ABOUT TWO-THIRDS of the way through Lost in America, the third volume of what Isaac Bashevis Singer calls his "spiritual memoirs," the writer is living in Brooklyn alternately contemplating suicide and the vision of spectacular success, and had given up writing fiction. Each week, he prepares a column of trivia called "It's Worthwhile Knowing" for the Yiddish-language newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward, for which he is paid $16. He spends $5 of that on rent and the remainder on vegetarian meals in cafeterias and movie tickets for himself and Nesha, a woman 10 years older whom he loves but does not wish to marry.
It is 1936, Singer is 31 old, and he must either obtain a permanent U.S. residency visa or return to Poland. Obtaining the visa is problematic. Singer's older brother, Joshua, must come up with $1,500; one of his former mistresses must wrest a certificate of Singer's good moral standing from authorities in Warsaw; the writer must himself sneak into Windsor, Ontario, from Detroit Michigan, (after finding and bribing a certain "Mr. Smith"), then board a bus to Toronto, spend the night at the King Edward Hotel, see the American consul, pass a health examination and get back to New York City. Although Singer believes that "life in general, human life in particular, and Jewish life especially, was one long attempt to muddle through, smuggle oneself past the forces of destruction," he is plainly terrified by the plan.
Luckily or coincidentally or by one of those quirks of predestination that are always turning up in Singer's work and life, a young woman whom he has met on the ship coming over to the United States invites herself along. She already has a residency visa but views that sojourn at the King Edward Hotel as the ideal opportunity to divest herself of her virginity. Why does Singer agree to take her along although he anticipates a sexual disaster? Why does he entrust her with his documents? Why does he risk getting deported back to Poland?
"Chiefly a hunger for suspense," explains the author of 21 books and the winner of a Nobel Prize. "I had made up my mind a long time ago that the creative powers of literature lie not in the forced originality produced by variations of style and word machinations but in the countless situations life keeps creating, especially in the queer complications between man and woman. For the writer, they are potential treasures that could never be exhausted, while all innovations in language soon become cliches."
His book begins in Poland where the Holocaust is about to alter or end every life Singer describes, but the writer barley notes the machinations of government, political parties or the ideologues of the time. He dismisses Hitler, the Polish fascists, the state of Yiddish and Yiddish literature ("There was no way it could worsen") in a couple of sentences and moves on quickly to what matters most to him: the people in his life; their inability to understand themselves or each other; their innate, often comic helplessness no matter what is going on in the society they inhabit.
There are lots of women, not the pale or sterotyped kind found in so much American-Jewish literature, but full-fledged partners in Singer's confusion. "I had inherited Lena from Sabina," he writes early on. "She had come to me in Warsaw requesting a night's sanctuary because she was, as she said, surrounded by police spies. I had only one narrow iron bed in my furnished room and she slept with me not just that one night, but for more than two weeks. She called me a capitalist lackey even as she clamped her lips onto mine. She complained that my mystical stories helped to perpetuate the fascism, but she tried to translate some of them into Polish. She swore to me that she had undergone a gynecological operation that had rendered her sterile but she was already in her fifth month that summer. . . . Her pitch-black eyes exuded a masculine resolutness and the frustration of one who, due to some biological error, had been born into the wrong gender. She was anything but my type. She had confessed lesbian tendancies to me. For me to associate with such a woman and to become the father of her child, was an act of madness. But I had already accustomed myself to queer behavior. For some reason unknown to myself, this wild woman evoked in me an exaggerated sense of compassion."
Singer's absorption in his own destiny -- in his problems with women, his endless struggle with Providence and the "divine or Satanic forces" that skew his emotions and control his behavior -- is so strong that it renders him immune to the terrors of the external world. His account of leaving Europe during Passover of 1935 (by train from Warsaw to Cherbourg, by boat from there to the United Staes) has a balletic, dreamlike quality, as if the world he is escaping is already dead. As the train rumbles through Nazi Germany, Singer is chewing matzoh; at a time when people are sacrificing all they own for a ticket across the Atlantic, Singer is worried about the possibility of having to share a cabin. Such monumental egotism might be repungent in other contexts but here it becomes an ingenious survival skill, a stubborn insistence on the right to choose.
It allows Singer to stop his narrative whenever he feels so inclined and to digress, usually humorously, on whatever suits his fancy. In New York, after the Forward has accepted and is about to print the first installment of his new novel, Signer finds that he can't finish it, and writes a passage that hundreds of writers will undoubtedly clip and tack above their desks: "I had marked down in my notebook three characteristics a work of fiction must possess in order to be successful:
"1. It must have a precise and suspenseful plot.
"2. The author must feel a passionate urge to write it.
"3. He must have the conviction, or at least the illusion, that he is the only one who can handle this particular theme.
"But this novel lacked all three of these prerequisites, especially my urge to write it.
"As a rule, almost everything I had written had come easy to me. Often, my pen couldn't keep up with what I had to say. But this time, every sentence was difficult. My style was usually clear and concise, but now the pen seemed, as if of its own violation, to compost long and involved sentences. I had always had an aversion for digressions and flashbacks, but now I resorted to them, amazed over what I was doing. . . . The moment I began writing, a sleepiness would come over to me. I even made errors in spelling . . . My coming to America had demoted me in a way, thrown me back to the ordeal of a beginner in writing, in love, in my struggle for independence. I had a taste of what it would be for someone to be born and to grow younger with the years instead of older, diminishing constantly in rank, in experience, in courage, in wisdom of maturity."
There are a few contemporary writers who have lived as fully as Singer, who wish to share their experiences as candidly, and who can do so with such charm. This is the memoir of a 76-year-old Polish Jew whose life is of exceptional interest since it bridges the fissure between pre-war Eastern Eurpoe and postwar America. It reflects the thinking of a man who had not found Freud or Marx or Herzl or Tolstoy particularily useful, who had chosen to negotiate the baffling business of life without a blueprint of any kind. His writing is magical; his vision refreshingly unsentimental. I can't think of better company in which to spend a long evening or afternoon.