Reviews

'The Magician of Lublin' Is The Tale of a Talented Man Who Simply Cannot Control Himself

Isaac Bashevis Singer

A man wrestles with his own limitless appetites in this moving, early novel from Isaac Bashevis Singer.


The Magician of Lublin

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Length: 246 pages
Author: Isaac Bashevis Singer
Price: $15
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-09
Amazon

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.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image