Juggling life on the tightrope
The Magician of Lublin
A Novel Isaac Bashevis Singer Translated from the Yiddish by Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 246 pp., $15 paper
In Cynthia Ozick’s short story “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” a rival writer agonizes over the ease with which Yankel Ostrover, a character notoriously based on Isaac Bashevis Singer, had escaped the prison of Yiddish literature and turned himself into “a modern.” Was it his guile? His translators? How had he done it? In Singer’s case, the evidence is on the page: He was treated like a modern because he wrote like one.
Even moderns, however, get passed over and forgotten (Knut Hamsun, anyone?) by succeeding generations. Fearing that this might be happening to Singer, his longtime publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux is doing a major paperback reissue of one of the Nobel Prize-winner’s signature novels, “The Magician of Lublin.” The book, first published half a century ago, has been adroitly repackaged with a snappy new cover, done like a theatrical broadsheet, and placed over the elegant original typeface and the graceful tiny illustration of a tightrope walker that begins every chapter.
For Yasha Mazur, the novel’s protagonist, is not a metaphorical conjuror, he is a practicing magician and illusionist, celebrated throughout 1880s Poland — so expert that his followers insist he would be world-famous if he lived in Western Europe.
Returning to Warsaw to begin another season of performance, Yasha is facing two major crises in his life, and that’s not counting his determination to do a somersault on the tightrope despite closing in on 40 years of age.
Crisis No. 1is that Yasha, expert though he is at juggling not only objects but several women at a time, is being “hemmed in at all sides by uncanny forces” in his personal life. Always a soul searcher, the Jewish magician is also increasingly tortured and ambivalent about the religion of his fathers that he has partially abandoned but never completely forgotten.
Adding to the potency of these dilemmas is the fact that they’re precisely the ones that Singer, himself a compulsive womanizer with a complex relationship to orthodox Judaism, dealt with on his own. When Singer writes of Yasha, “He marveled at his own entanglements, yet took some perverse pleasure from them, as if his life were a storybook in which the situation grows tenser and tenser until one can barely wait to turn the page,” the feeling is inescapable that the author is talking about his own situation as well.
Yasha the magician arrives at his Warsaw apartment in the company of Magda, his rail-thin peasant assistant and mistress. Back home in Lublin, he has left behind his pious, childless wife, Esther, who loves him despite, or maybe because of his frailties, as well as yet another mistress, the earthy Zeftel, the abandoned wife of a member of the criminal class.
Taking up most of his thoughts, however, is yet a fourth woman, the aristocratic Emilia. He has fallen madly in love with her. The Gentile widow of a professor, Emilia wants Yasha to convert to Catholicism so they can marry and flee the country with her young daughter: It is a journey that requires a large sum of money that Yasha is nowhere near possessing.
Though “The Magician of Lublin” has major philosophical underpinnings, Singer excels at moving the story along like a compulsively readable thriller. Blessed with the gift of creating worlds, his narratives invariably feel not like they’ve been written but as if they are happening in front of our eyes. Part of this gift is Singer’s facility for vivid characters. Whether it be minor bystanders who appear for a moment or major players like the brazen blond pimp Herman, “a giant who knows himself invincible,” Singer never fails to conjure up people who get up off the page and walk around. Being a modern can be a sometime thing, but great writing engages and endures.