The Artist in Disguise in Isaac Bashevis Singer

Novelists write about every kind of character imaginable. Or do they?

Sometimes, I wonder.

No matter how a writer may strive to shape his or her characters into mundane or average peopleit seems to me that some spark of the creative imagination that bore them, some impression of the sculptor’s hand, often remains.

To take one of a multitude of examples, one of my favorite writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is not known to write about artists. But I would say that Florentino Ariza in “Love in the Time of Cholera”, with his feverish vow to stay true to his love Fermina Daza, even as the decades pass, maintains an artistic flourish in his promise, even if his violin playing and urge to write sentimental verse wane as he ages.

I was reminded of this tendency yet again last week when I picked up a book by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Like many fascinating writers, Singer is an original and outlier. First writing stories in Yiddish for a Jewish newspaper in New York, he gained widespread readership and recognition only years later, eventually going on to win the Nobel Prize.

In “The Magician of Lublin”, his lead character, Yasha, is a kindly, debauched middle-aged magician, married to a devoted wife but with a mistress or two in every city. Yasha is a sensitive man with doubts and scruples, who nevertheless contemplates stealing to pay for a grandiose escape plan to run off with his favorite mistress-of-the-day.

Yasha is not an average, run-of-the-mill magician.

He could walk on his hands, eat fire, swallow swords, turn somersaults like a monkey. No one could duplicate his skill. He would be imprisoned in a room at night with the lock clamped on the outside of the door, and the next morning he would be seen nonchalantly strolling through the market place, while on the outside of the door the lock remained unopened. He could manage this even with his hands and feet chained. Some maintained that he practiced black magic and owned a cap which made him invisible, capable of squeezing through cracks in the wall; others said that he was merely a master of illusion.

Singer even refers to Yasha as an “artist”. But the artistic inflections in this book are not derived from the protagonist’s powers as a magician. In fact, throughout the entire book, Yasha never once performs.

Instead there is an interesting tension between what Yasha sees as the mundane and unsatisfying reality around him, and the aspirations, dreams and fantasies for which he strives. He is not satisfied with his wife, though he loves her. Nor is he satisfied with any of his mistresses. He is famous throughout Poland, but he craves international recognition. He also finds no contentment with the dogma or practice of his religion.

He was half Jew, half Gentile — neither Jew nor Gentile. He had worked out his own religion. There was a Creator, but He revealed Himself to no one, gave no indications of what was permitted or forbidden. Those who spoke His name were liars.

Certainly restlessness and doubt are not the exclusive domain of artists. But it is where he turns for relief and inspiration — his tendency to invent another world, a world of fantasy, of dreams — that distinguishes him as an artist.

Yasha dozed off and dreamt that he was flying. He rose above the ground and soared, soared. He wondered why he had not tried it beforeit was so easy, so easy. He dreamt this almost every night, and each time awoke with the sensation that a distorted kind of reality had been revealed to him. Often he wondered if it had been a dream or simply a train of thought. For years now he had been fascinated by the idea of putting on a pair of wings and flying. If a bird could do it, why not man?

This story is not about artists or the importance of art as a force for inspiration. On the contrary. By the end of the story, Yasha, who has fallen from grace, gives up practicing as a magician, bricks himself into a small hut next to his old house, and becomes a penitent.

But his newly chosen life of extreme privation is oddly dramatic, and, for many others becomes a source of inspiration. Yasha, rooted in his little bricked hut, becomes more famous and sought after than ever, and, in spite of his reservations, sees people each day who question him like a holy man.

In this book, Yasha strives to become a free man, safe from the many temptations and miseries that dog him.

But, no matter where he goes, no matter what he does, he finds no escape from the persistence of his imagination.

To drive away his evil thoughts, Yasha intoned the Treatise of Benedictions: “From what time in the evening may the Shema be recited? From the time the Priests enter the temple to eat of their heave offering...”  As he passed from the first paragraph to the second, he lived through a new fantasy. Emilia was still alive. She had purchased an estate in Lublin and had a tunnel dug  from her bedroom directly to his cell. She came and gave herself to him. Just before daybreak she hastened back. Yasha trembled. For one moment he had relaxed and fancies had burrowed through like mice or hobgoblins.

Is this the story of a man searching for God, as Singer may have us believe?

Or is it the story of a artist unsure of the value of his own creations?

Sometimes, I wonder.