An affectionate portrait of Isaac Bashevis Singer
American Masters: Isaac in America: A Journey with Isaac Bashevis Singer PBS, Monday, 9 p.m. (check local listings). Documentary directed by Amram Nowak. ``This is the King of Sweden, and this is Isaac Singer.''Skip to next paragraph
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Isaac Bashevis Singer points to a photo of himself receiving the 1978 Nobel in literature, as he guides viewers through the messy apartment his wife calls the ``chaos room.'' If he cleaned it up, it would lose character, explains Mr. Singer, a reflective man in his 80s who stands amid the literary debris with a slightly bowed head and a gentle gleam in his eye. ``Chaos is not really ugly,'' he says, since it was there before creation.
The scene is one of many that reveal an artist of world stature amid the homely details of his life in New York. As this affectionate, probing, richly evocative documentary follows Singer through old neighborhoods and older memories, its cumulative effect is a memorable portrait of the beloved writer of Yiddish stories - a portrait that is endearing without patronizing ethnic quaintness.
Produced in 1985, the documentary has played in festivals around the world and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1986. It makes an engrossing premi`ere for the second season of the ``American Masters'' series, which profiles creative artists - both native-born and adopted. Singer is definitely adopted, even though he came to New York in 1935, after he and his brother noted Hitler's rise and fled Warsaw. His roots, he makes clear, are in Warsaw's Krochmaina Street, where so many of his stories are laid. ``As far as I was concerned,'' he says, ``this was the center of the universe.'' His voice takes on a special vibrancy as he talks of his life there. ``I was brought up in a home where the supernatural was really life. ... I still have this feeling I am surrounded by powers....'' Of his first visit to a literary club, he says, ``I felt like a fish in water. It was a spiritual home more than I could ever have in the United States.''
But in this film the US does loom large. His stories - written by him in longhand in Yiddish and then translated into English - are often based on his early days in Brooklyn, N.Y. The program sensitively traces his nostalgic journey back to these old settings for his early US stories. Nattily dressed, as usual, Singer utters deeply nostalgic grunts as he walks up onto the wide veranda of the house where he and his brother first lived in the US. This footage is skillfully woven into the reading of a semi-autobiographical Singer short story, ``A Day in Coney Island,'' by actor Judd Hirsch.
But the show is really a welcome excuse to savor Singer's wry attitude and witness his inseparability from Yiddish literature and culture. In some scenes - enthroned in a chair on stage before a respectful audience - he responds with folkish wit and wisdom to questions posed by people a third or quarter his age. To a question about messages, for instance: ``There is not a message in what I am writing. ... You read the story and you create your own message. I can't do everything.''