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The Boston Phoenix Never Again

In I.B. Singer's newly translated masterpiece, moral order is a thing of the past.

By Adam Kirsch

MARCH 2, 1998: 

SHADOWS ON THE HUDSON, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated by Joseph Sherman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 548 pages, $28.

When Isaac Bashevis Singer began to write, in the 1930s, Yiddish had only recently come to be seen as a language worthy of a literature. Until the late 19th century, Jewish writers had viewed it as a mere jargon, inferior to Hebrew in sanctity and to German in dignity. Yet just as his reputation began to flourish, Singer's Yiddish-speaking audience was destroyed, the world he wrote about annihilated at a stroke. When he won the Nobel Prize, in 1978, his natural audience could be numbered in the tens of thousands.

Singer's fame, then, came in translation. But even though he made his home and his name in America, it would be wrong to think of him as an American writer. He was less an immigrant than an exile, his exile made all the more terrible because there was no possibility of returning home. And with the English- language publication of Shadows on the Hudson, a novel Singer wrote in the late 1950s, we have a stunning portrait of the exile's dilemma. In its size, its scope, and its moral intensity, it ranks among his most important works, and lovers of Singer will feel that they have received a great and unexpected gift.

Originally published as a serial in the Jewish Daily Forward, Shadows on the Hudson takes place over two years in the late 1940s, among a group of Eastern European Jews living in New York. In one sense, it is an old-fashioned novel: it tracks a large cast of characters through a variety of settings, and the action is driven by those staples of 19th-century fiction, love affairs and money troubles. Yet Singer puts all this machinery to work in the service of a deeply personal obsession: the fate of Judaism, and the Jewish people, after the Holocaust.

Hertz Grein, the protagonist, is a familiar type in Singer's fiction: a tormented Jewish intellectual whose spiritual crisis is reflected in a chaotic personal life. Grein, a Talmud teacher turned Wall Street banker, has a wife, Leah, and a mistress of long standing, Esther; but as the novel begins he is consumed with passion for a new woman, Anna, the daughter of the wealthy businessman Boris Makaver. When Grein and Anna run away to Florida, they set in motion a series of catastrophes for their whole social circle: Anna's husband, Stanislaw Luria, wastes away, and her father's business begins to fail; Grein's wife becomes ill, and his mistress contracts a loveless marriage.

The traditional plot allows Singer to show us the whole world of Jewish New York, a complete if tiny ecosystem, with its neighborhoods and resort hotels, eccentrics and gossips, charlatans and comedians. But the novel always gravitates toward Grein, whose cruel and erratic actions stem from a complete loss of faith in any ethical system. The Holocaust and modern American culture seem to him two faces of one phenomenon, signs that, as he says over and over again, "the modern world is the underworld." A product of the intensely rigid moral order of traditional Judaism, Grein can't help recoiling from the society his own children rush to embrace. His reaction to the guests in a Florida hotel is typical:

Even passing through the lobby with Anna was a torture for him. The men and women all looked at him askance, with hostility. Sitting there half-naked, they smoked, laughed, gawked at the television, prattled on about film stars, horse races, dog races, boxing matches, and the singers in different nightclubs. These people exuded a profaneness that continually pained him.

In the end, Grein makes a desperate attempt to recapture the faith of his fathers, but the whole tenor of the novel suggests that this is impossible, that Judaism as Grein knows it is dead. And the future, as Singer paints it, is irrecoverably bleak: the vulgar, ignorant American Jews, flocking to Stalinism and spiritualism, are scarcely better than the Gentiles.

Shadows on the Hudson, then, is a peculiar blend of plenitude and despair. It has the moral atmosphere of Beckett, a sense of perpetual crisis and chaos; but its fullness and richness of texture descend from

Dickens or Balzac, and the novel is simply absorbing even when the message seems intolerably pessimistic. It is the document of a very specific time and place -- Grein's combination of wonder at American wealth and nostalgia for Yiddish culture seems foreign today -- but in its use of action to convey an atmosphere and an idea, it is a great example of the novelist's art. Rarely does a posthumous publication add much to a writer's stature, but Shadows on the Hudson is Singer at his best, and with its appearance, a loss that his readers didn't even feel has been repaired.

Adam Kirsch is the literary assistant at the New Republic.

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