Shadows on the Hudson II: Grime and Punishment

The story so far:

You’ll recall that last week I began an experiment: serializing in installments an essay on a novel as I was reading it. A novel-Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson -that was itself written in installments, meant to be, I felt, responded to in installments. One that was almost too wildly intense to be assimilated all at once. A novel that had, as well, raised questions-a literary mystery-about its sudden reappearance. Serialized in The Forward in 1957 and 1958 in Yiddish, why had it never been translated before? An accident of fate, or a deliberate decision by Singer not to unleash it on his non-Yiddish-speaking audience, perhaps because it was too dark, too shattering for a mainstream audience to handle? Because-it has been suggested-he feared it might shatter the image he’d cultivated of the gentle haimish Nobel laureate who sipped borscht in Upper West Side cafeterias and told magical but unthreatening tales of the Old Country?

Was there something about Shadows on the Hudson that was, in some ways, too threatening to Singer, to us? I think the perception of Singer as some gentle Yiddish grandfather was never true of stories from the “A Friend of Kafka” period. And while he had not shied away from Holocaust themes in previously translated work such as Enemies: A Love Story , what I suggested in last week’s installment was that in Shadows , Singer was capturing a moment (1947) when the shock of the Holocaust was still unbearably new, when the questions survivors were asking of themselves-and in particular the questions they were asking of God-were as painful as probes into exposed nerves. When Hitler and the questions he raised about God and human nature haunted and harrowed every conversation. Almost as if he were still alive.

Singer did not pose these questions in an abstract way, but dramatized them through the tangled, tormented lives of a group of brilliant survivors we meet first at a tumultuous Upper West Side dinner party. He focuses on an adulterous triangle that develops amid the Hitler-riddled talk, and on the sensitivity of one character in particular, the adulterer Hertz Grein, a former prodigy of mathematics and sacred studies who squandered his intellectual gifts in favor of his sexual ones. As we first meet him, he is contemplating a particularly shameless seduction, stealing a man’s wife right under his nose (while cheating on his own wife and mistress). He contemplates it, rationalizes it and excuses it in terms of the new moral geometry of the post-Hitler cosmos: If God had abandoned the world-as it seemed he’d done in the time of the death camps (wherein, it must be said, Grein lost his entire family)-do any proscriptions, restrictions or commandments (like the one against adultery) have any meaning anymore?

Now, at this point I think I should confess to a truly revealing Freudian slip I made in last week’s column. A slip I made in speaking of the adulterer Grein, who may or may not be using Hitler as a meretricious rationale for shameless conduct he’d pursue, anyway-God or no God, Hitler or no Hitler. Theodicy as an excuse for adultery.

In any case, in the draft I faxed into the Observer , I called him Hertz Greim , not Hertz Grein and that’s the way it appeared in print. Talk about your transparent slips! Think Greim as in grime . Think Hertz as hurts , which may have been Singer’s own semi-transparent piece of Yiddish-English wordplay. Hurts Grime. Grime Hurts. Grime, in fact, is exactly what’s (marginally, possibly) redeeming about this character-so far, now that I’m two-thirds of the way through the novel. Greim hurts.

He hurts, does Hertz. Even as he accumulates grime from his sordid conduct, even as the husband whose wife he steals dies of bitterness and sorrow, making Hurts Grime virtually a murderer as well as an adulterer. Hertz hurts as the wife he abandons contracts cancer and blames it on the inconsolable hurt Hertz has brought upon her. He hurts even as he plunges deeper into the grime of his behavior and the grimy consequences of his act-first in a seedy, grimy, hot-sheet hotel room, then on a wild adulterous hegira to Miami Beach-a Singer tour de force, Miami conceived as a palm-fringed purgatory. Even there, enjoying the poisoned fruits of his crime, the man undeniably, I think sincerely, hurts . That is what makes him a compelling character-the way he’s tormented, torn apart by the struggle between self-laceration and self-indulgence, and still can’t help himself. Shadows on the Hudson is a great title, conjuring up, I think, the flickering shadows cast by the flames of the crematoria that darken the refuge of the survivors. But it could just as well have been called Grime and Punishment .

But to say it’s Singer’s most Dostoyevskian novel doesn’t really do justice to the degree of its darkness. There’s a far darker vision of the cosmos-in the eyes of certain of his characters, if in not Singer himself-than anything even Dostoyevsky dared imagine. Darker even than the vision of the Grand Inquisitor episode of The Brothers Karamazov . Perhaps the darkest vision I’ve ever come across in literature. One whose darkness I feel I shielded you from in the first installment of this essay, in part because it hadn’t completely manifested itself. One whose darkness Singer might well have wanted to shield English-speaking readers from by leaving Shadows untranslated. One whose darkness is captured in two incendiary remarks I find myself still hesitant to repeat but ones which, if I omitted, would fail to do justice to the profound depths of bitterness Singer is capturing and recording, if not endorsing. The bitterness of those (some at least) survivors who first attempted to explain Hitler in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Here, in these remarks, Singer’s characters are going beyond questioning God’s goodness, beyond questioning his silence or his existence. They’re … well, let me let them speak for themselves.

One character who’s lost his entire family gives voice to near-ultimate blasphemy when he says if God permitted what He permitted, “then it would appear that the Creator Himself is, perish the thought, a Nazi.”

Perish the thought indeed, but then another character goes beyond near-ultimate, to the ultimate blasphemy:

Grein’s mistress, Esther, also a refugee from the Holocaust, tells him: “In the ghetto there was a pious Jew who recited psalms the whole time. They dragged his entire family to the ovens, but he crouched in a hole somewhere and went on praying. You know the justification: God knows what He’s doing. We sinned. In the World to come, we will make atonement. For months he sat in that cellar with other Jews, all dying of hunger. Then one day he suddenly grabbed his phylacteries and tore them to pieces. He spat on them and trampled on them and he screamed, ‘God, I don’t want to serve you any longer! You’re worse than Hitler!'”

Now that’s dark, that’s darker than Elie Wiesel’s vision of God in Night in which he sees a young boy hanged on a gallows in the death camp and calls that corpse the God that has died to him. The God in Esther’s story, not necessarily Singer’s God, not necessarily even Esther’s God, but the God Esther bitterly conjures up in the words of a maddened Jew whose family and faith have been incinerated, is not dead or dying but alive and malevolent, the ultimate blasphemy, God as Hitler.

How does a novel, how does a novelist, how does a reader recover from a vision like that? One suspects that sentence alone might explain why Singer left Shadows untranslated as long as he lived. It’s not necessarily Singer’s sentiment, but he’s capturing an abyss of bitterness he watched engulf those who escaped the flames but were burned alive with the fires of rage, regret and revolt, each a burning bush of inextinguishable agony. How does he recover? I’m not sure he will, I’m only two-thirds of the way through the novel as of this installment, and things are certainly getting darker for Hurts Grime, whose abnegation before the consequences of his abandoned conduct in what he sees as a God-abandoned world leads him to deeper and deeper depths of self-loathing and self-pity.

His descent culminates in a horrible scene of humiliation and cowardice when he finds himself in the apartment of Stanislaw Luria, the man he’s driven to death by stealing his wife. The corpse has barely cooled, and Anna, the woman he’s stolen, has accused him (and herself) of murdering the man. And then, in a moment of diabolical farce, when Anna’s father, a man who’s supported Grime all his life, shows up, Grime doesn’t have the courage to face him, even hides in the bathroom hoping to escape the gaze he cannot face, in a farcical echo of Cain attempting to hide from God. And then he descends even further down the rungs of Gehenna (as Hell is called in Talmudic tradition. Grime: “Gehenna is shame”): As his wife sits shiva for the man they, in effect, have murdered, he can’t resist cheating on her with his old mistress Esther.

Slowly, Singer’s artistic strategy (both esthetic and theological) in Shadows is beginning to dawn on me. Perhaps it’s a false dawn, since I have a third of the book still to read, but from the glimmer I get of his challenge to the God-as-Hitler theodicy, he wants to reveal that a world without God is a Hell on earth. To live a life as if God abandoned the world, as Hertz Grein does, to reject heaven-and-hell theology, is not to inhabit a world of moral neutrality but a world of Hell alone, a world that unleashes the Hell, the Hitler-like impulses within human nature, when we make our own commandments-a hell of our own creation.

But something else began to draw me on as I progressed toward the final third of the novel. That in Shadows on the Hudson Singer is vouchsafing to us his personal fiery vision of existence, a vision I’d call his burning-bush vision, of souls on fire, of blazing simultaneity. It’s a vision I’ll try to do justice to in the third and final installment of this essay, if the third and final installment of this amazing novel bears it out.

Shadows on the Hudson II: Grime and Punishment