A Master's Coming-of-Age Novel
IMAGINE a penniless young man, writing in a language mocked as a mere dialect even by many of the people who speak it themselves, who goes on to produce a vast and richly variegated body of work that delights readers the world over and wins its author (by now in his 70s) the Nobel Prize for Literature.Skip to next paragraph
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The young man, of course, is Yiddish novelist and storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991). In "The Certificate," a novel that was serialized (like much of Singer's work) in a Yiddish newspaper in 1967 but only now has been translated into English, Singer transforms his early struggles into a poignant, funny, sad, and artful piece of fiction.
Like the young Singer, 19-year-old David Bendiger is no longer content to lead the simple, pious life of village Jews like his father, yet he is unable to find acceptance in a newly independent Poland fraught with anti-Semitism. While other young Jews in his position have been captivated by the promise of communism, he has already seen through it: "It's the history of Robespierre and Marat all over again," he says. When the story opens, David is wandering the streets of Warsaw, pondering where his next m eal is coming from.
Thanks to a set of mildly bizarre circumstances, David is offered an opportunity to emigrate to the British-controlled territory of Palestine if he agrees to enter into a pro forma marriage with a young woman who is going there to join her real fiance, whom she will marry after she and David are, in due course, divorced. Although David does not have much faith in the future of Zionism, emigration seems one of his better options. As he waits for the certificate to come through, he comes into contact with the lively, but rather seedy, world of the city's young Jewish intelligentsia.
Singer wrote about undergoing what was called a "fictive marriage" in order to obtain an emigration certificate in his autobiography, "A Young Man in Search of Love" (1978). There are a number of differences between the two versions. The events in "A Young Man in Search of Love" take place in 1926. "The Certificate" is set four years earlier - closer in time to the great upheavals that haunt its hero: the carnage of World War I, the brutal massacres of the Russian Revolution, the birth of a new Poland.
In the autobiography, Singer portrayed himself as a proofreader who has a hard time making ends meets, but the fictional Bendiger has no steady job and is practically starving. The tone of the memoir is cooler and more detached than that of the novel.
Although it seems fairly clear that "The Certificate" was written earlier than "A Young Man in Search of Love," it's not clear how much earlier. Translator Leonard Wolf suspects it may have been written many years before its 1967 publication: In the foreword, he says it strikes him as playful, fresh, and very much a young man's book. Perhaps so. But there is also no reason why an author in his 60s, or at any age, shouldn't have been capable of producing a fresh, playful novel about a young man starting o ut in the world.