Jug­gling life on the tightrope

Los Angeles Times - - Book Review - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC

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.

ken­neth.tu­ran@latimes.com

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