By Issac Bashevis Singer.
New York: Noonday Press, 1960.
246 pages

Comments of Bob Corbett
July 2004

After finishing this novel and thinking about it a few days as I took my daily bike rides, I realized I had certain discomforts with it. Not in the writing itself; it is a very well-told and gripping story. I was concern with the message. Whenever that is, the issue I have to then figure out is: with whom am I in disagreement? The main character, the author or both? I was still undecided about this when I sat down to at least start some notes. I opened a file for “Singer” and was surprised to find that I had read and commented on his novel The Penitent just two years ago. (One of the key reasons I began to write out comments on books I read was much less for others than for myself. I have a bad memory, read a lot and often forget what I’ve read – same with movies.) I pulled up my comments on The Penitent and was simply astonished at how similar the two books are, and that my thinking about that novel two years ago is nearly identical with my response to The Magician of Lublin now.

The novels are different in time and place (Magician is set in Poland in the late 1800s and Penitent set in Israel in more modern times). But the stories and themes are quite similar with, on my view, The Magician of Lublin being much more worthy of the title The Penitent than the book which carries that title. It seems more like it should have been The Convert than The Penitent.

Despite the difference in setting and plot, both novels deal with a very similar philosophical issue: the rejection of modern life, understood as the pursuit of wealth, pleasure and sex, and the replacement of it with….. and there is the problematic for Singer. Replacement with what? In The Magician of Lublin it is replaced with rigorous penitential confinement. In The Penitent it is replaced by a conversion to a rigorous form of Orthodox Judaism. What is attractive in Singer for me is the hunt, the inquiry, the critique of modern ideas, values and lifeform, and the attempt to figure out what to replace it with. What is less satisfying are the answers he puts forward in either of the two novels mentioned above. But then I wonder; is he simply exploring options, and were I to seek out other novels of his (which I think I will not do) would I find a third and fourth option spelled out? Or, does Singer just hark back to something older and other, even if he can’t exactly spell it out. Or, is the 1983 The Penitent a development of his thought since the 1960 The Magician of Lublin?

Yasha Mazur is the magician of Lublin, a small town in Poland. It is late in the 19th century. He is married to Ester, in love with a gentile Emilia and has at least two current lovers, his performing partner Magda, and a lonely abandoned wife Zeftel, and is even planning the seduction of Emilia’s young daughter. All these women love Yasha and everyone else seems to like him and hold him in high esteem. He is a performer, never quite making the big time, but performing often in Warsaw to significant acclaim, if low pay.

But his life is troubled. His love life is at the center of this discontent, but not the totality of it. He has fallen in love with Emilia who is not only gentile, but “above his station” (even if dirt poor) and intelligent as well as beautiful. In his case she is even the pursuer rather than the easily conquered helpless woman. He wants to leave the good and long-suffering Ester, who cannot give him children, and go away with Emilia to Italy, for her daughter’s health. He needs money and moral courage to walk away from Ester and his other lovers.

There is more, however. He is getting older and sees his life as not likely going anywhere. He’s a bit bored with his current level of achievement, and making “the big time” in his circus act is less and less likely.

In short he comes to a crisis of meaning much like what Viktor Frankl describes as an “existential vacuum” – a condition of the loss of meaning and the near impossibility to go forward, not knowing where one is to go. What I like about Singer’s treatment of the condition of Yasha is that it’s not so very clear; things are muddled. One the one hand there is the dissatisfactions I describe above. On the other, he opines that were he to have more money, enough to meet Emilia’s need to escape Poland to Italy, then happiness and meaningfulness could be found with her. He fantasizes, too, about making the big time in Paris, London, even The United States. He is, like real human beings, conflicted. His situation isn’t clear, the answers not obvious.

However, it all comes to a head when he attempts a robbery to get the large sum of money he needs for his first dream, and then when Magda commits suicide in the face of his infidelity. This is all too much for him and the weight of his “evil” comes down upon him in force. He repents his sins, and believes he must remove himself from society totally since he doesn’t have the discipline to not hurt other people. In a curious ending he shuts himself up in a tiny hut in the yard of his home in Lublin and the even now longer-suffering Ester feeds him in his cell while hordes of pilgrims come to seek the now-famous penitent.

Much of what I thought about The Penitent is relevant here, and I would refer any interested reader to what I’ve had to say about that book.

More particularly to this story of the magician Yasha, I was a good deal aggravated with him (and thus with Singer too? I’m still undecided about that). Yasha shuts himself away, but poor Ester, now without the economic support he used to provide, must feed him every day. Further, as his fame as a penitent spreads people begin to see him as a holy man, perhaps a miracle worker and flock to the farm; more work for Ester dealing with these hordes. Here too, the credibility of Singer’s account comes into question. We are led to believe that he bricks himself into this tiny hut (barely large enough for a cot and table), is fed through a small window just large enough to pass his food through, and that the disposes of all his bodily wastes INSIDE that little hut with a shovel digging in the bare earth. It is at least three years in the story that he is inside that hut… that just stretches the credulity of the experiment.

While I don’t like the decisions of Singer’s magician, nor his penitent in the other novel, for how they address their meaninglessness, I am deeply sympathetic to the “condition” and deal with it myself, in many of the ways his troubled characters do. That is, I come to the same crises they do, but the two answers given in the two novels I have read leave me deeply dissatisfied. In both there is a retreat from the self and self-responsibility, punishing one’s self with self-inflicted prison in The Magician, and hiding away in someone else’s answer (Orthodox Judaism) in The Penitent. I find myself much more attracted to the radical individualism of the Existentialists of the late 19th and 20th century than Singer’s religious retreats.

Singer’s two novels were very good reads. He tells a great story. However, in both cases I come away distinctly unhappy with the philosophical resolution and thus will probably not take the effort to read him in the future.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett