Casanova or Schlemiel? The Don Juan Archetype in I. B. Singer's Fiction

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Author: Dinah Pladott
Editors: Jeffrey W. Hunter and Deborah A. Schmitt
Date: 1999
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,750 words

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[(essay date Summer-Fall 1985) In the following essay, Pladott examines the role of the amorous male protagonist as a central figure in Singer's fiction. According to Pladott, these recurring characters underscore man's struggle to reconcile individual desires and universal meaning.]

The popularity of I. B. Singer's fiction in recent years does not mitigate the fact that he suffers the same fate as other complex and fecund writers: he gives critics grounds for interpretations or points of emphasis that are divergent to the point of being contrary. Is he a parochial writer, speaking directly to insular Jewish concerns and dilemmas, or a moral fabulist of the stature of Hawthorne and Faulkner , touching the core of universal predicaments? Is he a humorist, a realist, a mythmaker, a metaphysical writer, a chronicler of Jewish history and lore, a demonologue, or a fantasist? Can and should one label him a traditional Jewish believer or an apostate, a modern and a modernist writer or a "shut-in"?

The questions are not idle, since several flaws have been identified in Singer's oeuvre. The "oddest aspect of Singer's work," as Eisenberg defines it, is the "inordinate stress, certainly for a Yiddish writer, which is placed on sex--on evocative scenes of passionate sensualism." Nereo Condini elaborates Eisenberg's criticism by commenting on "a repetition of themes and motives often smacking of obsession, hackneyed situations, trivial details, ludicrous and sensational bric-a-brac." But as Bezanker points out, Singer's form, most notably his irresolute endings and his ambivalence," have constituted the "two blemishes" critics have taken the greatest exception to.

Needless to say, these objections depend on the critic's view of Singer's overall purpose and direction. I suggest, therefore, that a fruitful approach to Singer's fiction may be found in searching for the "deep structure" that underlies narratives marked by a wealth of imaginative detail, by a convincing authenticity of diverse and disparate fictive worlds and realities, and richly populated by a gallery of natural and supernatural characters. Once we isolate this "deep structure" in a number of Singer's novels, we may find a useful key both to the "obsessive" theme and to the open-ended form of Singer's "ambivalent" fiction.

The need for such an approach is encouraged and invited by Singer's progressive departure from stories evoking the life of the Polish Jewish shtetl with all its colors and verve. As if to give the reader a clue that he is more than just a "fictional historian of the whole Jewish experience in Eastern Europe," as Kazin put it, Singer's latest stories and novels shift the scene historically as well as geographically.

In Enemies: A Love Story the plot is set in post-World War II New York, whereas in Shosha Singer paints in broad strokes the tense life in Warsaw of the 1930s. The surface texture of these novels has little in common with The Magician of Lublin, whose story unfolds and moves between the miserable shtetl and the large urban center of late nineteenth-century Warsaw. Nor do these novels seem related...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100004082