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LOST LANDSCAPES by Agata Tuszy?ska

LOST LANDSCAPES

In Search of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Jews of Poland

By Agata Tuszy?ska

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-688-12214-0
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

 Despite some fascinating vignettes and quotes, this is a somewhat disjointed attempt to write two books in one: a biographical collage of the Polish-Jewish-American Nobel laureate and a look at pre- and post-Holocaust Polish Jews and gentiles. A Polish historian and poet, Tuszynska has interviewed dozens of Singer's friends, critics, and other readers, mainly in the US and Israel, and captures the disagreeable as well as the admirably imaginative parts of his personality. For example, concerning his miserliness, she quotes Singer as having once told a waiter, ``I'd like to give you a larger tip, but my heart won't let me.'' Tuszynska offers some pungent insights into Singer's fiction, such as observing that he ``blasphemed, provoked, desecrated everything holy. Not from a wish to shock, but in the name of truth about the sorrows of human desires.'' Yet ultimately her mosaic of quotes and vignettes adds little to Janet Hadda's recent biography of Singer, and the memoirs of his son, Israel, and of his long-time assistant, Devorah Menashe Telushkin. Tuszynska's look at contemporary Poland and its Jews makes for interesting if depressing reading, revealing vitriolic anti-Semitism, strong misconceptions and remarkable ignorance about Jews among the Christian population (according to one poll, 25 percent of Poles believe their country is inhabited by 350,000 to 3.5 million Jews; the actual number is less than 20,000). Unfortunately, there is nothing here about the attempts by some Polish historians, Catholic priests, intellectuals, and others to gain a far more sophisticated understanding of the Polish-Jewish relationship--a project of which her own book is a part. Tuszynska also omits explanatory notes and sources for many of her quotes. Thus, she records without comment the entirely erroneous claim in one memoir that ``if a Jew's wife died, he had to sit at home in mourning for 14 days, eating once a day and not moving.'' While Tuszynska has gathered a great deal of colorful and revealing material, her two subjects aren't well integrated and are portrayed somewhat sketchily.