Thu Jan 29, 2004 2:33 pm - Isaac Bashevis Singer
|Interview With Isaac Bashevis Singer
M.P.- You came from a family of writers; your father, brother and
older sister were authors. Could you tell me the kind of books
that your father wrote?
I.S.- Well, my father was a pious man, an orthodox rabbi and he
wrote religious books: commentaries on the Talmud. My older
brother was a writer of my kind. He was a novelist; he wrote
short stories. My sister wrote stories and novels in her own way.
M.P. - Did your father write on the mystical or legal aspects of
I.S. - He wrote mostly on the Law. The Talmud is a commentary on
the Mishnah; the Mishnah is a commentary on the Bible. Rashi is a
commentary on the Talmud. One commentary has other commentaries.
It was a chain of commentaries, generation after generation. In
all these commentaries new laws were added. Jews had no lack of
laws. Especially the pious Jews.
M.P. - Some of your short stories seem to me to have the circular
form of the Talmud and its commentaries-
I.S. - I would say it's a little far fetched, but maybe there's
some spark of truth in it.
M.P. - Now could we talk about your brother a little bit?
I.S. - You can talk about anybody.
M.P. - Could you describe specifically his influence on you as a
I.S. - Well, I will tell you, when I was eight my brother was
eleven years older than I, so he was a grown up and I was still a
cheder boy. Of course I saw him write and I admired the way he
used words. I used to read his stories to my mother sometimes and
I was delighted to hear them aloud myself. I admired them highly.
When I got older I tried to write myself and until he gave me an
okay- until he said a story of mine is ready to be printed, to be
published-I didn't publish anything. I wish he would have been
living today; I would still ask him advice.
M.P. - So he wasn't just a brother; he was a mentor.
I.S. - He was a brother, a mentor and a master: everything to me.
M.P. - How did your father view your first efforts at writing?
I.S- - My father was not really very happy about it; he wanted us
to be rabbis, pious people, not to be secular writers. He would
have liked to see us write commentaries on other commentaries as
he did. But somehow my brother refused to do it. He already was a
little what they call Enlightened. He saw that there must be an
end to an these commentaries-there is life besides this. He
influenced me also in .this direction. When I saw that he
rebelled against my parents, I rebelled also in my own quiet way.
My father was not happy to such a degree that when people asked
him what are your sons doing, he wouldn't say we were writers; he
would say we were selling newspapers. He considered it a more
dignified business than writing. I begin to see now that he was
right, as in many other ways. After a while he began to believe
himself that we dealt in newspapers. Once he came to visit me,
and he said, are you still selling newspapers. I said, yes, I'm
still selling. He said, how's business. I said, not so good!
(laughs) but I manage somehow.
M.P. - Between the two of you, your brother sounds more like the
I.S. - Aggressive he was not-there's no aggression in our family-
but he had more zest for life than I have. in other words, he was
a man w@o liked to mix with other men while I'm a little bit of
an introvert. He was more the extrovert, a very fine man, a great
M.P. - His novels seem pessimistic to me; yet you describe him as
a kind of goodnatured tummeler personality.
I.S. - In pessimism we were both alike; he didn't have too much
belief in all these slogans and promises of the politicians, and
even the people who deal with culture, and neither have I. I
always say to myself that whatever Nature wants, it will
accomplish it no matter what we do. All I can say is that we
people have one power: we can protest. We can tell Nature we
don't like what you're doing. When I see two stags standing in a
forest and fight over a doe until one of them falls dead, I know
that Nature wants it but I still have the right to say, I don't
like it. There is no reason why this poor animal should fight so
bitterly. Or when I see a cat pouncing on a mouse, I would say
that religion and human culture is a form of protest against the
cruelties of Nature.
M.P. - So you disagree with Spinoza when he says the laws of
Nature are good, and the carnal avatar of the Almighty.
I.S. - Spinoza didn't say they are good; he said they are what
they should be because Nature knows what it's doing, and also he
said there's nothing we can do about it. Actually, Spinoza was
not much of a pessimist. He believed that God's wisdom and
actions go together, in other words, he said that God was One and
I agree with him; he never said that God was merciful. You will
never find a word in Spinoza praising God's mercy, saying God was
a great philanthropist; he says since God wants it that way,
there's nothing we can do but consent, agree. Do we have a
M.P. - And yet there's a kind of ecstatic tone in Spinoza of
acceptance and resignation.
I.S. - He accepted it because Spinoza thought the number of God's
attributes is without a limit, God has countless attributes, but
he proved only two attributes: Extension and Thought. The others
are hidden; since they are hidden, who knows what these other
attributes are? Maybe there are great treasures, who knows? Since
we don't know, we have to agree. When I walk in the street and
see a machine, I have not the slightest idea who made the
machine, and what is the purpose of it, but since I see it was
made, I'm sure it demanded a lot of effort and wisdom, I say to
myself, more probably the engineer knew what he did. And this is
the way Spinoza felt about the Almighty. Since he shows so such
wisdom, maybe there is something behind the wisdom too.
M.P. - Maimonides seemed to be pretty optimistic about the mercy
of God compared to Spinoza.
I.S. - I will tell you, Maimonides was brought up a disciple of
Aristotle and Jewish religion and these l@o things did not really
go together. He tried with all his might to make them sound the
same-to make this match-in which he never succeeded. He was great
in his knowledge of Aristotle, he was very great in his knowledge
of the Talmud, but this shiddach, this match between Aristotle
and Jewish religion, somehow never worked.
M.P. - You probably feel the same way about Philo of Alexandria
trying to combine Platonism and Judaism.
I.S. - Yes, yes. Some people when they admire two opposites, they
try to make you believe they are not opposites. but they are.
M.P. - It happens in a lot of marriages.
I.S. - In marriages, and a lot of critics, who try to make a
parallel between two writers-like Tolstoy and Edgar Allen Poe.
They are both great writers but they are not of the same path.
M.P. - Do you think the Persian and dualistic element in the Book
of Job is a marriage of disparate elements?
I.S. - I will tell you, Job is very difficult to understand, and
one can never really know what the debate is. You can see there a
lot of optimism and pessimism. It's a very pessimistic book, but
at the same time, when God answers, he says, where were you when
I created the ocean and the stars, it's always the same answer:
since you don't know, you have to keep quiet. Don't criticize a
book if you've only read six lines of it; that's what it all
amounts to. Since we've only read a few lines of Nature or God's
Creation, we have no reason to say it's bad; the only thing we
can say is, we don't agree with certain things. We don't like it.
M.P. - That personal aspect, that challenging of God, even
hauling him before a court of law is very Jewish, is it not?
I.S. - In a way it is. There's this story of the Bardichua who
caged God to court of Torah, but it is not only Jewish, I would
say; it is human. Whenever people suffer they are really
protesting against God. I have heard such simple women cry from
the heart to God, why did you kill my poor baby? She was such a
nice little girl, so charming; I loved her so much. It's in every
human being. Sometimes I even see it in animals. When an animal,
is slaughtered or tortured, this animal looks up sometimes, and
you can feel it is saying, why have I deserved it? Why should I
go through all of this? I see it almost in all life. To me the
essence of religion is protest.
M.P. - Then is not the fact that you will absolutely not eat any
I.S. - Of course. It is absolutely a part of it. I say, if God
has created that animals should kill one another, and man should
murder them, and they should be tortured, there's nothing I can
do about it, but at least I can say, I don't want any part in it.
I don't want this piece of meat which was cut off this tortured
M.P. - But as we look out this window here and we see a Creation
that is very much a product of Man instead of God: the
artifice-the straight lines-
I.S. - Well, listen, even what man creates, since God creates
man, is still of God. If God created the bee, and the bee makes
honey, the honey was created by God. This is the way I see that
everything we do, since our brain was produced by the Almighty,
is also his product.
M.P. - I know at an early age you were influenced by the Kaballa.
Do you still feel as if the Kaballists had great insights into
the Nature of Reality?
I.S. - There is great charm in the Kaballa, of course. There
never is and there never will be any evidence that what the
Kaballists say is true, just as there is none that what Spinoza,
or Karl Marx or Freud says is true. There is no evidence in these
things. The only thing you can say is, they have created a system
which speaks to me. First of all, they were all Pantheists; they
believed that the World is a part of God-not that God created the
world, but that God is Nature and Nature is God. The Baal Shem
expresses it with the words: God is the World, and the World is
God. Besides this, there were other things in the Kaballa which
appealed to me more than Spinoza. He speaks only about two
attributes, but the Kaballists give God ten attributes. Some of
them are: Beauty, Compassion, Understanding-many other
attributes-I would say the Kaballa is richer than Spinoza. (A
telephone call interrupts, congratulating I.S. on his latest
M.P. - Aren't you tired of all this adulation?
I.S. - Well, I tell you, I really get tired, but when I go to
sleep and get up in the morning, I am ready for more trouble.
M.P. - You said that your brother had great psychological insight
I.S.- I think he had. Although he did not speak the language of
the Psychologists, just the same, by describing things, you see,
you get a notion of his insight.
M.P. - But he chose a very physical style of writing, almost in
the manner of Flaubert or Zola-
I.S. - Yes he did. As a matter of fact, I also write in the same
way, but a little different. This is the real technique in
literature: to give the inside by describing the outside. If you
try only to describe the inside and ignore the outside it becomes
boring, and it's really not convincing.
M.P. - Now your brother had a formal mastery I admire very much-
I.S. - I think he was very strong in construction. He could write
a novel and do it the way he planned it, while I don't have this
power; I have other powers.
M.P. - You mean he wrote an outline, and just sat down and did
I.S. - Well, I don't know; most probably in the course of the
work the plan, is disturbed. But I would say he knew better what
he was doing than me.
M.P. - I get the feeling that at a certain point in The Brothers
Ashkenazi or Yoshe Kalb at a certain point he got tired of
writing because in the later parts the plot becomes condensed;
everything happens faster.
I.S. - I will tell you, I loved my brother but I never studied
his books really. Contemplating literature is not my job; I
contemplate life. I will leave the contemplation of literature to
the critics and highly educated readers. So if you ask me about
the difference of technique between my brother and myself I
wouldn't be able to give you a clear answer for the moment. I
would have to, really, to sit down and think about it.
M.P. - Who were the early influences on your brother's work?
I.S. - I really don't know who influenced him. I would say he was
more influenced by the Russian than by the Yiddish writers. I
would say Tolstoy, Dostoevski, maybe even Gorki sometimes,
Gogol-we both loved Gogol highly, my brother and I-except I loved
him more because Gogol was a mystic, and I was more of a mystic
than my brother. I am more inclined to mysticism.
M.P. - In his novels your brother has a dry sense of humor.
He's very funny-
I.S. - Of course, yes.
M.P. - And it's dry. Had he been like that in the life?
I.S. - Even more so! To spend an hour with my brother was a sheer
pleasure, at least for me, and many of his friends.
M.P. - He was funny.
I.S. - Very funny. He could tell wonderful stories.
M.P. - How did your brother get turned away from the rabbinical
life to the physical and mystical world?
I.S. - I will tell you, when my brother was a child, the En-
lightenment had a rather huge fashion. There was an epoch of
Enlightenment that began in Germany and Hungary a hundred years
before. Then it went to Lithuania. Because of Chassidism, the
Enlightenment came to Poland late, very late. Just the same, when
he was a child, he heard all the criticism that the Jews live in
superstition, that they don't progress in Science, all this
criticism I heard in my house; my brother said this to my father
and my mother and they answered him. These disputes went on in my
house all the time, and I heard both sides. To convince my
that there is a God my father used to speak to him about the
demons. He said if there are demons, there is certainly a God.
he told all sorts of stories about demons. And I felt that in
stories about demons there is more literary gold than in my
brother's arguments against religion. Because his arguments
religion were the usual arguments: who was in Heaven? Who saw it?
But these demonic stories fascinated me. I digested them more
my brother; he considered them silly stories, at least, in those
times. I felt as though there were some depth in them. But
we both felt that one law in the Bible became 18 laws in the
Mishnah and 70 in the Gemara, and they are manmade; they were not
given to Moses at Mount Sinai.
M.P. - And yet at the end of Yoshe Kalb, the tremendous climax
a lot of demonology.
I.S. - Yes, after a while, when he got older, he also felt there
a gold mine in my father's and mother's stories.
M.P. - Did they tell stories in your manner?
I.S. - They did not elaborate as much as we do. These were told
just to us; they did not expect them to be printed. T"hey were
shorter, but they were both wonderful storytellers. I've heard in
my life so many wonderful stories from my parents, that even if
had not been born with any talent, we should have gotten some
M.P. - Now, had the study house had that atmosphere of
people sitting around telling stories?
I.S. - Yes, especially the Chassidic studyhouses. Storytelling
really a steady occupation of these people. Some say they were
people; all day long they studied the Talmud. Their wives made
their living for them. Even if they did make their living, they
a lot of time to spare. So they told stories about the rabbis,
werewolves, demons, and I was always a ready listener. I loved
these stories; I loved fantasies.
M,P. - Your brother makes a lot of fun of these Chassidic rabbis.
I.S. - Yes, he makes fun of them, but I as a rule don't. Of
I don't believe that every word they said was sacred, but I felt
that this sort of satire has been done before me. Sholem
Peretz, Mendele did it, so in my case, instead of looking for
is silly, I tried to look for what is wise there.
M.P. - Starting with Mendele, all of the Yiddish authors are very
I.S. - It's not only pessimistic; he was a real rationalist. A
complete one. And though rationalist, to be optimistic it's
basically terribly pessimistic because it sees no way out of
M.P. - It's a dead world.
I.S. - Yes. In my case, there is a vestige of religion in me. The
Laws which I read there in the Shulach Norach may not be true.
Cod is still there. I don't know what He is, I can't say anything
about Him, I don't know how many attributes He has, but I just
don't see that the universe is an accident, physical or chemical.
I have this feeling that there is a plan-even if there was
evolution, there was a plan behind it.
M.P. - You, your brother, Mendele, Peretz, Aleichem, all came
to praise of traditional Judaism on a moral level.
I.S. - Mendele did it in a late age when he already felt that his
end was near. Peretz was a kind of romantic; he saw that there
wonderful things in faith. Whether he was religious or not, I
my doubts. I think he was very much steeped in the Enlightenment
still. So it was the case with my brother in his earlier years,
somehow I grew up in a later time, and I didn't take the
Enlightenment too seriously. I saw there was a lot of
and idiocy in this so-called Enlightenment, too.
M.P. - There's nothing more superstitious than believing in atoms
that you've never seen.
I.S. - Not only atoms but evolution. Whenever you say who created
the sun?-evolution-who created the earth? Evolution-who created
atoms? Evolution-they actually made a God from evolution and they
gave this evolution the power that the religious gave to God;
that's the only change they made.
M.P. - There are three books published posthumously by your
brother: 7-he Family Carnowsky, A World That Is No More, and the
other-whose title I forgot- had he fomished these books?
I.S. - He wanted still to work on them again. They were finished,
but I feel that they were not as finished as The Brothers
M.P. - You like to work with his second son, Joseph Singer. Could
you tell us something about your nephew?
I.S. - My nephew is a talented young man. He could write although
he doesn't write. And he's a very able painter. But he's also a
of great capriciousness. He's now doing translation. I persuaded
him to become a translator although I didn't believe he still
remembered a lot of Yiddish because he came to this country when
was about seven or eight years old. But in the process, the
of translating me, he has recalled a lot of Yiddish and he is now
steeped in it. Of course, after he translates, I edit it, not
because of the mistakes which he made, but of my own mistakes.
I would say he has become a great asset to me- although I would
have loved him even if he wouldn't have been an asset-
M.P. - You write first always in Yiddish.
I.S. - First of all, I love Yiddish. Secondly, I know Yiddish
better than any other language. Thirdly, all my heros are
Yiddish-speaking people. I seldom write about people who don't
speak Yiddish. Whether I describe Poland or the United States, my
characters are Yiddish-speaking people. For these three reasons,
think I should stay with Yiddish.
M.P. - Your brother experimented with French and German and you
experimented with Hebrew-
I.S. - I began to write in Hebrew, as a matter of fact. But in my
time Hebrew was not the living language that it is today. If I
wanted to know how you say saltshaker in Hebrew, I had to look it
up in the dictionary. And- I didn't find it; the word did not
yet, in the Bible or the Mishnah you didn't find this word. So
after a while I decided that to write in Hebrew was to write in a
scholarly bookish language like Latin. My life was all in Yiddish
so I gave up Hebrew. But just the same, now I have a son who
translates me into Hebrew. And I do the editing because I also
Hebrew quite well.
M.P. - Now Hebrew is a laconic language compared to Yiddish-
I.S. - Yes, it is shorter. I would say that a book which has
250 pages in Yiddish has in Hebrew only 200.
M.P. - Do you think Hebrew lacks or is filled with nonsensory
I.S. - I never investigated this. I would say in the Mishnah
are a lot of words about flowers, stones and foods.
M.P. - How did your brother feel about writing in French and
I.S. - He never really wrote in French; he never really wrote in
German. He had a time when he was terribly pessimistic about
Yiddish literature. He saw-I don't have to tell you that the
of Yiddish readers is diminishing. I don't have to tell you that
when a Yiddish reader dies there is not going to be a son or
grandson who will take his place. He saw it. He also saw that the
writers were kind of provincial, even in Poland. He decided it
would have been better if he wrote in French or German. But it
all wishful thinking; he never could have written in German or in
French. So I don't really say that he experimented; he dreamed
M.P. - Turgenev wrote some of his stories in French.
I.S. - Yeah, Turgenev knew better French than my brother. Also he
wanted to write in German. He caked himself a German; he said I'm
not a Russian anymore. But you know a writer can as much run away
from his language as a person can run away from his skin. He has
M.P. - In cheder you didn't learn any of the languages you know.
what language did you read Spinoza?
I.S. - I read him in German. I translated a number of books from
German like The Magic Mountain. I translated from Polish, German,
Hebrew, but this doesn't really mean that I know all those
languages. I know Polish quite well but I couldn't write a story
a novel in Polish. In Hebrew and in Yiddish I could write. In
English I could write, if I had an editor, if I would make an
effort, but in Polish and German, I couldn't write at all.
M.P. - So the Jewish community was so isolated that though you
spent half your life in Poland, you didn't speak Polish fluently.
I.S. - There were many Jews who did, but I was brought up in such
a pious house that for my father, studying Polish was considered
already a sin. I remember when I was 16 or 17 I once said to my
father, I'd like to study Polish. So my father said to me, now
that the Messiah is about to come any day, you're going to study
Polish? This was my father's answer to me. So I had to postpone
my study of Polish for a year or two. I saw the Messiah didn't
M.P. - And yet there are certain characters in The Slave who are
Polish; you obviously know the Poles very well.
I.S. - Of course. I know the Poles quite well. As a matter of
the Poles say you are a Polish writer. In a way it is true; I
describe Poland. I describe the Jewish people from Poland, but
still Poland. In a way I am a Yiddish writer, a Jewish writer, a
Polish writer, an American writer.
M.P. - Aren't you more of an American writer? You've lived more
than half your life here.
I.S. - Of course. All my books except one I have written in this
country. And I write lately a lot about people in this country.
There are Yiddish-speaking people but still they are American
citizens. As a matter of fact, they made me a member of the
National Institute of Arts and Letters and of The American
of Arts and Sciences; they consider me an American writer. I got
the National Book Award twice here.
M.P. - So you're an American.
I.S. - I'm an American, and I'm a Yiddish writer, and I write
Poland. I write about things which I know best. Whatever name you
call them, I don't care.
M.P. - When I go down to Brighton Beach where you lived in the
late 30s I go to the restaurants that you hung out in, and I
overhear conversations. They look like the people you write
about, they act like it, but instead of talking on metaphysical
subjects they speak about dresses and stocks.
I.S. - Thank God! Thank God they don't speak all the tune about
metaphysics. They would become such bores that you wouldn't be
able to go near them.
M.P. - But aren't you investing them with a spirituality which is
really a part of yourself?
I.S. - I would say that I am more influenced by them than they
are by me. I think life is still stronger than literature no
matter how good it is. I used to live, not in Brighton, but in
Seagate. I walked every day on the boardwalk; I heard these
people talk. Once in a while they also talk philosophy, Torah,
mysticism; it's a mixture of everything because life is. I
haven't heard them for some time, but I'm glad that these things
M.P. - You and your brother eventually came back to the belief
that Judaism helped people to lead a more moral life.
I.S. - There's no question about it. Although I'm not religious
the way my father was or my grandfather, I feel that without
belief in God that life almost cannot exist. It deteriorates; it
becomes degenerated. You must believe in a Creator, you cannot
live without it. What they are trying in Russia now, to bring up
people in atheism, I think will never succeed. They may succeed
in their kind of Socialism, but they never will be able to bring
up generation after generation which doesn't believe in God.
Because the belief in a higher power is in us; we feel it with
our marrow, our nerves, that there is some plan above us, but all
the wisdom is not concentrated in our little brain.
M.P. - You have, along with your brother, in your early years an
affair with Rationalism; is this new and mature attitude a
reaction to those days?
I.S- - I will tell you; I believe that the mechanical and the
rational is also a part of God, as much as demons and mysticism.
Since I am a kind of Pantheist, and everything is made by God, so
is Logic. The people who went to the moon did not do it against
God or with their own power; God has given them the power to
think. It is true that the computer tells them what to do, but
man made the computer and God made man. In other words, God did
M.P. - I'd like to ask you a tough question-
I.S. - Well, finally? They were all tough, my good man.
M.P. - Part of the assumption in your and your brother's work is
that the Jewish religion is superior in making men happy than
other modes of life. Do you think this is fair?
I.S. - I don't know whether it's fair or not, but it seems to be
that the belief in one God sounds better than the belief in
twenty gods. If I had already to believe in Cod, let there be
only one. Why should I believe in a hundred gods? Those people
who believe in Nature believe in one Nature; I have never heard
any scientist say that there are two Natures. There is not one
Nature on the planet Mars and another on Earth; they all assume
that the Nature which works in the center of the Earth works on
the surface of Mars. So the Jewish belief in one God is nearer to
Science. It's nearer in my kind of logic than a belief in many
gods, or that a man became god, which is strange to the Jewish
spirit. We don't believe in man to such a degree that a man can
suddenly become a partner of the deity. Or let one god control
half the universe, and the other god the other half. Somehow I
feel that we are little creatures. God has given us more brains,
perhaps than the elephants or the lice, but we are still very,
M.P. - Speaking of God and Physics, the Laws contemporary Science
has discovered are not the simple ones of Leibnitz, Nature has no
simplicity or economy, and the laws are so complex they become
I.S. - They are more mystic. The atom has so many parts that one
Science will postulate that the atom itself is an infinite kind
of universe. The more we go into Science, the more we begin to
see the great mystery around us.
M.P. - Well, words are descriptions of the phenomenal world;
comparable to your remark that we see things one step away from
what they are-
I.S. - One step, or who knows, maybe a million steps-
M.P. - But words are either true because they describe
tautologies, or false because they claim the tautologies are
I.S. - Of course. I will tell you, we are as blank now as we were
5000 years ago. It is true that we have learned to make a jet
plane and we can cook on electricity but we still don't know what
electricity, magnetism and gravity are, we are stall touching in
the dark; there's no question about it. It's only the very small
and petty people who speak about discovering how the universe is
created, they go and take a few rocks from the moon and say, from
this rock we will finally know the whole business of the
Almighty. Somehow they haven't teamed from these rocks of the
moon much more than we know from the rocks on the earth. They are
both great mysteries. The mysteries become denser and denser. You
can approach anything; whatever you touch is mystery.
M.P. - Is there not a theme, in your Chronicle novels in
particular and in your brother's work, of renunciation of the
I.S. - The truth is we are compelled, to take it seriously
whether we want to or not. If You have a toothache, you can't
say, I think I'm going to ignore the whole business and think
about Leibnitz or Aristotle. You have to go to a dentist because
the ache is very real to you. And since to me the material world
is also God's work, there's no reason why we should belittle it.
I don't renounce anything. I live in mystery; I take it all with
a feeling of humility, or with an ache when I protest and see
other creatures suffer. I feel like saying to the Almighty, you
may be clever, but enough is enough; you have done us enough
tsouris. I feel in a way this is what religion says.
M.P. - You've talked about your brother's mastery of form. Your
brother is a very classical storyteller. I can almost hear your
voice, and it seems to run on like a river no matter what
happens, and it seems to stop almost arbitrarily-
I.S. - Thank you! Thank you for saying these things. I love to
hear them. I hope that there is some truth in what you say.
M.P. - But, you know, your novels are written as though they
could go on forever-
I.S. - It could, but I will tell you, if I were to publish a
novel of ten thousand pages, they would protest in a big way.
They would say, enough is enough. And I know that it is so. I
would say the largest novels I've read, such novels as War And
Peace or Cervantes' Don Quixote, this is the limit.
M.P. - And for you?
I.S. - The maximum is 700 pages; I -wouldn't go further than 750.
M.P. - How do you know where to end the novel?
I.S. - I will tell you, when you see a man, and you tell him a
monologue, and he begins to yawn, you say to yourself, enough is
enough. When I read my own works and I feel tired, the reader
himself will feel tired. There is really no rule where to end a
novel, but when you write a piece, you say what there is to say,
and then if you go on again and again, you will only spoil what
you have said before.
M.P. - The interior of the minds of your characters are so real;
are you sorry to let them go after you finish your novel?
I.S. - Well, in a way, yes, but I have to comfort myself. I have
the comfort of a lover who finishes with one woman arid begins
with another woman. I know that the moment I finish with one hero
I will go to someone else-and I also may go back to them. Like
many writers I go back to the places of my crime again and again.
I have a street called Kolchmanya Street; almost everything that
I write which takes place in Warsaw happens on Kolchmanya Street,
so I'm not ashamed to go back to the same places and the same
M.P. - That's the street where you and your brother were born-
I.S. - Brought up. I was born in a little village outside Warsaw
which is like a suburb, like New Rochelle from New York. When I
was three years old I was a;ready in Warsaw, on Kolchmanya
Street, and all my knowledge of humanity I have gotten there.
M.P. - What did you learn from translating Thomas Mann and Stefan
I.S. - To tell you the truth I have not only learned from them
not only what one should do, but what one shouldn't do. These
long discussions which go on in The Magic Mountain, although they
are full of culture, I felt he was overdoing it. It is true that
there may have been highly educated readers who loved them,
because they found things there which they knew already; it
pleased them that he knows so much about high culture.
M.P. - I had the feeling that Hans Castorp and Setembrini's
speeches were ironical; I thought he was trying to bore the
reader deliberately. He was asking the reader to say: look at
them, they're so pretentious.
I.S. I'm not so sure; I think Thomas Mann was highly serious-
M.P. - But they go back and forth and Naptha and Settembrini end
up on the other side from where they started. I figured he was
kidding-it was like a big German joke.
I.S. - A joke of 1200 pages is too long. A novel shouldn't run
more than II 00 pages and a joke shouldn't have any more than ten
M.P. - Did you pick The Magic Mountain, or did you do it for
I.S. - For money! I had a publisher and he told me, would you
like to do this job, and I said, I will try. I also had an editor
who knew more German than 1, and when I made a mistake he
corrected me. He also was supposed to know Yiddish but this man
could never have translated a single line. When I translated
Remarque's All Quiet On All Western Front, there was slang spoken
in the German barracks, and this man, since he didn't serve in
the army, didn't know it. Although German was strange to me, I
somehow by instinct understood what this German slang meant.
M.P. - Did you learn anything from translating Stefan Zweig?
I.S. - I don't see that there's anything to learn from Stefan
M.P.= I can't see the two of you-
I.S. - No! I will tell you, I liked very much his history, his
book about Marie Antoinette, the queen who was beheaded. I was in
Israel in the time of the Yom Kippur war, and I was sitting there
in the hotel reading this book, and it made me worry less. He was
a good writer, an elegant writer, but you can't learn much from
M.P. - Yeah. How do you feel about Israel now?
I.S. - I will tell you, in our history, the Jewish people were
already in a mess 3000 years ago. As a matter of fact, they were
in a mess from the very beginning. They are compared to a person
who is ill so that the doctor says, this baby's not going to live
more than two days. They've been living for 4000 years against
all logic, all predictions. The situation with us is always bad.
There was something bad. from the very beginning, but somehow it
continues. Ali I'm sure Israel will continue, but if you ask me
how, I can say I have not the slightest idea. From a practical
and rational point of view it looks ali than gloom. I will tell
you, my own life is also like this. We live in a permanent
crisis; in a way this is true about life generally. The first
protoplasmic cell was already living in a crisis. Life is created
in a way against the laws of Nature. The moment a baby is ill it
has already sicknesses and all kinds of things; you see how all
the Presidents promise that they will straighten out things, and
it becomes always bad. Roosevelt, Hoover, Eisenhower and Carter
didn't keep their promises; this is the very essence of life.
They mean it, they want to do it; Carter would have been the
happiest man in the world if he could have straightened out
things and brought justice, but they can never succeed because
the very essence of life is crisis.
M.P. - There are two modes of life in which it's virtuous to lie:
in love and in politics.
I.S. - I don't say it's okay, but they're lying anyhow.
M.P. - The children's stories you've produced are deep though
they're in a simple language; as far as I know, they're the most
metaphysical children's stories I've ever seen-
I.S. - Thank you. You are kind. All can say is I'm trying my
M.P. - How do you like working with Maurice Sendak?
I.S. - I don't really work with him; I sent him the material. I
like to write for children, and I'll tell you why. Children are
really the most independent creatures. A grownup can be easily
hypnotized by fashion. If some writer is in fashion, if you say
about him that he got the Nobel Prize or the Pulitzer. Prize, the
reader hasn't got the courage to say I don't like it. But a child
can say it, he doesn't care, he doesn't read reaction to
authorities views, what this critic says, or pay attention to
authorities and prizes. He says, this I like; this I don't like.
I wish that our adult readers would have as much courage as
M.P. - I had the feeling that the readers of the Forvets were
I.S. - Yes, since they have the intelligence of children, they
also have the character of children.
M.P. - A very great American writer was the editor of the Forvets
for a number of years. He wrote the masterpiece The Rise of David
Levinsky in English, which in my view is one of the famous books
of the 20th century. Could you tell us something about Abraham
I.S. - I will tell you, I never read Abe Cahan's novels; if you
say it's good, I hope you are right. As a human being he was kind
of peculiar. He believed in his convictions to the point where if
he were convinced something was so, you could never say no to
him. In a way he was a very stubborn man, but I would say he was
able. In literature, he believed only in a few writers. He loved
Tolstoy, and I would say that this is it. AU the other writers,
even when he praised them, it was always with a tongue in the
cheek. He didn't like Dostoevski. He liked Chekhov I must say. He
even didn't like Turgenev; he liked him only a little.
M.P. - He probably liked the early Tolstoy-
I.S. - Not his small late parables, no.
M.P. - How did you get along with him?
I.S. - I didn't. We quarreled. When I came to him with a novel, I
showed him the first two chapters, he liked them, and he began to
publish the novel. While he published, I was writing, and then
when he began to read later on, he said, no, it wasn't the way I
imagined it. I told him, Mr. Cahan, I have made my own plan. If I
would have listened to him he would have been more disappointed
than he was.
M.P. - How did your brother get along with him?
I.S. - Nobody really got along with him. There was always a
crisis with him. He came in the morning and he always complained
about things. Of course, he could never complain about what he
did-but still I lived to see him bringing me some of his articles
that I might look them over and edit them. In spite of all the
quarrels, you know, in his later years he became already weak; he
felt as if he were not such an authority as he considered
himself. But I would say he was a serious man.
M.P. - How did you like the situation of creating a novel on a
I.S. - I will tell you, as a rule I had already written before I
went to the editor, let us say, a hundred pages. Since I
published only once a week these hundred pages were material for
about ten or twelve weeks. So it was not a question of I write
today, I publish tomorrow. But sometimes when something got
spoiled, I suddenly had no copy. When I wrote A Family Moskat I
asked a leave of absence for three months. They gave it to me.
Then I began again. There are many shortcomings in this kind of
writing. You repeat yourself sometimes; you forget. But on the
other hand, there is discipline in it. First of all, you have to
write, whether you feel like it or not. Secondly, you see a
reader before your eyes. Today you write, and a few weeks later
it's read. It's good because the writer who never thinks about
the reader begins to become some kind of solipsist, he begins to
talk to himself. This can do great damage to Literature. The
writers of the 19th century like Dickens and Dostoevski and
Tolstoy; they wrote this way.
M.P. - How do you like running into your audience?
I.S. - I will tell you, if I make a mistake in the Forvets, it's
bad. Yesterday, a story of mine was published in the Forvets. If
I would have made a mistake I would have gotten over ten thousand
letters. I once made one, writing that they said the prayer for
the dead on the Second Day of Rosh Hashonah. The next day the
letter carrier said, what's going on here? He brought sacks of
letters, and all the letters began like this: how could you make
a mistake like this? So in a way a Yiddish writer is very much
connected with life. These people are old, many of them have
lived in Warsaw, they know the Warsaw streets and language;
making a mistake is a dangerous thing. I am still speaking to a
number of these people personally; they may be old, weak, frail,
but their memory is still there. (I.S.'s wife, Alma, enters the
livingroom.) Come over, Alma; let me introduce you to this highly
intelligent gentleman; he knows my writing better than I do. If I
make a mistake, he will not let me.
M.P. - How are you treated now in Poland?
I.S. - For years and years they never translated me into Polish;
I was not kosher behind the Iron Curtain because the Forvets was
anti-communist. Since I am a part of the Jewish Daily Forward, I
was in the enemy camp. Lately they began to translate me in
Hungary and also a little in Poland; it seems as if they've
decided that I'm not their worst enemy, though I am still against
them, and I will always be. I think without Freedom there cannot
be any Justice, although with Freedom there is no Justice either.
M.P. - Isn't there a certain amount of freedom in Poland?
I.S. - Yeah, as a matter of fact I got a magazine from there; my
story was published, and people wrote letters; there is more
freedom in Poland than in Russia because the Polish people are by
nature freer people, I would say, than the Russians were brought
up to be.
M.P. - There were quite a few Jews in the early part of the
century who were both Jews and Polish nationalists, were there
not, like Arthur Rubinstein?
I.S. - There were Jews who wrote in Polish like Slominsky, Tuvin,
Wittin and a number of others who are considered Polish writers.
There was an interview with me in the Times about this Schultz
about four years ago; Philip Roth interviewed me. I would say
that as a rule the Poles feel that Polish literature should be
made by the Poles themselves, not by Jews; just the same, they
accepted Jewish writing too. Now they are translating me. It's a
beginning, but I think it's a beginning which may go on because
I've written about Poland more than many Polish writers. My
brother's Yoshe Kalb was translated into Polish about two or
three years before the war began, when my brother was still
there, and the greatest Anti-Semite in Poland, Novachinski, wrote
an article and praised this book to Heaven. This man who maligned
Jews suddenly came out and said, it's a masterpiece.
M.P. - Well, it is a masterpiece. Speaking of Anti-Semitism, do
you think it will continue around the world now that we have
I.S. - AH the Antis will continue: Anti-Semitism, AntiAmericanism
... people always fight for a number of them. Listen, when a man
and a wife live together, she is very often Anti-Husband, he's an
Anti-Wifist; there's never really any peace between them.
M.P. - At least they can have children to fight each other during
the next generation.
I.S. - Of course, this is the good thing about it- if not, the
fight would be finished.
M.P. - Some of the writers lie David Pinski and H. Levick
addressed themselves to the same problems of sensuality and
metaphysics as you. Did you know them?
I.S. - I met them. I knew Pinski, Levick and Opotashu; I knew all
the American writers, and all the Yiddish writers in Poland. But
I will tell you, with writers it's like stars or electrons; it's
everyone for himself. I don't really believe that there can be
any community of writers, though they all go to the MacDowell
Colony and write their bestsellers and masterpieces, but really,
what binds writers? They are by nature solipsists. When a writer
begins to write for writers or critics, he's finished. There are
many novelists and playwrights who write for the critics; they
have learned what a critic likes so they are sure of a good
review, but they reach nothing else. A real writer writes for the
M.P. - So that means in the great days of the Forvets there was
no sense of a Writer's Guild-
I.S. - Yeah, we had a writers' club in Warsaw where we gossiped
about one another. I remember we were once sitting and gossiping
and then one writer had to leave, so he left, and then went to
the door, and then came back and said, why don't you at least
wait until I close the door?
M.P. - It's the same way in America?
I.S. - It's the same way all over the world.
M,P. - Where did you guys hang out?
I.S. - In Poland there was a cafe rented just for writers. It had
their entertainment; you could get coffee and dinner. We had a
buffet there. Also writers didn't hate one another as much as
they do here because they were poor. There was less envy; there
was nothing to envy. They could gossip and meet together at the
same time; here this would be impossible.
M.P. - You translated Hamsun's Pan and Victoria. Why do you think
that such a great writer and intelligent man became a Nazi?
I.S. - You never know why. I sew ten you, Hamsun felt that he was
very much neglected in Norway and he was highly appreciated in
Germany. They loved him in Germany. Actually, they loved him in
Russia also. There was a time when they waited both in Russia and
Germany, afl over Europe except in France and England, for a
novel of Hamsun. This was the beginning of the 20th century and
then he published his masterpieces, Pan, Hunger, and Victoria.
Later on, after he published The Growth Of All Soil, then he
began to go down as a writer.
M.P. - The Growth Of The Soil is a Fascist book. Even Mysteries
is, he puts down the whole romantic worldview.
I.S. - I never judge books politically, whether they're Fascistic
or not. If it's good, that's what I care about.
M.P. - It was great. (laughs)
I.S. - People don't read him.
M.P. - They don't like him because he's demonic and
I.S. - Yes, he's interesting, but later on his novels became
realistic, naturalistic, and tedious. He had this romance with
the German people. They liked him. Maybe this made him a Nazi; he
was also a man of spite. The greatness of Pan is when he
describes the spite of people who love one another and spite one
another. They love one another immensely but they try their best
to make one another miserable. Hamsun was a master of describing
spite, and he was also very spiteful in life. So just because
everybody was against Fascism, he said, I'm going to show them
that I am for Fascism. I don't believe that in the deepness of
his heart Hamsun could have known a millionth part of the
cruelties which the Nazis did; it was au literary perversion.
M.P. - It was almost as if he were a fictional character.
I.S. - Yeah, he said, all these do-gooders are against Fascism;
I'm going to be a Fascist. But he didn't foresee what evil he did
to himself. His readers sent him back au his books. The maid
brought him every day hundreds of copies of his books. This was
the way readers in many countries protested what he did. In this
country they never really read Hamsun. He is not made of the
right stuff, because spite is not really an American
characteristic; the American people are not spiteful.
M.P. - Did you read as a youth Andreyev and Artzebatchev?
I.S. - Yeah, I read them. I will tell you, they are good but
somehow they didn't reach the heights which the others did. None
of them became a Gogol.
M.P. - What would you say is the difference between Jewish and
I.S. - I would say that the demonology of all nations is very
much alike. A Jewish demon is not a killer; they are mockers. A
Polish demon is really a killer.
M.P. - Polish demons seem more inhuman.
I.S. - I will tell you, the Jew doesn't really like to describe
extreme Evil: killing of children and sadism. Our demons will
snatch at a tongue, will spit at someone, will spit in his soup;
he's not going to shed blood.
M.P. - What do, you think of the experience of getting on
Broadway with Yenti?
I.S. - Well, I took it like a man. I really don't believe that
I'm a playwright, and I don't intend to write plays. In this
world, one has to be an immediate success or you perish.
M.P. - It was successful.
I.S. - This was, but the idea that a bad review could destroy me
doesn't give me the appetite to write plays.
M.P. - How did you like working with Broadway people?
I.S. - I didn't really work much with them. I had a collaborator,
and we were lucky enough to have a very good artist, the one who
played Yenti, Tovah Feldshuh; she kept the play alive.
M.P. - How do writers like Mark Twain who use American oral
tradition and slang translate into Yiddish?
I.S. - Do you know that Mark Twain, Jack London and Edgar Allan
Poe were the only three American writers whom I knew about in
Europe, and I loved them all. Mark Twain, when he's good, is
wonderful; he's not always good-far from it. The Call Of The Wild
is a very good book; I read it in Yiddish, by the way. I was a
youngster but it charmed me; I was charmed by all this business.
I worshipped Edgar Allan Poe; I still do. I read him in Polish.
He is good in all languages.
M.P. - How do you like living on the Upper West Side?
I.S. - Since I never lived on the Upper East Side, I think this
is it. It's like asking a fish, how do you like living in the
water? (to Alma) I gave him the right kind of an answer!
M.P. - You know, I read a book about you which I thought was kind
I.S. - I will tell you, when I get a book like this, I browse, I
look here, I look there; who wants to read about oneself?
M.P. - He reminded me of all the bad teachers I ever had-
I.S. - Of course, who wants to read what the professors say? My
dear man, if the Bible had been written by professors, it
wouldn't have had as many readers as it had.
M.P. - It would have had a lot of critics, but no readers. Have
you been affected by any of the Postwar events here such as the
McCarthy scare, the 60s revolution and so on?
I.S. - Not really. I'll tell you, I was never afraid they would
call me because I was never a Leftist, so I personally was not in
danger. Also I had some grudges against the communists, against
our communists here, who did a lot of damage. About the sexual
revolution, I knew that it had to ' come because the sexual
desire is so great in people that you can only keep it .back with
religion. The moment religion is gone, pornography must break
out- I feel that in spite of the fact that I never used a four
letter word and so on, I'm glad that the censorship is gone. I
wouldn't like to see again the censors telling a writer how to
write. If a writer wants to be vulgar, it is his privilege. If a
writer has the right to be foolish, ridiculous or bad, he should
have the right to be vulgar.
M.P. - Some people are ill fools; others make fools of
themselves; I think it's preferable to be one's own fool.
I.S. - Of course, as long as he doesn't make a fool of other
people. You cannot write a love story without writing about the
sexual relations of these two lovers. When you read Anna
Karenina, you know that she didn't like her husband; she liked
her lover. But there must be some sexual reasons also. Of course
Tolstoy didn't dare to write, he just hinted. We know somehow
that the love was sexual. But there is no reason why these things
shouldn't be written. We don't need to use these special four
letter words, but if a writer feels that he cannot do without it,
I forgive him. I will tell you, I would rather read books about
sex than about murder. They show all cruelties to children on
television and this is kosher. But sex will spoil children. I
think that to show a person stabbing another person does a lot
more damage to the child than if he were to see people kiss,
embrace, or even make love.
M.P. - I think there's a displacement. All child sees murder as
sex, and murder takes on the erotic content of lovemaking.
I.S. - I would give to the writers and television people all the
freedom they want. The freedom may do a little damage; it will
never do, as much damage as strict censorship.
M.P. - How do you feel about the use of drugs?
I.S. - I will tell you, if the drugs do damage I would be against
them; if they don't do any damage I would be for them. Since I
don't know what they really do, I have no opinion.
M.P. - I'd like to ask you one more question and then we're going
to quit ... how do you like touring as a lecturer? It's become
almost a way of life for you.
I.S. - Well, I'll tell you, I'm Teaming a lot about America. I
would know nothing about America if I had been sitting in this
apartment for the past 30 years. But I go to universities and
synagogues and meet hundreds of people. I don't have the illusion
that I know everything about America-far from it-but the little I
know I learn from my lectures. So it's a good thing for me. And
they ask me questions, and I think it's good for them. This is a
good way of finishing this interview.
M.P. - Thank you very much.
I.S. - The question is, is all this recorded, or is there not a
sound on there?
M.P. - No, I checked it out.
I.S. - I once had an interview with a man, it took me two and a
half hours and a few days later, he called me back, and he said,
I have some gloomy things to tell you. I knew already the gloomy
things, so I scolded him and I told him, come back.
M.P. - Writers with tape recorders are the only historians who
can't afford to lie.
I.S. - I will tell you, whatever you say is true. When I write, a
lot happened, a lot I invented, a lot I imagined, and a lot is
combined. A little truth, lies, imagination, something I may have
heard; the human mind is a cauldron, they put in everything like
a garbage dump. Can you go to garbage and say how much is
vegetable and how much is meat? If a man were to analyze it to
find out he would come to some conclusions, but in my case,
everything which is there, is there, and I use whatever I can. If
it's a good story, I try with invention to make it real; if it's
real, it's even better, if it's halfreal it's like a nest built
by a bird. It will have a little twig, a little straw; the main
thing is that the nest should be there.
M.P. - Have you got a sense of a Muse speaking through you?
I.S. - Some writers have said this, but I would say there is much
exaggeration in it. It's not exactly a dybbuk; you have to work
on it, to produce it. If you expect the dybbuk to do everything,
this dybbuk may be a very bad writer. You have to control your
dybbuk. There is dybbuk in it also, but you have to control your
M.P. - You have to be on speaking terms with your dybbuk.
I.S. - You have no choice; even if you don't talk to him, he
talks to you. You can never tell him, I don't want to know you
M.P. - Unlike a lot of writers, you seem to get better.
I.S. - I wish that your words should remain true for years.
Tell me, now I will ask you a question: where do you get the
money to do all this?
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