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.
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.
Poor, plain, and inexperienced though he is, David soon finds himself involved with three very different young women. On arriving in the city, he first seeks out Sonya, whom he knows from the village. Sonya is older than he is and has a job and a place to live. But in some ways, she feels she is little better off than a servant: Her job in a store is dull, and she lives with her employees. Sonya loves the excitement of city life but worries about her unmarried state. Her pigtails, as she woefully remark s to David, are turning gray.
In some respects a "modern" young woman of the 1920s, in other respects (old-fashioned pigtails included) Sonya is still a traditional Jewish daughter, saving herself for marriage and hoping against hope that the right man will come along.
The other two women David meets, however, are rather more thoroughly modern. Minna, the clever, somewhat spoiled daughter of a rich family, is the one who wants to join her fiance in Palestine. Although at first she is aloof and disdainful toward David - who is to be her husband in name only - as her family's fortunes and her own personal plans unravel, she reveals much more of her true nature to him: the strain of recklessness and desperation that marks a lost soul.
Modern in a different way is the starry-eyed communist Edusha, David's landlady. Although David becomes involved in a sexual relationship with her, he can't help feeling shocked by her promiscuity and her belief in free love: "The only woman whom I could love and respect," he finds himself thinking, "would have to be like my mother - a pious Jewish daughter. A young woman who could kiss one man today and someone else tomorrow could never have my respect. But what about me? Was my behavior any different? "
Late in the story, David's father comes to the city in the hope of persuading him to return to the orthodox religion that he was raised in.
"Take one step away from those laws," he warns, "and you become a lecher, a libertine, an assassin. Who are the Jewish Communists who had the rabbis shot and the merchants, pious Jews? One day you'll learn the truth."
David, however, is learning a lesson of his own: It's one that bears some relation to his father's beliefs, but also opens out to take in the possibility of unforeseen changes. It is still unformulated, up in the air, as the novel ends, but this condition of being up in the air is, perhaps, part of what David is learning to live with.
It's not surprising that Singer should have drawn more than once on this formative period in his life - first to capture its special, subjective feel in a novel, later to tell the story again, with more interest in pinning down the facts, less in producing a well-rounded story.
From "The Certificate," we can see how writing in the medium of fiction freed Singer to write more expressively, passionately, and revealingly, capturing the comedy and pathos of believable and appealing characters who find themselves in a variety of desperate situations. The novel beautifully conveys the curious sensation of weightlessness - sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frightening - felt by those who have left behind one way of life, but not yet figured out what to do with their freedom - or, inde ed, how much freedom they may turn out to have.