ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER: The Magician of West 86th Street by Paul Kresh

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER: The Magician of West 86th Street

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Any attempt to write a life of 75-year-old I. B. Singer is bound to be shadowed by Singer's own words--four volumes of memoirs, dozens of personal stories. But this well-meaning mishmash positively drowns in quotation, not just from the Singer canon but from reviews, articles, and interviews. In the book's first third, Kresh gives us Singer's Polish beginnings as the younger son of a Hassidically mystical fringe rabbi and a far less unworldly mother: ""The contradictions in Isaac's own nature and in the characters he writes about. . . can all be traced to the marriage of his parents and the legacy of a Polish-Jewish past."" But, aside from such generalizations, Kresh does little with the pre-U.S. Singer other than to quote and paraphrase extensively from In My Father's Court and subsequent memoirs. And this anecdotal, unshaped narrative is further fragmented and defused when Kresh alternates Singer's youth with flash-forwards to magazine-style glimpses of his daily life in the 1970s--teaching, eating (he's a vegetarian), lecturing (""The question period begins. A woman wants to know whether Isaac has read Erica Jong's Fear of Flying"") Only after Singer has fled rabbinical school, loved and learned in Warsaw, fathered a child (whose 20-year separation from Singer is rather glossed over), and sailed to the U.S. does the book flicker to life: Singer as a 35-ish Daily Forward drudge in N.Y., tied down to a ""dead"" language (Yiddish), overwhelmed by the success of his older brother I. J. Singer (Yoshe Kalb)--who died in 1944, seemingly setting Isaac free to excel. But, though Kresh dutifully summarizes and compares I.J.'s work with Isaac's, he only touches on the complex relationship between the brothers, also smoothing over the disturbing aspects of Singer's (long, happy) marriage to a woman who apparently abandoned her two small children for his sake. And then, halfway through, the book simply collapses into a Singer scrapbook: interviews with publishers and translators; plot summaries and bland critiques; quotes from critics; a chapter on the children's stories; a chapter on film and theater adaptations; and a moment-by-moment tag-along on the Nobel Prize trip. Some of the quoted comments are intriguing, and there's certainly a splendid magazine profile in all of this--but a biography it's not. Nor does Kresh score as a literary commentator: not knowing Yiddish, he can't really illuminate the curious Yiddish-to-English publication process; and, when not drawing on such forceful critics as Irving H. Buchen, he lapses again and again into gushy adulation and book-appreciation-ese: ""It must be remembered that Isaac is a comic tragedian. . . What is reality? What is illusion? . . ."" Singer's readers may wish to browse among the vignettes here, and the author's laborious research may be of some benefit to scholars. But Kresh is too much a Singer friend, too little a true biographer, to add fresh angles to the Singer we've already met in the memoirs and stories.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1979
Publisher: Dial