How Much Is Too Much?

When Florence Noiville's Isaac B. Singer: A Life arrived in my office, just the look of the book — it's sheer lack of heft — made me sit up and take notice. Here was the biography of a major 20th-century writer — a Nobel Prize winner, at that — and the volume topped off, with index, at under 200 pages. How could this be? How could Farrar Straus and Giroux let the biographer get away with it in our age of doorstopper-sized biographies? Was this going to be the speed-freak's version of Singer's rich, eventful life?

Well, I have to say that I enjoyed reading every minute of Noiville's book. But the work's brevity did pose a problem that I didn't quite anticipate, considering the pleasure quotient it provided: When I got to the end — or perhaps, it was a few day's after the entire experience concluded — I felt like you're supposed to feel an hour after you eat Chinese food: I was definitely hungry for more.

This new volume brings us up against some of the major issues raised whenever the modern biography is discussed: How much do we need to know? Do we have to know about minute grooming and sexual habits, as other biographers have seen fit to report in the case of other major novelists?

Clearly, Noiville — who is the deputy literary director of Le Monde's weekly book review, and has written works on Greek and Roman mythology — didn't think so. But the fact that her book is not the standard blockbuster, or laundry-list, biography awash in a mass of undigested, often unnecessary facts, creates something of a vacuum.

Isaac B. Singer is not a critical biography; it is determinedly "a life." And that is what we get. There is very little about what went on during the writing of any of the author's many novels and stories; nor is there much critical assessment of them. The titles are listed and the dates of publication are given, but Noiville sticks to biography (she does use the writing to illuminate the life, but that's something else again). This book is a fine introduction to Singer — the man who wrote for a living — and will be more than adequate for those uninitiated in this terrain. But rabid fans will definitely ask, come the conclusion, "Is that all there is?"

Still, the major events of Singer's career are neatly sketched in. And when Noiville does tackle issues in this odd life story — filled as it is with contradictions and many self-deceptions — they are handled with skill and aplomb.

All of the highlights are here: birth in Poland in 1904, youth and early manhood in Warsaw, and his first work published in the Yiddish press. There is his competition with his older brother, the revered writer I.J. Singer, who was the first in the family to leave for America in the mid-1930s as Nazism began darkening the skies over Europe. I.J. also got his younger sibling work at the Yiddish Forward newspaper in lower Manhattan, which was to be I.B.'s major outlet in the year's before his breakthrough into mainstream American literary life.

Other major events are given their due: how I.J.'s untimely death at age 50 from a heart attack allowed I.B. to redirect the spotlight his way; how critic Irving Howe got novelist Saul Bellow, himself then just on the cusp of fame, to translate Singer's story "Gimpel the Fool," and how Bellow's rendition gave the original Yiddish just the right English tam the tale needed to get across to American readers; how the story's prominent publication in Partisan Review, one of the premier intellectual journals in the country, began Singer's triumphant march through American literature and on to the Nobel Prize in 1978.

After the appearance of "Gimpel," Singer's fortunes changed. His stories, rather than appearing in the Forward or in small literary magazines with limited readerships, began appearing instead — and quite regularly — in far more visible places like The New Yorker and even Playboy. His name was made and his fame was assured.

Noiville shows how through his personal charm — specifically his sense of humor and impeccable delivery — he was able to commandeer the pervasive celebrity network that was just beginning to arise in America during the 1960s and '70s, as Singer's own fame was burgeoning. He was the master of the interview, in print but perhaps even more so on TV, where he cultivated a twinkly, Jewish uncle or grandfather persona, and spoke of how demons and sprites were always stealing or misplacing his pens and manuscripts and confounding his life. Viewers were completely taken with this lovable little man, who also managed to pull off a number of wonderful practical jokes, especially as he toured the lecture circuit.

Nevertheless, Noiville doesn't shy away from the cruel side of Singer's personality. For all the personable interviews he gave, his ambition made him stop at nothing to gain the fame he so coveted. There are many stories about how tight he was with money, even later in his career, after the Nobel made him far more than comfortable. Noiville also relates the many tales of how he treated assistants — especially, Dvorah Telushkin — and translators with little regard for their feelings or for how their professionalism served his purposes so well. And the biographer doesn't shy away from cataloguing all of Singer's carnal triumphs throughout the years, especially the writer's juggling of various women at one time.

But in the pantheon of his cruelty, a special place must go to Singer's treatment of his only offspring. In leaving Poland, he also rather heartlessly, from what Noiville relates, deserted Runya Zamir, one of many women with whom he was involved, who happened to be the mother of his only child, Israel. He ignored the boy for decades and only became reacquainted with him later in life, when his son was a grown man. Little could be done to heal the rift.

A Certain Exegesis

Though critical assessment don't seem to be high on Noiville's list of things to accomplish in this biography, she does provide, through a recitation of the facts of Singer's life, a certain exegesis. In the chapter titled "The Servant of Two Idols," Noiville discusses how I.B. was going to make a place for himself artistically in a Warsaw that knew only his brother, Israel Joshua Singer.

"Isaac had a plan. He was thinking about what his first original writings should be. Above all, he had found his ultimate subject matter. 'The endless variations and tensions peculiar to the relations between the sexes.' Women. From the first day in Joshua's studio, he knew that women would be at the heart of his work. He was convinced you couldn't write a novel without a love story and that everyone who had tried had failed. He wanted to talk about human passions in a new way without misrepresenting or filtering them. Too bad if he shocked his readers and reviewers.

"His own experience offered the necessary inspiration. Starting in the 1920s, his love life provided him with ready-made material. In his autobiographical writings, A Young Man in Search of Love, The Certificate, Lost in America, the narrator — clearly Isaac himself — goes from one woman's arms to the next's. He tried to be faithful to Gina, a woman twice his age who introduces him to true sexual pleasure, but then rushes off to Stefa; he has a pleasurable fling with Sabina, the militant Communist, but doesn't reject the advances of Marila, the young Polish maid … How tempting it is to identify Singer with the incurable sensualist! His head spins every time he changes rooms and landlords, and the waltz almost becomes a game: 'Those who rented rooms were nearly all women. I rang, they opened, and we contemplated each other. After a while they asked what I did and when I told them that I worked for a publication they were instantly won over. Our glances met and mutely asked: perhaps? I had become a connoisseur of faces, bosoms, shoulders, bellies, hips. I speculated how much pleasure these various parts could provide if it came to an intimacy.' "

When it comes to this facet of I.B.'s personality, his biographer has him pegged perfectly. And there is no denying, as Noiville makes clear even in this short biography, sensuality would be the central motif in much of Singer's fiction.


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