Voices of the dead
Shosha by Isaac Bashevis Singer
By Angela Carter
Wednesday 15 February 1978 13.09 GMT
Isaac Bashevis Singer begins with a disconcerting irony: "I was brought up in three dead languages - Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish." This ironic statement functions as an invocation of those dead who spoke, specifically, the Yiddish of Poland. He invites us to a seance to hear their voices; Shosha is a haunting rather than a novel.
The narrator, Aaron Greidinger, a rabbi's son, born before World War I on Krochmalna Street in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, forms a childhood attachment to a neighbour's daughter, the naive Shosha. Time passes; Greidinger forgets her as he abandons Hassidic orthodoxy for the life of the rootless, neurotic urban intelligentsia. He embraces alienation as comprehensively as he embraces women. There is Dora, the Communist; then Celia, wife of an innocent, well-heeled friend.
Celia's apartment is furnished with Jewish antiques: "It was difficult for me to accept the fact that this intense Jewishness was merely decoration, its essence since lost to many of us." Celia's other lover, Feitzeljohn, is alienation in its frivolous aspect, with his philosophy of play and his love of a quick buck. Greidinger scribbles a bit; then meets Betty, an American actress for whom he writes a never-to-be-produced play in Yiddish. With the money Betty's impresario lover gives him, he rents a nice flat, sleeps with the maid. One way and another, Greidinger's soul, if not already lost, is well on the way to being mislaid.
|Isaac Bashevis Singer|
Then, on a whim, he revisits Krochmalna Street and finds Shosha, miraculously unchanged. She slept away a year of sickness in 1917, has remained a child both in appearance and in simplicity of heart. She is waiting for him; has never forgotten him, has always been waiting for him. Meanwhile, Hitler prepares to attack. Betty, the actress, offers Greidinger a compromised marriage and safe passage to America, a truly Mephistophelean bargain.
But Greidinger will stay behind, to marry the spotless Shosha. The wedding is an involuntary, a fated act of reconciliation. He will live with her and her mother on Krochmalna Street as the archaic, timeless life of that culture rooted in the Talmud approaches its atrocious rendezvous with history. All is shown, frozen in memory, with a loving terror at the imminence of death. Although the characters are delineated with a precise realism, they possess a strong, allegorical dimension. Indeed, Shosha herself, the Holy Fool, mentally and physically retarded, whom Greidinger rapes in her sleep on their wedding night, would be a scarcely tolerable invention if she were not credited with a more than human luminosity. Betty, the actress, corrupt, deracinated, self-loathing, seduces Greidinger on the very night that he meets Shosha again yet offers the key to escape, such is her demonic ambivalence. The Communist girl stands for the light that failed.
Greidinger's own quality is absolute and annihilating despair: "We were fated to play our little games and be crushed." But this shabby, meagre soul, perhaps redeemed by love, survives. And the reader will find it impossible to escape the anguish of the survivor, also.
A coda finds Greidinger, utterly alone, visiting Israel, the Jewish Land, thirteen years after the fall of Troy. He discusses the inscrutability of God with another living ghost, Celia's widower, who now reveals himself as another Holy Fool. On a bus in Tel Aviv: "The passengers cursed one another in Yiddish, Polish, German and broken Hebrew." The saved utilise the dead languages with the gracelessness of the living. The heritage of four thousand years has been redeemed; but the dead stay dead, most eloquent in their absence.
Shosha communicates itself almost as shared memory, shared pain. Schönberg returned to the formal practice of Judaism as Hitler began to murder Jews. Shosha makes me think of that. It is as inconsolable as it is serene.