puzzle,” the sensual and the intellectual facilities simultaneously, unconnectedly engaged.

The moral universe that surrounds him is a blazing profusion of simultaneity, but Grein’s trouble is his resistance to it. He knows, he says, there’s “a Cabalistic teaching that the Evil Spirit bears witness to the existence of God. If a left or dark side exists, then a right or light side must exist also.” But Grein, Singer somewhat intrusively reminds us, wants the uncomplicated, nonsimultaneous accommodation to the contraries of life: “What Grein sought did not and could not exist: he wanted the fear of heaven without dogma; religion without revelation; discipline without proscriptions; Torah, prayer and isolation built on a pure unadulterated religious experience.”

But he lives in a realm, this world-an underworld, really-in which nonadulteration is a delusion, and adultery is a metaphor for the moral chiaroscuro of simultaneous good and evil inclinations within us. Not that all simultaneity is exalted for its own sake in Shadows . There is a mismatched meshugah simultaneity that is a kind of Bizarro version of God’s creation. I somehow doubt Singer would have been a reader of the Superman comics’ Bizarro episodes (my personal favorites as a kid), the ones that featured a parallel Bizarro-world where everything was drawn badly and shakily, everything and everyone, even the Man of Steel himself, Bizarro-Superman was off-kilter, off-center, just off . But there’s a similar feel of Bizarro simultaneity in Singer’s vision of what I called last week the “palm-fringed purgatory of Miami Beach”:

“Everything was jumbled together: day and night, summer and winter, dishabille and elegance … The air smelled of oranges and gasoline.”

What is going on with these visions of simultaneity, both in the world around us and the realm within us? And how does this vision of simultaneity relate to the blazing ignition of the paper lantern image? I knew you’d ask me that, and I know some might think it a stretch, but I think it hearkens back to the primal image of blazing simultaneity in the Bible: the burning bush. A living entity simultaneously burning up and remaining unconsumed as it serves as the medium for the voice of the Creator. Blazing into flame but remaining eternally the same. It’s the friction of simultaneous contrarieties that ignites the blaze within us; it’s the friction of simultaneous contrarieties that sets the fiction-the inscriptions on the paper lantern of Singer’s prose-on fire.

Or so it seems until the very end of Shadows on the Hudson , when it appears as if Singer collapses the contrarieties, crushes the simultaneities within Hertz Grein and turns him into someone who extinguishes the flame within himself for the sake of his soul. It’s an ending-an epilogue, really-that is likely to mislead and displease many because it seems so uncompromising, such a lurch toward ultraorthodox piety, a lurch not so much from sincere conviction but from weakness, because the alternative-living any longer with the searing blaze of conflicting simultaneity-has become simply unbearable.

I’m not sure the epilogue should be taken as Singer’s own final vision. Here’s where The Kreutzer Sonata comes in. You know The Kreutzer Sonata , right? Consider yourself lucky if you don’t. It is, in many ways, one of the most repugnant texts you’ll ever encounter. It radiates a poisonous distillation of Tolstoy’s final bitterness against the world of flesh and sensuality, women and sexuality. At least that’s one way of looking at it; it may indeed be Tolstoy’s way of looking at it, alas. Most interpreters read it almost purely as a screed, knowing how closely the views of the main character-a confessed wife-murderer who buttonholes a fellow passenger on a long train journey in order to discourse endlessly about the evils of contemporary sexual mores-reflect Tolstoy’s own views at the time.

The train traveler is obsessed in particular with what he regards as the depraved and degrading practice of continuing sexual relations between husband and wife after childbirth. But he goes beyond that to come close to arguing that all sexual relations, even for procreation, are deplorable, and that the human race would be better off chastising itself into nonexistence through total chastity. Tolstoy actually seemed to believe in some of these nutty ideas in his later years. He seemed to endorse an utterly non-ironic reading of their expression in The Kreutzer Sonata in a “postface” (as opposed to “preface”) or afterword that he added to The Kreutzer Sonata after receiving many letters asking him whether he really believed in what the man on the train was expounding.

But I believe The Kreutzer Sonata is better read as fiction than propaganda, that Tolstoy was too much the artist to produce just a tract, that the artist in Tolstoy subverted the propagandist, even if part of him believed the propaganda. I believe one can (in fact one can’t help ) but read The Kreutzer Sonata as a story that subverts itself: It’s a tale told by a madman so maddened by his own self-loathing and despair at his inability to control his own impulses that he must try to generalize his own pathological state into a disease of all humankind and impose an iron law of chastity on the rest of mankind to make him feel better about his own lack of self-control. He is, in some ways, like the paper-lantern derelict Hertz Grein comes across in Singer’s novel, “babbling and slavering with the pain of those who have lost all control over themselves.”

And I believe it is in this light we can read Singer’s shocking Kreutzer Sonata -like “postface” epilogue to Shadows on the Hudson : the letter from Hertz Grein to his childhood friend and Holocaust survivor Morris Gombiner. Grein writes the letter from Me’ah Shearim, the ultraorthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. He’s fled there after his uncontrollable adulterous erotic appetites have left a trail of devastation behind him in America. Ruined the lives of men and women he was close to, ruined his own life.

Now he’s cut himself off from everyone he knew in America, cut himself off from his own children, and he’s writing a long letter denouncing the secularized lives they all led in America, denouncing himself as well, but also praising himself for the new choice he’s made: to become one of the ultraorthodox in Me’ah Shearim.

There’s lots of language about bridling himself with the leather straps of the phylacteries he wears for morning prayers, about the need for the external restraints, metaphorical bridles, of Orthodox garb to curb that which cannot be controlled from within-as a signal to the world that he has rejected the way of all flesh to harness himself to his vision of God’s demands. “As long as the other nations” do not harness themselves thus, he writes, “they will remain unbridled beasts and will go on producing Hitlers and other monstrosities. That is now as clear as day to me.”

Clear as day? To Grein, yes, but to Singer? Is this his final resolution of what seemed to be his most dark and questioning novel? Just as we shouldn’t read Singer’s endorsement into the most bitter challenges to God in the novel-the ones that certain of his Holocaust survivors raise, the ones that go beyond blaming God for Hitler to speaking of God as Hitler-we also shouldn’t automatically assume that Singer is endorsing the argument Grein makes in the epilogue.

Even though it’s Grein’s vision that concludes the novel, I’d argue that Shadows on the Hudson is an argument about these issues that Singer has not resolved in his own heart. That he entertains conflicting visions of the question within himself simultaneously. That it’s a novel about his own blazing simultaneity. Grein’s answer is not necessarily the answer, but the answer of someone like that derelict who’s abandoned hope of ending the pain of controlling himself, someone like the wife-murderer in The Kreutzer Sonata . Curiously, more than curiously, I think, Grein actually invokes Tolstoy, the Tolstoy of the Kreutzer Sonata period, in his letter. In speaking of the way Orthodox Jewish garb signals a renunciation of the hell on earth he believes this world and its temptations to be, Grein tells his friend, “That’s why Tolstoy finally put on a peasant blouse. That piece of clothing was his attempt to separate himself from the corrupt world … I’m certain that if Tolstoy had lived longer, he would have turned to Judaism-that is, to the prayer shawl and phylacteries, fringed ritual undergarments …”

Tolstoy turning Orthodox Jew? The evidence of his attitude toward Jews recently adduced by Lev Navrozov suggests otherwise, but the comic extremity of the remark may be Singer’s sly way of subverting Grein’s grim rant by pushing it just a bit too far to be taken completely seriously, or at least taken as completely Singer’s.

Certainly, the evidence of Singer’s own life and practices do not bear out an uncritical adoption of Grein’s ultraorthodoxy. On the contrary, to the end he maintained the vision of contradictory simultaneity that is, I believe, the true heart of Shadows on the Hudson . He maintains it in one of the last interviews he gave before he died, a fascinating conversation Singer had with writer Norman Green in December 1987, an interview that has yet to be published in English.

It took place on a wintry Friday afternoon as shadows fell on the Hudson, two blocks away from Singer’s Upper West Side apartment. Singer was talking about his own continuing uncertainty about the nature of God, the nature of human nature and the relations between the two. It’s “all guesswork,” Singer said. “Human nature and nature … do not reveal to us any clear way or idea what we should do … We are made to guess things.” But “much of our morality is built on” going against the impulses of nature God has apparently given us, he added.

The struggle for control of those impulses is a painful one, Singer said. “So in a way, we cannot just all the time give compliments to the Almighty and praise Him … We have a feeling of protest. Why has He made this whole ordeal for us to suffer? So I think that one can admire God, admire His wisdom, and at the same time [simultaneously!] protest His so-called neutrality … The great religious leaders were also protesters in their own way. The Book of Job is a book of protest. And so are many great books …”

And so is Shadows on the Hudson , Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Book of Job.