You could think of it as a literary scandal. You could also think about it as a tragicomic Cynthia Ozick story. I know it’s the result of disagreement among smart people of good will and good intentions. But the end result is that the world has been denied three books and more than a dozen short stories by one of America’s, one of the world’s, one of New York’s great writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Ironically, it takes place at a time when Singer, the late Nobel Laureate who wrote exclusively in Yiddish, is about to be canonized as an American writer by the Library of America with the forthcoming publication of a three-volume edition of Singer’s short stories, each volume of which will run over 1,000 pages, according to Ilan Stavans, who is editing the Library of America edition.
Meanwhile, there are two Singer novels and a book-length memoir, initially serialized in the Yiddish-language New York newspaper Forverts, that we may not get to read in translation. Three books that have, in effect, been held incommunicado-or at least kept untranslated and unpublished-in Austin, Texas, in the archives of the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the institution that acquired most of Singer’s papers.
It’s a complicated situation, and I have conflicting feelings on the question. Do we know whether Singer himself would have wanted these works published, and should our conjecture about a dead author’s wishes prevent publication? But despite my awareness of the seriousness of the conflicting positions, call me selfish, but I really want to read them. Even more so now that I’ve come upon, in a relatively obscure volume of essays by Yiddish scholars ( The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer , edited by Seth L. Wolitz), a single chapter from one of the unpublished novels, Yarme and Keyle . A remarkable, tantalizing chapter translated by Joseph Sherman, the translator of Singer’s last published novel, the stunning Shadows on the Hudson .
Judging from that chapter, the novel is a lurid tale set in the world of Jewish gangsters in pre–World War I Warsaw-pimps, prostitutes and white slave traders. And having had a taste of it, I want more, I want the rest, I want someone to rescue this book from Ransom, so to speak, and bring it out in English. The other two, as well.
I know the situation is complex, and probably not reducible to a slogan like Free the Singer 3! They’re not being held for ransom by the Ransom Center; they’re not being activel y suppressed. But their existence has been known about for several years, and so far no plans by any commercial or academic press to publish them have materialized. Up until now, they have, in effect, been caught up in the struggle over Singer’s literary identity, the nature of his dual personae and his attempt to define himself, his work and legacy.
Was he a Yiddish writer or an American writer? Must he be one to the exclusion of the other? Was he a writer who didn’t want his works-all first written in Yiddish-to appear in English unless he reworked them with the translators? And if so, should this include even the ones left untranslated after his death?
Was he a writer who believed some of his Yiddish works would be too shocking and lurid for his American audience (and might threaten his post–Nobel Prize persona as kindly avuncular folklorist)? Or was he a writer whose Yiddish works have such an aesthetic primacy and distinctiveness that they shouldn’t be read in English-to translate them is somehow a betrayal, an appropriation, of his Yiddish identity and another blow to the magnificent but moribund Yiddish literary tradition, as some Yiddish scholars suggest. These questions date back to the 1950’s, when Saul Bellow first brought Singer to the attention of an enthralled English-speaking audience with his translation of Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” a parable of the lost Polish Jewish shtetl world.
I first heard about the unpublished Singer works about three years ago from Greg Curtis, the former editor of Texas Monthly who’d met Singer’s translator, Joseph Sherman, in Austin, where Sherman had been doing research in the vast, uncharted ocean of Singer’s papers in the Ransom Center. That was when I first heard about the contentious division over the late author’s intentions for the untranslated Yiddish-newspaper serializations of his novels and the unpublished Yiddish memoirs, short stories and literary essays: Were the English translations Singer worked on denatured, ersatz, less “authentic” Singer, as some Yiddish scholars contend? Or, as Singer himself liked to say, were the English translations his “second originals”-representing his second thoughts, improvements, what you might call his “final intentions” for his works? After all, he insisted that the basis for all foreign translations of his works should be the English revisions, not the Yiddish originals.
It recalled to me the debate about Shakespeare’s purported “original intentions,” alleged to be found in some of the earlier published so-called “Good Quartos”-and whether the putative “revisions” in the posthumously published Folio edition of his plays represented his “final intentions.” Which versions are more “authentic”? (See my May 13, 2002, New Yorker piece on that contentious debate.)
Since one of the issues in the controversy is the luridness of the content, the wild sexuality evident in Yarme and Keyle , it recalls as well the unresolved debate over whether Shakespeare ever “authorized” publication of his sonnets. There are some scholars who argue that they were printed without his permission, that he never would have authorized publication because of the transgressive nature of the homoerotic love relationships in the poems. Assuming just for the sake of argument that this were true, if we learned, in fact, that Shakespeare had not wanted them published, would we want to banish them from memory, unpublish them in our minds, take them out of circulation? If a copy had only turned up after it had been established that they were “unauthorized,” should publication have been suppressed? How much deference is due the dead in such cases? Barring a decisive séance (of the sort with which Singer peppered his stories), can we be sure of Singer’s intentions?
When I spoke by phone with Seth L. Wolitz, editor of The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer , a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Texas, and a specialist in the unpublished Singer, he spoke of evidence that Singer had changed his mind about allowing an English-speaking audience to read the frank, erotic prose of Yarme and Keyle . (Just to put it in perspective, on the evidence of that single translated chapter, it’s not as explicit as, say, the unpublished Edith Wharton pornographic fragment that Yale’s R.W.B. Lewis discovered and published as an appendix to his Wharton biography. But it is , in some ways, more emotionally obscene).
The evidence that Singer changed his mind, Mr. Wolitz told me, is that a partial English translation had been found attached to clipped chapters of the original Forverts Yiddish version. The gaps and blank lines in the English version indicate it may have been in the process of being prepared for Singer’s revisions and alterations for publication purposes. There is speculation that Singer changed his mind about publishing Yarme and Keyle in English after the 1978 Nobel Prize made him into an icon of sentimental shtetl culture. (There’s a lot of resentment and envy of Singer among Yiddish writers and Yiddish scholars, who see him as one of the fortunate few-and not necessarily the worthiest-who escaped the living death of most untranslated Yiddish literature, the death of perishing unread in a dying language. That in doing so he re-made, polished, his image in English. It all stems from the bitter sadness that the death of Yiddish civilization and literature at Hitler’s hands has bred. Which is why Cynthia Ozick’s sad, brilliant story “Envy; or Yiddish in America”-said to be based on Singer and his less fortunate, untranslated Yiddish rivals-is so relevant.) Which Singer do we listen to? The one who seemed to want to see Yarme and Keyle translated, or the one who seemed to change his mind?
The fact of three unpublished Singer books kept beyond the reach of his non-Yiddish speaking readers has put Singer’s longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in a delicate position. F.S.G. editor in chief Jonathan Galassi told me that they have sought to bring out English editions that reflect the kinds of changes Singer traditionally made during the translation of his books-stylistic changes, editorial revisions and the like.
And with Singer no longer around, Mr. Galassi said, they can’t be sure they’re following his wishes in publishing translations of the unrevised Yiddish manuscripts. I got the impression that the fairly shocking sexuality of the material, at least in Yarme and Keyle , may have been a factor. The erudite Mr. Galassi, a distinguished translator himself, used the French word pudeur (modesty) to hint that there was a bit of an embarrassment factor involved in its explicitness.
F.S.G. did publish Shadows on the Hudson , a post-Holocaust novel of theodicy which, to me, is more profoundly shocking in the defiant, heretical challenges its characters hurl at a God who let Hitler have his way. Shadows was translated by Joseph Sherman without Singer’s assistance and, Professor Wolitz told me, many scholars of the purist Yiddishist faction argue that Sherman’s translation of Shadows on the Hudson is closer to Singer’s voice and spirit in his Yiddish originals than any other translated work aside from Satan in Goray . But did Singer want his works in English to be that close? If he, for whatever reason, wanted to give himself a different artistic persona in English-make himself a “second original”-shouldn’t he have that right, some have asked.
The ambiguity of the question is there in that phrase for his English translations: “second originals.” While I believe Shadows , in Sherman’s translation, may be one of Singer’s greatest works in English, F.S.G. received criticism in some quarters for translating it and publishing it at all. While The New York Times ‘ daily book critic Richard Bernstein said that Shadows had “a strong claim to being Singer’s masterpiece,” in The New York Times Book Review , Lee Siegel suggested that the translation, “in what appears to be its unadulterated serial form, of this shapeless lump does a keen disservice to the author …” In any case, as things stand, F.S.G. has no plans to bring out the three Singer books languishing in the Ransom Center, although Ilan Stavans told me that some of the unpublished short stories may appear in the Library of America edition.
My proposed solution is that, if F.S.G., for understandable reasons, is being cautious, an academic press (or perhaps the Forward itself) should arrange for Joseph Sherman to complete his translation of Yarme and Keyle , which would at least allow those of us who don’t read Yiddish some access-even at one remove-to an aspect of Singer’s imagination that shouldn’t be, in effect, suppressed by inaction and scholarly wrangling. Contextualize the works properly, sure; call them “translated originals” rather than “second originals.” But let a larger circle of readers decide what to think of them than has so far been given the privilege of a glimpse. Who knows what parts of Singer’s work will be valued most in the future-but without publication in English, Yarme and Keyle may never have a chance to be valued at all by the wider world. While many feel that Titus Andronicus is too lurid and violent to rank with the best Shakespeare, would we prefer not to have it at all?
I found myself drawn into this maze when I was preparing to appear on a panel on Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson as part of a symposium on Singer’s works organized by the distinguished Yiddish scholar David Roskies (to be held on March 9, from 1 to 5 p.m., at the Synagogue Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side; http://www.anschechesed.org). My fellow panelists include two very smart writer-critics, Morris Dickstein (author of Leopards in the Temple ) and Jonathan Rosen (author of The Talmud and the Internet ), and while I wrote a three-part series in The Observer on Shadows (reprinted in The Secret Parts of Fortune ), I felt the need to study up on Singer. And it was thus, as part of my nerdy preparation, that I came upon that chapter, the one that had escaped from Ransom, so to speak, the chapter of the gangster novel Yarme and Keyle in that volume of essays by Yiddish scholars edited by Seth L. Wolitz. A provocative, perhaps even dangerous chapter.
I say “dangerous” because Jewish involvement in the white slave trade (transporting Eastern European women, both Jewish and gentile, to foreign brothels, often in South America) was a feature of anti-Semitic propaganda in the pre-Hitler era. And while it was a subject of other Yiddish writers, even part of a whole prewar Yiddish gangster-novel tradition, Singer wrote this one in the mid-50’s, so it was a conscious decision-a post-Holocaust decision-to give us these unsavory, unromanticized Jewish gangsters. But might it have been something he didn’t want to share with non-Jewish readers (or, anyway, non-Yiddish readers)?
So reading the chapter-even after reading both Professor Wolitz’s and Joseph Sherman’s thoughtful contextualizing introductions-still felt, well, transgressive.
Anyway, the chapter is an immersion in a private hell that gives us a Singer who is not the avuncular Yiddish folklorist who wrote tales of 17th-century Poland, but rather a novelist of raw and degrading 20th-century sexuality, the Singer who is a darker, more complex (at least as erotic, if less explicitly obscene) Henry Miller.
You get the flavor of it from the way Mr. Sherman introduces the main characters:
“At thirty-two, Yarme is … an experienced smuggler and pimp. He is married to Keyle, nicknamed ‘Red Keyle’ because of her fiery red hair, who at twenty-nine has gone through service in three brothels and is an eagerly sought prostitute …. they have an ‘open’ marriage which leaves each of them free to have sexual relationships with others on the sole condition that they keep no secret from each other.”
Needless to say a recipe for jealousy, violence and disaster.
“The violence and immorality of the world they inhabit,” Mr. Sherman goes on, “is dramatically illustrated in the opening moments of the novel: Keyle paying a sick-bed visit to a fellow criminal, Blind Itche … is dragged into his bed and raped by Blind Itche, who years before had been the first to take her virginity …. The night after visiting Blind Itche, Yarme and Keyle go to the Yiddish theater, where Yarme encounters Stumping Max, a forger and thief … now chiefly engaged in the white slave trade.” Stumping Max wants to set up Yarme and Keyle in the South American sex trade.
Despite this sensational material, Mr. Sherman argues, Singer wasn’t merely seeking sensation. The Yiddish gangster-novel genre had a higher purpose: A whole set of Yiddish writers before and after World War I set out to rectify “what they regarded as falsification by their more ‘respectable’ counterparts whom they believed guilty of hypocrisy … to indict through their fiction what they despised as bourgeois gentility … to present the Jewish world of Eastern Europe as ‘normal.’ Displaying shtetl Jews in the grip of the same proclivity for criminality, erotic sexuality and violence as their non-Jewish compatriots.”
But, as Mr. Sherman also notes, the Holocaust vaporized the “normality” of that culture-and after the Nobel Prize, the demystifying intention of such a novel may, in Singer’s case, have led him to believe that it might have compromised what Sherman calls the post-Holocaust “project of his whole writing career-to memorialize the dead world of Polish Jewry.” And compromise as well his own persona, “the wise and lost representative of an annihilated world. For most of his readers in English, Singer’s presentation of that world was a tribute to its piety and sanctity.” This novel is not.
Yes, other Singer novels are filled with evil and sin; as Harvard’s Ruth R. Wisse points out in her introduction to Satan in Goray , “Singer had devised [his] vocabulary for evil a decade before the Jews of Europe were destroyed.” Still, in Singer’s novels set in the shtetl past, evil tends to take the form of imps, dybbuks, evil spirits and folkloric devils who preyed upon the pious, exacerbating the Evil Inclination. But in novels like Shadows and, it appears, Yarme and Keyle , the evil practices come from within , from a degraded human nature-a degraded human nature that could be misconstrued as a degraded Jewish nature. In certain respects, it’s similar to the Shylock problem.
So one can understand the reservations, the pudeur , that surrounds this aspect of Singer’s work. But I think, on balance, the more we know about this remarkable genius, the better-even if it means that what we know is contradictory and conflicting and transgressive and embarrassing to some.
Not knowing Yiddish, I’m not qualified to discuss the novel’s aesthetic quality in the original. But if the issue is anti-Semitism, there is a case to be made that the struggle against it is better based on envisioning Jews as “normal” rather than as specially virtuous. Normal with flaws and gangsters, just like other ethnic groups.
In any case, the other two unpublished books don’t seem to represent the same kind of problem. Not that they necessarily “uplift the race,” so to speak. There is one called The Sinful Messiah , about the followers of Jacob Frank, an 18th-century “false messiah” similar in some ways to the more famous 17th-century false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, the one Singer wrote about in Satan in Goray . Similar certainly in Jacob Frank’s betrayal of his Jewish followers by leading them into the Catholic Church (Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam). The fact that Singer returned to this theme of hysterical belief and betrayal, to the false messiah as a “Jewish response to catastrophe” (the subject of an important study by Professor Roskies called Against the Apocalypse ), doesn’t necessarily mean he’s repeating himself. According to Professor Wisse, “this time Bashevis highlighted the kind of dramatic and erotic adventures [the orgiastic behavior of Frank and his followers] that he had curbed in Satan in Goray .” Which is the “real” Bashevis-the one who “curbed” himself, or the one who didn’t?
The last of the Ransom Three is said to be an autobiographical work dating from the early 1980’s. Pretty tempting.
But let me give you the flavor of what is probably the most problematic of the three, Yarme and Keyle . The second chapter opens after that wild night with Stumping Max, with whom Keyle is far too familiar for Yarme’s taste. It’s a morning that begins with mutual remorse. (The chapter has the flavor of a dark, erotic, mirror-image Romeo and Juliet -Romeo and Juliet in Hell, or at least in the “Nighttown” whorehouse episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses .) Anyway, here’s one passage:
” … After Keyle had sobered up, she’d wept bitterly, kissed [Yarme's] feet and sworn by her dead mother’s memory that if he didn’t forgive her, she’d go straight to the Kalisz railroad line and throw herself down on the tracks.”
A little derivative, that bit, but then we get to a signature Singer touch, the fusion of sex and the occult: “When Yarme finally took her back to bed, she proved to him that he wasn’t yet familiar with all the cunning tricks she knew for arousing and satisfying a man. Yarme demanded to know who had taught her all these skills, and among the names of pimps and thieves, Keyle mentioned a clairvoyant who owned a black mirror that paraded images of lost husbands and former lovers as well as of the dead who yearned to couple with those who lusted for them.”
That’s an image that Yarme-and I-will not forget for a long time. A typical Singerian twist on the nostalgic, warm and fuzzy view of the dead perpetuated by many religious and afterlife occultists.
The dead have not lost their appetite, Singer suggests. They don’t want to tell us reassuring things about the afterlife. They want to fuck us.
The idea of the dead lusting for their lost love partners gives a new twist in a black mirror to the notion of both the afterlife and this life. It’s Singer holding up a black mirror to afterlife nostalgia-and perhaps, in a sense, nostalgia for another kind of dead: the dead and dying words of the Yiddish language itself. Death is sometimes referred to as a “translation” to another realm. For the embittered and envious Yiddish writers in Cynthia Ozick’s story, translation (into English) is life: the difference between life and death, between life with an afterlife and life without one, for their work. For Singer, translation represented the divide between his two personae, his first and second “originals.”
I’m conflicted. I don’t know what side of the divide I should be on, in this contention. But I know I want to read more of Yarme and Keyle .
Please, someone (some university, the Forward , whoever): Give Joseph Sherman the wherewithal to release Yarme and Keyle from captivity in Texas. Bring them back to their great-grandchildren. Bring them back to New York, to the Upper West Side, where Singer conjured them up. Bring them home.