Book Review – The Magician of Lublin by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Magician of Lublin by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1903 – 1991) was first published in English in 1960, having been translated from Yiddish. In the author’s note of my copy, Singer thanks his editors who ‘for years have encouraged me in the difficult task of introducing Yiddish writing to the American reader’. I found this note altered my frame of mind as I began reading the book, not just enjoying it for what it could be – a glimpse of a completely different time, place and culture to my own – but understanding that the author was purposefully endeavouring, with this translation, to bring something of his own culture and literary traditions to a wider audience. Singer effortlessly brings aspects of Jewish tradition and community dynamics to life, his words conjuring vivid scenes that emerge from the pages and envelope us.

Our protagonist is Yasha, a charismatic magician who tours Poland of the 1870s performing shows involving tricks, acrobatics, escapes and hypnotisms. Half Jewish, but non-practicing, he is rarely to be found in his home community with his devout and traditional wife Esther, preferring to spend his time on the road to the bustling city and with his mistresses. His three key mistresses that we meet throughout the novel each come from different backgrounds, representing different needs unmet by life with his wife. Yet, soon after we meet Yasha, the burdens these affairs bring with them are beginning to outweigh the rewards. Although he lives a free-spirited life, free from organised religion, we soon learn that he is a deep thinker of a more philosophical kind. Much of the book is made up of passages of profound inner monologue, often reaching levels of all-consuming intensity, as he begins to question this life he is leading, and how his actions are influencing those around him. 

There is a folkloric quality to the story, as we learn about his colourful life and the characters who colour it, many of them bordering on caricatures. Eloquent at describing the myriad flaws – both physical and psychological – in Yasha and those who surround him, Singer’s novel explores the baseness and grotesqueness of humanity, while providing glimmers of integrity, and sparks of profound intellect and compassion, in the least expected of places.

Through Yasha’s interactions we see that, despite his hedonistic lifestyle, he does have a moral compass and does care about many of those around him in his own way. He is a character of extremes, momentarily lifted by the pleasures of his high-flying life but just as swiftly dragged down, as previous sources of pleasure begin to wear thin. As his consciousness begins to gain voice, he is rocked by a growing inner turmoil. We see this beautifully in a passage where he goes to the theatre with his lover Emilia and goes from being in love with her to being disgusted by her and all those around him, questioning his whole life and existence, before swinging back to being in love with her. This sums up the pace and intensity of the story as a whole, shuttling back and forth between extremes of thought.

A close call during one of his escapades brings him, seeking a hideout, to the study house of a synagogue, where a simple moment of ritual momentarily sparks a connection with the traditional faith of his community. True to his nature, following the incident, he questions what came over him at the time, and goes back to his old mindset. However, the experience does stay with him, and sets the wheels in motion for Yasha’s life as he has known it to be turned on its head.

Singer’s writing is fluid and lyrical, from his vivid characters and beautiful, detailed descriptions of the landscape, to the Jewish traditions, the meals, the dress of the time and the way he brings the streets of Russian-ruled Warsaw to life at a time of great change and modernisation.

This is a little book which poses big questions – about morality, the consequences of our actions and of introspection, our latent ties to traditions of our ancestors, the nature of free will and, ultimately, our ability to change our lives. While the story could be read as a parable, there is a richness in the detail of place, people and Yasha’s psychological journey that draws it beyond this. 

What I loved about this read was that it wouldn’t have been something I would have sought out – I have been reading contemporary Irish fiction for most of this year and in fact stopped another book midway to read this – so it reminded me of the joys and rewards of straying outside our usual literary comfort zones to something completely new and different. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more of Singer’s work in the coming year.

***

Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Poland in 1903. His father and grandfather were rabbis and he was educated at the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminary. In 1935 he emigrated to the US, and worked as a journalist and columnist for the New York paper the Jewish Daily Forward. Although he originally wrote in Hebrew, Singer subsequently adopted Yiddish as his medium of expression. ‘Yiddish contains vitamins that other language don’t have’, he once said. He personally supervised the translation of his works into English. In 1978 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature ‘for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life’.

Works include such titles as A Friend of Kafka, The Slave, The Séance and Other Stories, Enemies: A Love Story, Gimpel the Fool and Satan in Goray.

The copy of The Magician of Lublin read and reviewed was published in 1979 by Penguin Books, and translated from the Yiddish by Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: