"I recognize myself in that picture," says Isaac Bashevis Singer, looking at a portrait he posed for 15 years ago. It is about 11:30 a.m. Monday in the National Portrait Gallery, where he is scheduled to be honored at a dinner and give a talk on "My Life as a Jewish Writer."
For the past year, his life as a Jewish writer has been hectic -- and helped not at all by a Yiddish typewriter that has written so long about dybbuks and wild passions, bygone times, foreign places and dark, hidden corners of the human soul that he thinks it has taken on a life of its own. "I tried to buy a new one with my Nobel Prize money," he recalls, "but they don't make them any more -- you can't buy one for $100,000. My present typewriter is more than 40 years old, and sometimes it stops writing -- when it doesn't like a story, it stops. It's not just a typewriter, it's a critic."
At the moment, Singer is taping a television interview for the evening news, sitting on a sofa in the living room outside the office of the Gallery's director. Between the taping and the dinner, his schedule includes an interview on the "Panorama" show, a newspaper interview in the taxi out to "Panorama," a trip to Arena Stage to watch a rehearsal of his play, cTeibele and Her Demon," and interview with Jewish Week at the Arena and maybe lunch (vegetarian) somewhere, if he can find time.
"People ask me, 'YouRe always on the run, how do you rest?' says the 75-year-old winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. "I tell them, 'While I run, I rest.'"
The schedule is fairly typical of a day in the life of Isaac Bashevis Singer during the three or four months he spends on the lecture circuit.
"I had to cancel a speaking engagement Wednesday in Oregon," he muses. "I hated to do it, but there are no direct flights from Washington, and I would have had a lot of difficulty making a change in Chicago. So, I will talk to them another time, God willing."
"God willing" slips into his conversation whenever he talks about future plans -- often coupled with "If I have the strength." On the evidence of his recent achievements, God has been very willing and his strength is fine.
With Singer are his wife, Alma, and Eve Friedman, his callaborator on "Teibele," and adaption of a short story. Wandering over to the portrait by Clara Klinghoffer, which was given to the Gallery by the Simon Foundation, Friedman admires the resemblance. "Fifteen years and he still looks exactly the same," she says. "It looks like the same suit he has on now, but it's a different necktie."
"I'm glad to see the portrait here," says Singer. "I remember the lady who painted it -- she was fine artist, not pretentious, not trying to create new trends and not given full recognition in her lifetime. She wanted me to buy it, but I couldn't afford it, and I'm glad to see it in this great institution."
In the taxi to his next appointment, Singer talks about his latest book and the one he is now working on: "I have just had a collection of short stories published under the title, 'Old love,' which really tells what the stories are about. The stories are about the loves of middle-aged and older people, and the theme is that in love young people are only beginners. At a certain age, they think that they invented love and old people don't know anything about it. In 20 years, they will know better."
His next book, God willing and if he has the strength, will be a variation on a familiar Singer theme -- life in Poland long ago. But this time, there will be a difference: "I am thinking of calling it 'King of the Fields," and it will be about prehistoric Poland -- pagan times, just before it became a christian country. I think there is something there that we don't appreciate; prehistoric people had as much brains as we do, the same enjoyments and the same problems. I am trying to grasp their mentality and get it into words. I want to have a Jew in the story -- coming as a slave from Babylonia or somewhere. Jews were in Poland very early; some of the earliest Polish coins are stamped with Hebrew letters. And there will be a Christian missionary, so that we can see the beginning of modern times. I am doing some research for the book, and relying on my imagination -- and, of course, on the fact that people are much the same in all times and places."
On the Panorama show, Singer and Friedman talk about their play, about typewriter problems, about language problems (Friedman does not speak Yiddish excpet for a few phrases, and "Teibele" is one of the few works that Singer is producing only in English), and about his status as "a cult figure . . . a superstar."
"i don't think of myself as a superstar," says Singer. "Sometimes I think of myself as a nova -- a little star that has exploded."
Alma Singer sits in a waiting room, watching her husband on a monitor screen, She is a little nervous at first, but relaxes when she sees that it is going well. "You've been with him almost as long as that typewriter," someone remarks. "Almost," she says, and smiles.
After the interview, the Singers are scheduled to part -- she has an appointement to have her hair done for the big dinner that night ("A kosher vegetarian dinner -- I've been a vegetarian for 15 years, but kosher I don't need. If it's vegetarian, it's kosher").
They prepare to part with the tender understanding of old love. Singer is getting ready for his next interview. "While you are combing your hair," he says, "I will be delivering 'wisdom' -- put that in quotes."
In hours later, back at the Portrait Gallery, Singer's talk in the Living Self-Portrait Series turns out to be largely an account of his development as a thinker, from the devout belief of his early years into a mixture of mysticism, deism and skepticism. There are some personal asides in the largely philosophical talk -- on his accent, for example: "I speak Polish with an accent, too -- as a matter of fact, ladies and gentlemen, there is theory among linguists that I speak Yiddish with an accent."
He expounds, playfully, a vision of God as "a struggling artist," a novelist who has critics in heaven criticizing his novel for being too long, having to much sex and violence and not enough love. "About one quality," he adds, "we can all agree. God's novel has suspense. We keep on reading it, day and night, and we do not want it to end."
In the question period after his talk, he is asked what he would say to Pope John Paul II if they had a conversation, and he says that he doubts either one could convince the other of his beliefs but that he might "ask him if he would translate my works into Polish." After a short pause, he adds, "I am glad a Pole has risen to be pope. It's good for the world -- at least, it's good for the Catholics."
In the knot of autograph-seekers and hand-shakers at a reception, one man shakes his hand, greets him as "young man," and asks him to autograph a book "to Joseph Hirshhorn -- with two h's." They compare ages, and it turns out the Hirshhorn's greetings is justified: "I'm 80," says Hirshhorn. "I'm 75,' 'says Singer, and the conversion shifts momentarily into Yiddish.
"Gensundheit oif hundert un tzen yohr" Good health for 110 years), says Hirshhorn, and Singer answers, in English, "And I wish you 120."
"I don't want that much,' says Hirshhorn.
The reception swirls around the old man, through the second floor of the gallery. People sip Israali wine, Perrier or coffee laced with brandy and nibble strudel in the room full of images of George Washington, or stare aghast at the Norman Rockville portrait of Richard Nixon. The party goes on into the night -- and Isaac Singer doesn't look tired at all.