In The Magician of Lublin, Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer tells the story of Yasha, a talented man who simply cannot control himself. As Yasha’s problems multiply, the tone of the novel becomes very dark, and Singer raises several troubling questions. What is a man’s obligation to the people he loves? Is freedom a curse or a blessing? How should anyone go about designing and enacting a useful, happy life? Singer’s trademark empathy and sense of wonder turn this novel into something more than an odd, idiosyncratic, fictional biography. It argues for a slower, more thoughtful way of life; it seems to say, “Notice the world and thank God, thank someone, for the miracle that is your own frustrating, difficult life.”
Yasha is torn between the demands of fidelity and the urge to explore the world. He has a mostly tolerable marriage and an interesting job; he has food and talent, and a wife who is willing to forgive his many dalliances. On the other hand, he is insatiable. He sleeps with Magda, his assistant; he sleeps with a woman of ill repute who might be a whore; he sleeps with a beautiful, new acquaintance, and he eyes this new woman’s adolescent daughter. Within minutes, Yasha can veer from contentment to despair: Should he leave his wife? Should he be happy with what he has and force himself to surrender his destructive, delightful, maddening sexual freedom?
Yasha’s problems are serious, at first, and later they are overwhelming. He finds himself attempting robbery. He discovers that one of his paramours has been driven to suicidal extremes. His relentless urge to explore results in a sordid encounter with the world of sex trafficking. As the tension escalates, Yasha considers renouncing the world altogether: Perhaps he would be better off in a sealed prison, far, far from the temptations of the flesh.
Singer has a special gift for observing the ways in which people make their own hell. In Singer’s later novel, Enemies, he observes that his characters have been scarred by the Holocaust, but that the Holocaust did not create their problems: They were hounding and destroying themselves long before they entered Hitler’s camps. This observation might echo in a reader’s head as he makes his way through The Magician of Lublin. No one oppresses Yasha more than Yasha oppresses himself, and he often sees the world in a deliberately dark, distorting light. Again and again, Singer presents characters who might want to help Yasha, who might even like Yasha, and yet we see that Yasha cannot make himself available to anyone: He cannot even receive a gift from an ally. It’s no surprise that Yasha’s solution to the problem of his weak will is deranged and over-the-top: Yasha, like so many of Singer’s characters, simply cannot help himself.
Singer’s novel is further distinguished by its stirring, rich evocations of the physical world. Often, in Singer’s prose, a sensory experience leads to a heart-stopping epiphany:
He had once read about snowflakes and now he verified what he had learned. Each flake that fell on the window sill was hexagonal, complete with stems and horns, with designs and appendages, formed by that hidden hand which is everywhere… in the earth and in the clouds, in gold and in carrion, in the most distant star and in the heart of man. What can one call this force, if not God?
The passage nicely displays Singer’s talents: an ability to “paint” with words, an awareness of man’s loneliness, a childlike sense of wonder in response to the vastness of the cosmos, a sense of restless curiosity, skepticism, and joy. Singer seems to say, “Even in the midst of suicide, lechery, and bottomless despair, we are lucky. There is nothing as splendid as the opportunity to stand still and notice the world.”
By contrast, Singer can also dramatize the ways in which madness distorts a person’s sensory experiences. John Cheever once observed that his mood always colored his experience of nature; when he was upset he saw only litter and poverty; and it’s clear that, at least in this regard, he was similar to Singer. When Yasha is most upset, he enters a bar:
He opened his eyes and saw all about him in the tavern wild eyes and flushed faces. Hands waved, bodies reeled, feeble arms sought to do battle; there was much kissing and embracing… Opposite Yasha sat a huge man, his skin pockmarked; he had a long mustache, a short pimpled nose, and a scar cut into his forehead. He kept grimacing at Yasha. His watery, crossed eyes rolled in exaltation, the ecstasy of one on the brink of madness.
So persuasive is Singer’s account of one man’s vision of the bar that we almost forget we are reading about a subjective experience. Yasha is deeply upset, and so his eyes dwell on pockmarks, pimples, reeling bodies, and battling, feeble arms. Singer subtly and effortlessly inserts us into the mind of a troubled man, and reminds us that the external world is in some ways a product of our own imagination.
With this early novel, Singer beautifully articulated many of the themes that would haunt him throughout his life. Men are still juggling multiple girlfriends in Enemies; men are still allowing their own problems to color their sensory and intellectual experiences. It’s possible to see a kind of spiritual autobiography in the story of Yasha’s plight: Singer himself wrestled with the pleasures and perils of sexual liberation, and he married four times. Singer’s compassion for Yasha is evident: What is a man to do with his own, sadly limited will? Can a good artist be a good person, and if not, should he still try?
On the 50th anniversary of this novel’s publication, it is to be hoped that Singer reaches a vast, young audience. Half a century may have passed, but the problems Yasha faces still seem urgent, mesmerizing, and new.