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Isaac Bashevis Singer talks with Studs Terkel

BROADCAST: Nov. 18, 1964 | DURATION: 00:49:50


Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer discusses his collection of short stories, "Short Friday," as well as his writing style and spiritual influences.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel "You say--big, little, what's the difference? Man is not measured by a yardstick. The main thing is the head, not the feet. Still, if a person gets hold of some foolish notion, you never know where it may lead. Let me tell you a story." And thus begins a rather light and yet sardonic tale called "Big and Little" by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who is certainly one of the profound writers of our generation. Mr. Singer has been described by Stanley Edgar Hyman as the Yiddish Hawthorne. "The comparison," writes Mr. Hyman, "is inevitable. Singer writes what Hawthorne calls 'romances' rather than novels, and moral fables and allegories rather than short stories." And we're delighted that Mr. Singer's our guest. His most recent collection of short stories called "Short Friday," one of the stories in the book. He's also the author of the celebrated novel of a couple of years ago, "The Slave," and "Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories." And, Mr. Singer, we're delighted to have as our guest this morning.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.

Studs Terkel When you were described as "The Yiddish Hawthorne," what's your feeling?

Isaac Bashevis Singer The trouble is that when I was described as "The Yiddish Hawthorne" I hadn't read a single thing by Hawthorne so I didn't know if I should have been proud or not. But I now know that Hawthorne was a great writer.

Studs Terkel Well, it [seems as if?] you're pleased now, with the reference?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. I certainly am.

Studs Terkel Well, of course, Hyman's referring to the matter of fables and, of course, your stories are beyond stories to me, and as I was reading "Short Friday," perhaps you can read excerpts from some of them, perhaps even one of them if possible. Mr. Singer, your concern with dreams, and fantasy, and demons; the line between reality and fantasy. A narrow one, huh?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, the truth is that even in life itself, it's a short way between fantasy and reality. I would say that there is almost no difference between them in many cases. So, and the same thing certainly should be in literature because literature is not only the study of what a man does but also of how a man feels, what he thinks. And in the mind, certainly, fantasy is almost everything.

Studs Terkel It's almost the reali--I mean, it's the reality--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Somebody said that the melodrama is the drama of the mind.

Studs Terkel The melodrama is the drama of the mind.

Isaac Bashevis Singer The drama of the mind.

Studs Terkel How it becomes larger than life itself.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, yes, yes.

Studs Terkel And more passionate and more violent, perhaps.

Isaac Bashevis Singer What is impossible outside of the mind is certainly possible in the mind. As a matter of fact, in the mind everything is possible.

Studs Terkel And this is the rea--the source, the nature of your writing isn't it?

Isaac Bashevis Singer I would say so. I always feel that we don't have just to describe facts but also, but we would like to do what we imagine ourselves to do, and so on.

Studs Terkel You know, there's something you said before we went on the air, was a comment; I was smoking a cigar and you were talking about tobacco not being, you know, conducive toward the good health of man. I was saying isn't it funny how doctors who smoke cigars say cigars are all right, and fat doctors say don't worry about calories. And you said, it's true; human passions, though, are stronger than human knowledge.

Isaac Bashevis Singer This is what Spinoza says. However, Spinoza believes that with great effort we can overcome some of our passions. And this is on what his "Ethics" is built. That we can, and in some cases, outsmart our passions.

Studs Terkel In a way, isn't this what some of the heroes of your novels and short stories, some--

Isaac Bashevis Singer In some cases they do outsmart them and in some cases the passions themselves are so smart that they outsmart human smartness.

Studs Terkel Yeah, as you say, I think in one of the stories called "The Last" in the collection and, perhaps, we could talk about it, in "Short Friday," some of the stories. There's one called "The Last Demon." I'll ask you about some of the longer ones, "Blood," particularly. But "The Last Demon," it's, on page 119, if I may turn to that. And basically, "The Last Demon," it's about demons--you believe in demons?

Isaac Bashevis Singer I believe in them and also I use them as symbols. In literature they're very useful because you can, by saying demon you can sometimes say many things. They are very good: imps, demons, as symbols for worldly mistakes, for malice, and so on. So I use them mostly for symbols but I also believe that there are powers which we don't know. If you call them demons, or imps, or [shapes?], or whatever you call them, there are some powers which may be discovered sometimes in the future, and they may never be discovered.

Studs Terkel Well, these powers you're talking about that are implicit, and not only implicit, they're personified in some of your stories. These powers are, again, connected with human passion.

Isaac Bashevis Singer They are, naturally, naturally. They always speak to the passion, not to reason. The devil always applies to our passion, not to [our understanding?].

Studs Terkel But this last, this last demon has a problem. He says "I," first person, "I, a demon," this is in one of the stories of Mr. Singer in "Short Friday." "I, a demon, bear witness that there are no more demons left. Why demons, when man himself is a demon? Why persuade to evil someone who is already convinced? I am the last of the persuaders. I board in an attic in Tishevitz," this is the town--

Isaac Bashevis Singer A little village.

Studs Terkel I'll ask you later about your own village.

Isaac Bashevis Singer [Leoncin?].

Studs Terkel "And I draw my sustenance from," says the demon, "from a Yiddish storybook, a leftover from the days before the great catastrophe. The stories in the book are pabulum and duck milk but the Hebrew letters have a weight of their own. I don't have to tell you I am a Jew. What else? A Gentile? I've heard there are Gentile demons but I don't know any, nor do I wish to know them. Jacob and Esau don't become in-laws." And, thus, of course, there is this humor, too. There is a mordant humor in all, amidst so many of your stories.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Thank you for saying so. I guess so, there is some. You need humor to deal with demons.

Studs Terkel Well, isn't this also the humor of survival? Almost an underground humor?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, what do you mean by survival? Survival--

Studs Terkel I mean--

Isaac Bashevis Singer of the group? Of the?

Studs Terkel Survival of people, survival of man. The humor in the midst of all adversity and demons.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, yes. There is such a thing as Jewish humor [as known?]. But I would say that also, in case of humor, it's every man for himself. Some has it and some--

Studs Terkel But the humor that you have here, and in the midst of horrors, too. And, but this demon is having a problem, isn't he? And the problem is he meets another demon who is in the guise of a spider. He says this [unintelligible] man. Now they've got competition, haven't they?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Surely. This is the way--how can we see demons? We only see them as men. We cannot grasp anything but men. So, naturally, we see the demons as men.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking, before we go further into, to just touch upon some of the other stories in the book. Particularly those dealing with the three of your heroines. Of "Blood" that deals with Risha, a frightening woman. And "Esther Kreindel," and this is the good dybbuk, and other, the stories. Yourself. "The Slave" was a powerful and celebrated novel dealing with 17th century Poland. And I asked before we went on about your research concerning "The Slave."

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. The truth is that I have written in 1935 a book called "Satan in Goray." This book was also about the 17th century. So I did a lot of research even then. And since "The Slave" is, in a way, a continuation of "Satan in Goray," so I didn't have to do research again. But also, my whole life was a kind of research for the 17th century. Because in the little town where I lived a number of years the people lived, even though it was the 20th century, they lived more or less like people lived in the 17th century--no great changes occurred. So from their life I could learn a lot about the past.

Studs Terkel This was the town in Poland? Where you were--yeah.

Isaac Bashevis Singer This was a town in Poland. It was called Bilgoraj where my grandfather was a rabbi.

Studs Terkel When, and this town, then, has become sort of the, this became the source of the shtetls, of the villages in your book?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. I mean, this village is my image of the [statdt?].

Studs Terkel You say that in the 20th century, of course, you until about 30 years ago or so you lived there.

Isaac Bashevis Singer I lived there, naturally. I lived there. It is true that most of my time I lived in Warsaw but about four years, from 15 to 19, I lived in this village which was a kind of a godforsaken village far away. There were no trains there [around?]. And people lived like in the old times. And I would say that these four years have given me a lot of experience which was necessary for my work.

Studs Terkel How come? This is surprising. Before I ask about yourself becoming the writer, you also are a correspondent, columnist for "The Jewish Daily Forward."

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel How come in the 20th century, I'm sure there are such, this was in Poland?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel In this. Was this a ghetto village? Or was it, was it, this primarily a Jewish village or was it?

Isaac Bashevis Singer It was not a ghetto village. But I would say that the majority were Jewish people. And since they were pious, they lived according to the law, and they lived so as people lived a hundred or 200 years ago. Even the Gentiles lived like in the old ways.

Studs Terkel So there was no recognition of the 20th century?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Almost, almost. The only thing was we had the troubles of the 20th century; the wars, the--but, no other signs of progress.

Studs Terkel So you had the troubles of the 20th century without the benefits?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Without the benefits. Yes. You may say so.

Studs Terkel And the question must arise involving yourself and your brother, the late I.J. Singer, who wrote "The Brothers Ashkenazi."

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel How you two, in this village, where did this source for writing come from?

Isaac Bashevis Singer The source for writing doesn't come only from big towns. I would say that heredity plays the most important part. My father and my mother were both excellent storytellers in their own way. I used to marvel how wonderfully they told stories. And I would say that we inherited some of this power.

Studs Terkel You just said something that I think is a point worth pursuing. There were story tellers. What you are, primarily, is a storyteller.

Isaac Bashevis Singer I would say so. I think that literature suffers nowadays a lot from the fact that writers don't pay much attention to the story. They think that it's enough to describe a piece of life, so to say, and this is enough. I don't think so. I think a story is the most important thing for writing. You have to have something to tell. If a writer has nothing to tell, no matter how well he writes, he will never bring out anything which is really good.

Studs Terkel Do you feel that there has been this trend, that is, in our century, something has been lost in the nature of telling stories?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Lost, the art of telling a story. People are so much interested in psychology, and in psychoanalysis, and so on that they think that you just can describe a man but this is not enough. Something must happen. The same thing, I would say, that the rules of literature are the same like the rules of a newspaper--you cannot just publish something every day. You have to, there must be a story behind every story, I would say.

Studs Terkel And thus, not only you are also a journalist as well as a writer of stories.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. I am a journalist.

Studs Terkel And the principle applies.

Isaac Bashevis Singer The principle applies everywhere. Once a woman came to the Jewish state of Florida, she complained, she said, "Why do you always write about bad women? Why don't you write once in a while about a good woman?" She said, "If I would have killed my husband I would have gotten a lot of publicity in [your?] newspaper. But because I'm a good woman nobody ever mentions my name." This complaint was right but it was also false because since the majority of women don't kill their husbands so there is nothing new in it. And since there is nothing new it cannot be news. And the same thing, I would say, is true in literature. If you sit down to write about just an honest man who has done nothing, no real story can come out. And I would say that this explains why there is so much evil in literature because evil creates news.

Studs Terkel [And isn't 'end of story'?].

Isaac Bashevis Singer [End of story?].

Studs Terkel Isn't there something else, though, implied? And I'm not going to be the psychiatrist here because you were saying, yet, I'm sure your stories are analyzed very often, are they not? By analysts, your stories? I'm sure they have field days with them, don't they? Of course,

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Studs Terkel them, don't they? Naturally, the critics analyze everything. Of course, you write about demons and visions. But

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Studs Terkel Surely. But this woman who said to you she's a good woman and she's never injured her husband; yet, isn't there implied underneath, that in her thoughts, sometimes, in her thoughts are blood and lust?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Perhaps. Perhaps there was a desire to, she had the desire to be written about. I would say that, not only writers, but even plain people have sometimes a desire for publicity, for the limelight.

Studs Terkel That gives them some recognition.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of this story, "Blood," and, you know, some will say, Mr. Singer, Mr. Isaac Bashevis Singer, writes often about lust and blood and dreams and visions. "Blood" deals, you open up, "The Cabalists know that the passion for blood and the passion for flesh have the same origin, and this is the reason 'Thou shalt not kill' is followed by 'Thou shalt not commit adultery,'" and then begins your story. And this is a remarkable story. It's a fantastic one about this woman who is infatuated with a slaughterer, that's his profession.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel Reuben the slaughterer.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel But as she is infatuated with him, she, herself, becomes a slaughterer.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel And he, the, her paramour, the slaughterer--she's married to an old, gentle man who is a scholar. "One transgression begets another. One day Satan, the father of all lust and cunning, tempted Risha," the woman, "to take a hand in the slaughtering. Reuben was alarmed. True, he was an adulterer, but nevertheless a believer as many sinners are. He argued for their sins they should be whipped, but why should they lead other people into iniquity, causing them to eat non-kosher carcasses?" This dealt with the manner of her slaughtering?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel Now who is Risha? Who becomes eventually, of course--the wildness of the stories--she becomes a beast. She's almost transformed.

Isaac Bashevis Singer I would say that she's the [born? bold?] sadist. But sadism is older than what [Krafft and Sartre?] discovered. It's as old as humanity. She was a sadist and she tried to fulfill her desires by slaughtering animals. Maybe if she would have been in a different circumstances she might have killed human beings, too.

Studs Terkel You know, as you speak so gently, you speak gently and you're a gentle man in your outlook, Mr. Singer. Yet, in your writings, in your stories you dig deep, deep into the dark, dark recesses.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, we all have our dark side. There isn't such a gentle soul which doesn't have an abyss behind it.

Studs Terkel And yet, you just, you flip the coin and there's another story. "Esther Kreindel the Second" which deals with a, I would call her, what, a gentle dybbuk, would you?

Isaac Bashevis Singer A gentle dybbuk, yes. Yes. I would say that this young girl, the hero of this story, was possessed by a dybbuk. However, it is ambiguous. You may say she was possessed by a dybbuk or you may say that she invented the whole thing to be able to marry this old man. Many of my stories are written so that they are ambiguous. In other words, if you are a rationalist you can also find an explanation. And if you are believer you find your own explanation.

Studs Terkel So it's open?

Isaac Bashevis Singer It's open, yes.

Studs Terkel Even though you write definitely. But the man who is, the man can reason out explanation.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. He can reason, he can have his choice, so to say. And I do it quite often.

Studs Terkel At the same time, the mystic, he can have his way, too.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Exactly.

Studs Terkel I'm not going to ask which you are, am

Isaac Bashevis Singer I? I am, I, you may ask me. I consider myself a kind of a mystic.

Studs Terkel Would you mind, perhaps, expanding on this just a bit?

Isaac Bashevis Singer What I mean by this is that I feel that what we know about life and about ourselves is not everything. There are hidden powers which we don't know and which we may never know. And I always feel these powers. For example, telepathy is such a power; we all have it although we don't know why, and how it works, and we can never foresee when it will work. But it's, still, it's there. The same thing is true about the dreams which come true, and so on and so on. I would say that there is some mystic in every human being, even in those who deny it.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of this girl, Esther Kreindel the Second, it's a young girl named Simmele.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel And there's a wonderful, elderly woman who died and she was of a wealthy, the wife of this wealthy man, and somehow this young girl was transformed, became this old woman as though returning. The old woman visited her, the ghost of the old woman visited her.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. She visited her and she told her that her soul will enter her because her husband yearns for her. And so she enters her and the young girl begins to play the part of the older woman. If you are a rationalist you just say that the girl wanted to marry this older man because he was rich or she loved him. If you are a mystic, you explain it your way.

Studs Terkel Of course, in talking about, we're talking with Isaac Bashevis Singer, the talking does not tell us how beautiful Mr. Singer's writing is. Perhaps, if we even, if you don't mind, even pick out, just examples. I know it's terrible to pick out excerpts and passages, but just an example of the writings. Just, if we turn towards "Esther Kreindel the Second," just, I just arbitrarily do this, just so that the imagery of Mr. Singer's writing, just--"Next Simmele describ--just turned to page. "The girl described the diamond pillars of Paradise among which the just sit on golden chairs with crowns on their heads, feasting." Oh, she was describing first, the hell?

Isaac Bashevis Singer First, she describes [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel Like [Gehenna?], you call that?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. And then she's describing Paradise, or the reverse. I don't remember.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And the Paradise, this is funny, there's a hell described here that reminds you so, to me, for the moment, I thought of Joyce, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," when he heard the priest and the everlasting, you know, horror that would be his, that would be his fate. And here, you in your way describe it in a Jewish way. And then next, "Simmele described the diamond pillars of Paradise among which the just sit on golden chairs with crowns on their heads feasting on Leviathan and the Wild Ox, drinking the wine which God keeps for his beloved ones while angels divulge to them the secrets of the Torah. Simmele explained that the righteous don't use their wives as footstools." This is rather interesting here.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel You make a reference here to the lot of the women. Earlier, I think, the ghost was saying you and I, to this younger woman, will be the footstools of this marvelous man.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, yes. But then she discovers that they are not actually footstools and the women rejoice that they can sit near their husbands in Paradise.

Studs Terkel "The holy women sit near their husbands, but on chairs whose gold heads are somewhat lower than those of the men." Well, this is an aspect, isn't it? How come women, you have a capacity here, you, a man, of capturing; some of the central figures of your stories are women.

Isaac Bashevis Singer I don't think so. I think men and women are, played a more or less an equal part in my stories. It never occurred to me but perhaps you are right. I would have to analyze it and see if it is so.

Studs Terkel Now, I didn't say that women weren't, the men are a central figure. But, I mean, you, how this, this capacity for understanding the--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well--

Studs Terkel Whatever, I don't want to use the psychiatric, the psyche of women--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well--

Studs Terkel The soul of women.

Isaac Bashevis Singer A writer has to understand human beings. Without that he's not a writer at all. And you don't expect a writer just to understand those of his gender. We have to understand everybody, more or less.

Studs Terkel And throughout your book there are scriptural references, you know, and Kabbalistic--you were also a Talmudic scholar? You, yourself?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. I studied. I don't know if I'm a scholar but I studied the Talmud many years, until I was about 20 years. So I know a little about the Talmud. But the Talmud is called an ocean; and you don't know the whole ocean.

Studs Terkel No.

Isaac Bashevis Singer All its depths.

Studs Terkel It's called an ocean?

Isaac Bashevis Singer An ocean, yes.

Studs Terkel I mean, there's a complete digging, and, and--

Isaac Bashevis Singer What they mean by it is, if you don't know how to swim in it, you sink in it.

Studs Terkel Throughout your book these, there are aphorisms, and comments of, very wise ones, indeed. I'm thinking of, there's a sad one of "Zeidlus the Pope." This was a young student on page 76--178, 179. He had a rough life, was that it? I'm trying to remember now.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. He converted. He was a very proud man and since he was not recognized by the Jews, he tried to be recognized by the Christians. And then he wanted to become a priest and he dreamt about becoming a pope. But somehow the devil didn't let him accomplish this. This is more or less the story.

Studs Terkel I knew why I chose this, or this particular part, because throughout there's a recurring theme: pride.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Pride. Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel Now the demon tries to get--there was one, who was it? There was some, one student who was so good, they tried to get him but, was it "The Last Demon"?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. This is in the story of "The Last Demon"--

Studs Terkel "The Last Demon."

Isaac Bashevis Singer That the rabbi was so pious but the demon tried to make him [proud?]. In this way lead him into sin but he didn't succeed. But here the devil does succeed, in the other story.

Studs Terkel In "Zeidlus the Pope"--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel There's this dialogue, this dialogue here, "'With what can you grasp it?'" someone asks. "'With your passions--some small part of it. But you, Reb Zeidel, have only one passion: pride.'" You call pride a passion?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, I would call it a passion. According to Spinoza it is a passion. Actually, what I call a passion is what Spinoza calls an effect. It's the same thing, an emotion, a passion, an effect.

Studs Terkel And he spea--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Three names for the same thing, actually.

Studs Terkel "'If you destroy that too,'" as pride, "'you'll be hollow, a void.' 'What should I do?'" This scholar, rabbi, "Zeidel asked, baffled. 'Tomorrow, go to the priest. I want to become one of them.'" Thus, the devil talks. And, again, I see, throughout, there's one dealing with fasting. The pleasures of fasting, in the days we worry about cholesterol and caloric--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, yes. This is "The Fast."

Studs Terkel This is called "The Fast."

Isaac Bashevis Singer "The Fast," yes.

Studs Terkel And here, again, the mys--

Isaac Bashevis Singer This is a man who is in love with a woman and he's fasting. And by the power of his fasting he attaches her to him. The story ends with the words "'I'm in your power.'" "'Miserable leech! I'm in your power." Even though the woman hates him she just cannot detach herself from him because he keeps over the power of his fasting.

Studs Terkel Yes. This is a marvelous, I just choose a page, again, at random here. The power of the fast. I mean, he became the ascetic. The power of this ascetic, then, he became greater than his body.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. It is true what you say. Yes.

Studs Terkel "Dogs, cats and birds ate the scraps." They're talking about Itche Nokhum throwing food out the window. "Dogs, cats, and birds ate the scraps. It was only now, at the age of forty, that Itche Nokhum understood why the sages of old had fasted from Sabbath to Sabbath. An empty stomach, a pure bowel, is an exquisite pleasure." I never heard it described as that.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel In these days when we have so many--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. [unintelligible]

Studs Terkel "The body is light." Oh, that's something else of a theme: weightlessness enters your stories.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, yes. Once in a while. You know, it's all a part of so-called psychical research.

Studs Terkel Psychical research? The weightlessness?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Weightlessness.

Studs Terkel Has the reference ever been made to you, I suppose it has many times, of you write like Chagall paints. Has that been said of you?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Some critics have said this a few times but I don't think so. I don't think that you can compare writing to painting.

Studs Terkel You mean the two different crafts involved?

Isaac Bashevis Singer They are two different [aspects?] altogether.

Studs Terkel Well, the reason I said the weightlessness, I thought of the flying figures, you know.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, that he has--

Studs Terkel He goes on to describe, Mr. Singer goes on to describe, "Even bread, potatoes and greens were too much. It was just enough to eat. He ate just enough to sustain human life. And for that, a bite or two sufficed for several days. Anything more was self-indulgence. Why yield to gluttony?" And then he goes on. The less he yielded to gluttony, the less it seems he yielded to physical demands, the more strong that he seemed to become psychically.

Isaac Bashevis Singer [The stronger?] his spirit became. Yes.

Studs Terkel "In time, opposing this lusting creature becomes a habit. One bends it, gags it, or else one lets it babble on without answering--as it is written: 'Answer not a fool according to his folly.'"

Isaac Bashevis Singer This is a quotation from Proverbs.

Studs Terkel Oh, this is--so, oh, again, the--your arsenal is a huge one. I mean you--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, it's, I have studied Jewish law. I studied a little the Kabbalah, Hasidic law, and so I'm, it's natural that I should quote the things which I know.

Studs Terkel You know, in the December issue, there's a special issue of "Esquire," that Christmas issue with some of the finest writers, with Muriel Spark, the young British writer. And down to--and then up to, I should--Dylan Thomas is there, Alberto Moravia, the Italian writer, Frank O'Connor, the Irish; they've chosen the world, it seems. Now we come to Isaac Bashevis Singer. And one of the stories from "Short Friday" is in "Esquire." "Cunegunde," the witch. Isn't this the name of the girl who was the heroine of Voltaire's "Candide"?

Isaac Bashevis Singer I don't remember.

Studs Terkel Wasn't that her name?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Was her name--Cunegunde is a Christian name. Yes. There

Studs Terkel

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yeah. Yes. There was a Saint Cunigunde. But in this case, Cunegunde is a witch in my story.

Studs Terkel How do you know, now, I asked you this before we went on the air. This is obviously a case history of a witch, you know. Are you a warlock?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, I'm not a warlock myself but, perhaps, there is a little of a warlock in every human being, and especially in a writer. Especially in a mystic.

Studs Terkel A mystic writer, then, has to have something of the witch in him, or the--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well--

Studs Terkel The warlock?

Isaac Bashevis Singer The dark and the light have something in common.

Studs Terkel This description, "If Cunegunde had not acquired witchcraft, she might have been destroyed. She might have learned that what harmed her, others was propitious for her. When men and animals suffered, she was at peace. She began to wish sickness, strife and misery on the village. Although the other girls abhorred the dead, Cunegunde," who was in the body of a young girl, was that it? Cunegunde?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Cunegunde--

Studs Terkel She was an old woman?

Isaac Bashevis Singer She's an old woman, yes.

Studs Terkel "Although other girls abhorred the dead." Yeah, I see, she's an old girl.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel "Cunegunde liked to study a corpse, chalky or clay yellow, prostrated with candles at its head," and then it goes on, this is a, it's a very vivid description. And the town, finally, she had a rough--she got it.

Isaac Bashevis Singer She was punished after all.

Studs Terkel The last story. The last story, the title story. Again, you vary evil, darkness, light, sunshine. "Short Friday," which deals with, it's a tender story of a couple who worked very hard and in the shortest Friday of the year find the happiness.

Isaac Bashevis Singer They die. Yes. They find happiness and die. At the end they die. This story ends with their awakening in their graves.

Studs Terkel You know, I couldn't help but feel, as I was reading this last story, it's so beautiful. I thought of the old Greek myth, you know, Philemon and Baucis, you know? You remember? Mercury came to visit them and they were kindly--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel And then they were rewarded by the two trees being next to one another, together. And so it is with our two friends here, this couple. Again your writing, the dialogue. The dialogue. There's a poetry. How do you--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, I write dialogue in my, in Yiddish, and then it's translated into English. But I see to it that it should still sound like dialect, that it shouldn't become stilted. It's very difficult to translate so that it sounds right in another language. But I hope that I succeed.

Studs Terkel What's amazing, what's amazing here is, often when something is translated, a certain salt, a certain flavor is lost. Yet, you write this in Yiddish and--

Isaac Bashevis Singer I write it in Yiddish and I see to it that little is lost. But, naturally, a part is lost. I once said that if somebody writes for translation he should write not hundred percent well, but hundred fifty percent well, so, for the 50 percent which may be lost in translation.

Studs Terkel What's amazing is that how little, it seems to me, I don't know, [I wish you could?], but it must be fantastic, and yet, of course, how little is lost in this.

Isaac Bashevis Singer If you would know the original you would see that some is lost. But I'm glad that something still remains.

Studs Terkel I think it should be pointed out that for non-Jewish readers this is powerful as literature. It doesn't matter, of course. Harry Moore, it's interesting, Harry Moore, the critic, Harry T. Moore, I think of Southern Illinois University, says, writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer, our guest, says, "One of the really great novelists today. This reviewer," Moore's speaking of himself, "has no vested interest in Polish towns or stories set in them. But he admires depth and intensity in writing and these qualities Isaac Bashevis Singer has in high degree. He writes in Yiddish but so powerfully that the force of his work comes through in English translations." So it's the universal. I mean, even though this is within your cultural framework, your pattern, it's completely universal.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, I have read many translations and I enjoyed them even more than the originals, if the writers were good. I read, for example, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in Polish translation because I don't know Russian. I still, I admired them. I read Flaubert also in German, or in Yiddish, or in Hebrew. I other words, you cannot destroy a writer. If he has really something he comes out also in translation. Even though we know that we get less than if you would read the original.

Studs Terkel The writer, the creative man who explores the darkness and the lights. This is no matter what language, no matter what era, no matter what country.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Exactly. It's actually universal.

Studs Terkel Thinking of this, [maybe?] another, some of your stories, by the way, are--a couple of your stories--have an American, American locales.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. there are here two American stories. One is called "Alone" which is a story about, which takes place in Miami Beach and the other one is called "A Wedding in Brownsville."

Studs Terkel "I Place"--"A Wedding in," ooh, yeah, that's a--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel And also, "I Place my Reliance on No Man." The rabbi.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel That's, is that here?

Isaac Bashevis Singer No. This takes place--

Studs Terkel In Europe.

Isaac Bashevis Singer In the old country.

Studs Terkel That's an interesting one, isn't it? I'm sure that, I think all clergymen would like. This is about the rabbi who is torn apart, it seems, by his congregation. He found serenity as a working man.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. He ends up by working.

Studs Terkel A place. But this Miami story, again-- The

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Studs Terkel "Alone." Yes. The wish, it's almost Faust, Faust's theme, isn't it, in a way?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yeah. The man wishes that he should have a hotel for himself and he gets a hotel for himself. Then he wishes a woman to come and a woman comes. But still, he doesn't get what he really wanted. Yes.

Studs Terkel No. Of course, it becomes kind of a nightmare doesn't it.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel The woman turns out to be a hunchback.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel A strange, horrible looking creature.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yeah, from Cuba. Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel But animal. Here again, his wish was a sinful wish. Is that the idea?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Naturally it was a sinful wish because, it was also, actually, an expression of pride; he wanted to be alone in hotel, he wanted to get a woman in a sinful way. But--

Studs Terkel And so as a result--

Isaac Bashevis Singer He got what he wanted but it wasn't what, it wasn't really what he desired.

Studs Terkel Of course, almost in the form of a beast.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel Of course, the beast we think--although the description of the storm, by the way: "Although lightning flared in the glowing sky, although--Already, lightning flared in the glowing sky, although I didn't hear thunder," writes the first person. "A huge cloud was descending from above, thick as a mountain, full of fire and of water. Single drops of rain hit my bald head," and you get the picture of the guy, too, with a small head. "The palm trees looked petrified, expecting the onslaught. I hurried back toward my empty hotel, wanting to get there before the rain; besides, I hoped some mail had come for me. But I had barely covered half the distance when the storm broke. One gush and I was drenched as if by huge waves." And then this very vivid description of a Florida storm, a tropical storm, it seems.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, I have been in Miami Beach in the time of a hurricane so I should know a little about it.

Studs Terkel So how does Miami Beach compare to the village you came from in Eastern Europe?

Isaac Bashevis Singer I would say that, basically, all places are more or less the same. If a man has certain feelings, you have the same feelings wherever you go. If you are a mystic, you stay a mystic, even in Miami Beach.

Studs Terkel I just like the idea, you stay a mystic even in Miami Beach.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Even in Miami Beach. Because the place is not too [propitious?] for mysticism.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking, Mr. Singer, in "Alone," here again, a paragraph. Would you mind reading one of these?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, I will read with my terrible accent. I will read

Studs Terkel it. No. It's fine. About the dream. This is in "Alone." This paragraph, it's quite a description of a dream.

Isaac Bashevis Singer "I must have slept. In my dream I entered a town of steep, narrow streets and barred shutters, under the murky light of an eclipse, in the silence of a Black Sabbath. Catholic funeral processions followed one after the other endlessly, with crosses and coffins, halberds and burning torches. Not one but many corpses were being carried to the graveyard--a complete tribe annihilated. Incense burned. Moaning voices cried a song of utter grief. Swiftly, the coffins changed and took on the form of phylacteries, black and shiny, with knots and thongs. They divided into many compartments--coffins for twins, triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets."

Studs Terkel And thus, the dream, this, this--do you dream much?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. I dream a lot, like all nervous people. I dream the whole night.

Studs Terkel Do you remember? Do you remember--

Isaac Bashevis Singer When I wake up I remember my dreams and I always have the same feeling--they are not important. This is always my feeling. Not important enough to remember them. But after a while I forget.

Studs Terkel But then when you begin to write, I'm just wondering, I don't know, when you begin to write, do you think maybe somewhere the dream that you have forgotten--

Isaac Bashevis Singer I would say that our dreams play a big part. Not only in our writing but in our whole behavior. Even if we don't know it is true, that the psychoanalysts have, in a way, overestimated the power of the dream. They think that if they know your dreams they can cure you. I don't believe in that. But it is true that our dream life is connected with our life when we are wakened. There is some continuation.

Studs Terkel And, so, the dream enters all your writing, of course--

Isaac Bashevis Singer The dream enters--

Studs Terkel The vision. Of course, there's this--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Also my writing. And the writing of many other writers.

Studs Terkel There's this fantastic ghost story, "A Marriage in Brownsville," which is really a ghost story.

Isaac Bashevis Singer "A Wedding in Brownsville."

Studs Terkel "A Wedding--Wedding in Brownsville."

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel Let me see if I can find that. It's somewhere toward, that is, the man is doing--

Isaac Bashevis Singer This is the story of a doctor who goes to a wedding in Brownsville and meets there his old love who had already died. This woman had already died. Anyhow, he's convinced that she was dead and suddenly he sees her there. And he doesn't--to the very end the reader doesn't know if he really met a dead woman or the woman wasn't dead. I made it ambiguous so that, as I said before, that there should be something for the mystic and for the realist.

Studs Terkel Yeah. This is amazing.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Not that I do it intentionally but it just comes out that way.

Studs Terkel It just comes out. He has this conversation with Raizel, this girl.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel And she seems to be there, he just happened to meet her. He'd gone to, he's a doctor--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel And he'd gone to a wedding of one of his patients, or friend's daughters.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Of his landsman's.

Studs Terkel Of his landsman's daughter, and he's, and they're all gathered, but he's alone with his sweetheart of the past before they come into the chapel, into the--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. He went up to the chapel, yes.

Studs Terkel And there in the other room, and he's alone with her, and they're having this, they're having this conversation: "She seemed both frightened and perplexed." Oh, he says, "'You're not the same Raizel,'" he blurted out. "'No? Then who am I?'" she asks. "'They shot Raizel.' 'Shot her? Who told you that?' She seemed both frightened and perplexed. Silently she lowered her head like someone receiving the shock of bad news. Dr. Margolin," this is the man, "continued to ponder. Apparently Raizel didn't realize her own condition. He had heard of such a state--what was it called? Hovering in the World of Twilight. The Astral Body wandering in semi-consciousness, detached from the flesh, without being able to reach its destination, clinging to the illusions and vanities of the past." That's interesting, "the illusions and vanities of the past." "But could there be any truth to all this superstition? No, as far as he was concerned, it was nothing but wishful thinking. Besides, this kind of survival would be less than oblivion. 'I am most probably in a drunken stupor,' Dr. Margolin decided. 'All this may be one long hallucination, perhaps the result of food poisoning.' He looked up, and she was still there. He leaned over and whispered in her ear: 'What's the difference? As long as we're together.' 'I've been waiting for that for all these years,'" she says. He says, "'Where have you been?' She didn't answer, and he didn't ask again. He looked around. The empty hall was full, all the seats taken. A ceremonious hush fell over the audience. The music played softly. The cantor intoned the benedictions. With measured steps, Abraham Mekheles led his daughter down the aisle." And where is our friend, Dr. Margolin? He's [with nobody?]

Isaac Bashevis Singer Dr. Margolin is with her but we don't know with whom he actually is.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Isaac Bashevis Singer If it's his illusion or if it's the real person.

Studs Terkel Here's the, it's, you'd describe this as a ghost story, wouldn't you, in a way?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. I would say it is a ghost because if the woman is dead it certainly is a ghost story.

Studs Terkel And also the element of déjà vu figures in one of your stories.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. Déjà vu, yes.

Studs Terkel "Jachid and Jechidah."

Isaac Bashevis Singer "And Jechidah." Yes.

Studs Terkel "And Jechidah."

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel Here's--they've been there before, and some kind of--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. Déjà vu, this is--

Studs Terkel Somebody's been there before. And always this--

Isaac Bashevis Singer I would say that we have all been there before.

Studs Terkel You, you--

Isaac Bashevis Singer I really believe that we have lived many times already on this earth. I really have this feeling. Naturally, there is no evidence for it and there will never be. But this is my personal feeling, that there is a continuation. We have been here, and we are here, and we may be here again and again. In this way I have the same belief as the Indians have. And, by the way, this is a Jewish belief. It's--you don't find it in the Bible but you find it already in the Talmud, and in the Zohar, and in the other [Kabbalistic?]--

Studs Terkel What, transfiguration?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. That--transfiguration. That we come here again and again and again to correct certain mistakes which we did in our former lives.

Studs Terkel I wasn't aware that this was in Jewish belief. In Indian--so this is close, then, to the--

Isaac Bashevis Singer You don't find it in the Bible but, as I said, you find it already in the Talmud and in the later literature. Who took from whom I don't know. If we have taken from the Indians or they from us, most probably we have taken it from them because their belief is older.

Studs Terkel So you have a feeling, then, that you, a creative spirit--by the way, the word spirit is rather interesting. We use, speak of a writer or an artist as a creative spirit. Now this word spirit would seem to fall right into your lap. Spirit.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Spirit. Naturally. Well, spirit is another name for the soul.

Studs Terkel So you think we've been here before?

Isaac Bashevis Singer I think so. I don't, I'm not so sure if we, if you had an interview on the radio before. [laughter]

Studs Terkel You think we were hearing some other gue--you think you were here as some, as somebody else?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Might have been, naturally. I don't think that there is what Nietzsche called the eternal repetition, that we, or the [German?], that we come again and again in the same image. I would say that the image changes but there's, the soul is the same.

Studs Terkel You think you might have been a radio announcer?

Isaac Bashevis Singer No, no, no.

Studs Terkel Not that.

Isaac Bashevis Singer When I was born there was no radio.

Studs Terkel I know.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Unless radio existed a [million? billion?] years ago which is possible.

Studs Terkel That's what I mean.

Isaac Bashevis Singer You never know. You never know.

Studs Terkel Well, obviously, Mr. Singer, you ask many questions and you are saying, as a writer, that all the answers, all the returns aren't in yet.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Exactly. They will never be. Not on this earth.

Studs Terkel And thus, in the reading of Isaac Bashevis Singer, there is a free flow of the imagination, and quite beautiful literature. And even though you speak of this, it's human beings. Always human beings you're writing about.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Naturally. That's all we know.

Studs Terkel "The Slave," we haven't talked about "The Slave," which, by the way, is available now as paperback, "The Slave," this powerful book. You wrote this about, three, four years ago?

Isaac Bashevis Singer I wrote it about four years ago. It was published in 1960, I think.

Studs Terkel This is that powerful one that deals with a Jewish slave in the 17th century and this love, overwhelming love of the Polish girl who became Jewish.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel Wanda who turns Sarah.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes.

Studs Terkel And, again, powerful writing here, too. Here again they found themselves together at the very end when, after a life that is a life of purgatory on Earth, and brutality, and yet tremendous strength. She was buried outside the Jewish cemetery and he--but at the end, somehow, there seems to be a meeting.

Isaac Bashevis Singer They, yes, they meet. He comes back to the town and when they bury him they uncover her grave. Her grave was lost and then the cemetery extended, and when they prepared a grave for him they find her bones. She was buried in her clothes so they recognize the clothes.

Studs Terkel So it either could have been, as far as the rationalist is concerned, it was an extension of the cemetery-- But as far as the, as

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Studs Terkel It was just an extension, it was a-- But as far as the, as far as the mystic is concerned-- Somehow her soul, yeah.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Studs Terkel Concerned-- Somehow her soul, yeah.

Isaac Bashevis Singer It's not an accident. It's [unintelligible]. Yes. This is, I do it quite often. And I do it, in a way, subconsciously. It seems that I feel that we should have free choice even in explaining a story.

Studs Terkel Even in explaining a story. And, yet, you yourself have very specific--

Isaac Bashevis Singer I would say that I'm more inclined to believe that there are no accidents.

Studs Terkel But the fact is you do have, you, Isaac, do have an artistic responsibility and you assume it. You have a point of view.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. I certainly have

Studs Terkel

Isaac Bashevis Singer The point of view of a mystic. I certainly have a point of view and I don't deny it. I never do.

Studs Terkel Yes. But do you feel this, in talking about contemporary literature today, sometimes you find this lacking?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes. Contemporary literature is, to me, too realistic and they are psychologizing too much instead of describing behavior. They try too much to describe thoughts which are of no importance. There are many bad sides in modern literature, but why speak of the bad sides? There are good writers today, too. Only thing is that the writer of today is not as sure of himself and as sure of his mission as were the writers in the 19th century.

Studs Terkel You say they were sure of their mission, then, in the 19th century?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Because writers like Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, and Gogol still believed that literature may do a lot for human beings. It will help. While modern writer has almost resigned of helping humanity by his writing. He has made up his mind that whatever he writes, everything will remain the same.

Studs Terkel You've--

Isaac Bashevis Singer And I would say that this is because he does not have a point of view. Or if he has a point of view it is more of a social one, not of a deeper kind.

Studs Terkel And you feel with the 19th century writers--

Isaac Bashevis Singer I would say that I feel, with the 19th century writers that, really good writing, if it is on a high level, can still do something for humanity.

Studs Terkel So, it's the writer, then, and connected, not alienated. I suppose, it's this, this fashionable word today, alienation--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yeah, they use it a lot. Yes.

Studs Terkel That we're talking about. But the writer, then, not alienated from humanity, but part of it.

Isaac Bashevis Singer He certainly shouldn't be and he cannot be, actually, because he is a part of humanity. He expresses humanity.

Studs Terkel Well, Mr. Singer, this has been really delightful. We just touched on very small aspects of your writing. I would suggest "Short Friday", which has about 16 stories, we just mentioned a few and haven't really read from them, though, the beauty of the writing. It's published by Farrar, Straus and, Giroux?

Isaac Bashevis Singer Giroux.

Studs Terkel Giroux. The sho--it's available now. This is the new one, and the paperback, of course, of "The Slave" is available. I imagine some of the other stories, "Gimpel the Fool"--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yeah, all

Studs Terkel available. Which was translated by Saul Bellow, by the way.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, "Gimpel the Fool" was translated by Saul Bellow.

Studs Terkel Is available and, obviously a writer of conn-compassion, as well as of passion. Well, compassion and passion, that's an interesting--

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel That's an interesting, it just occurred to me.

Isaac Bashevis Singer It's inter--yes. They

Studs Terkel

Isaac Bashevis Singer Isn't it. They both have the same, in other words, what it means is that you cannot have compassion without passion.

Studs Terkel Ah, that's it.

Isaac Bashevis Singer This is how I explain it.

Studs Terkel So the cool, bloodless man cannot be-- [crosstalk]

Isaac Bashevis Singer Yes, you have to have passion to have compassion. It's, by the way, it's a very good point. It's the first time that I hear this, that passion--compassion. It never occurred to me.

Studs Terkel Oh, it didn't?

Isaac Bashevis Singer You have discovered something.

Studs Terkel Till just this moment?

Isaac Bashevis Singer The same thing is true about the word leidenschaft and leiden in German, you see. Suffering and passion have also the same root.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Which means that there is a deep connection between our emotions.

Studs Terkel Well, let's quit while we're ahead. A friend of mine would say quit when the wind is with you.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Uh-huh.

Studs Terkel Which for me it is; you just said this, I'm delighted that this particular phrase came out. You know, that the connection and, thus it is clear that the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer are passionate, and thus compassionate.

Isaac Bashevis Singer It is wonderful that you say these things.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much for being guest this morning. And I've got to read some more of you, myself. Thank you very much, indeed.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Well, thank you. I hope you won't be disappointed.

Studs Terkel Thank you, Mr. Singer. Isaac Bashevis Singer, certainly one of the writers of our time. "Cold Friday"--not "Cold Friday," pardon, that's the name of another book about--

Isaac Bashevis Singer [They came out with "Cold Friday," yes?].

Studs Terkel Yeah, "Cold Friday" is about a man--well, I won't go into that. Yes.

Isaac Bashevis Singer It's about Chambers, Chambers, yes.

Studs Terkel I was about to say a man without the slightest bit of passion or compassion. That's a point of view, we won't go into that now.

Isaac Bashevis Singer No.

Studs Terkel But "Short Friday" is what I'm suggesting. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishers of the writings of Mr. Singer. Thank you very much, Mr. Singer.

Isaac Bashevis Singer Thank you very much.

Studs Terkel Mr. Singer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, was passing through Chicago, in fact he was lecturing, guest lecturer as part of the Mainstream series of the West Suburban Temple, and we have the officials of that organization to thank very much for his being our guest this morning.