If you were forced to think of a single word to describe the pink-cheeked, pink-pated teller of improbable tales, Isaac Bashevis Singer -- who at 77 has won about every literary prize in the book, including the Nobel, and writes in a hybrid language hardly anyone reads -- it would have to be playful.
Or maybe whimsical. Try serious. Gentle. Thoughtful. Tough? Throw them all in, and add for good measure and to use his owm idiom, the language he knows best, the Yiddish he writes in, a little meshugge, too. Well, nobody's perfect, and Singer loses things, like manuscripts, all the time. Some demon in that apartment on West 86th Street, or one of those puckish little dybbuks who find their way into his stories to muddle the affairs of men and women, as if they weren't muddled enough already.
And if his famous typewriter, a 1935 Remington portable that writes in Yiddish and has the inscrutable heart of a critic, isn't satisfied with his work, he says, it just refuses to perform. Smart typewriter, that one. It's produced among other works, such novels as "The Slave," "Satan in Goray" and "The Magician of Lublin," collections of short stories including "Gimpel the Fool" and the recent "Old Love," and a weekly serial that appears in the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper published in Manhattan. Translated, the serial becomes one novel or another, a short story, a memoir. Altogether, that typewriter has approved a remarkable body of work mingling Jewish forklore, fantasy and instinct -- "obsolete and refuted topics," as he described them -- from the vanished world of the Polish ghetto in which he was born, the son and grandson of rabbis.
He left Poland for New York in 1935, the year he published his first work (in Poland), the year he bought the Remington with a mind of its own. "When I improve a story and the typewriter works, I know that the typewriter is satisfied," he said yesterday morning in his modest room at the Bellevue Hotel near the Capitol.
Behind every good typewriter, it is said, there is a man. This one laughs a lot, and asks a lot of questions, and gives a little advice, too. He asks a person who is writing a novel what his novel is about, and when he is told it is about a 7-year-old boy, Singer suggests he make the boy 14. "More interesting at 14," he says, "you know then there is the sex and all that."
"Don't listen to him," his wife Alma calls out from across the room. "You write what you want to write. You write about your 7-year-old."
"Yes," said Singer, "no real person ever takes advice; he does what he can do. When I came to this country I had lost my appetite for work. What should I do for a living, I asked myself. I could either be a dishwasher or an elevator man. I like people so I chose the elevator man. Now all the elevators are automatic. So I have to do what I am doing."
"Yes," says his wife, "and the dishes are all plastic, so they throw them out. No dishwashers, either."
The photographer is attempting to take his picture. Alma Singer attempts to adjust the curtains. "No," the writer says, "you can edit my stories but not my photographs."
"But your face, it's half in shadow," she says.
"I am half light and half shadow," he says with a bemused shrug, and then corrects himself. "No, a little light and a lot of the opposite."
The Singers have been married 31 years. He is a vegetarian for ethical reasons; she is not. "We sit at the same table," he says, "and she eats her chicken and I eat my vegetables and I don't make any propaganda."
There is a knock on the door. "Answer the door, Alma," Singer says, and Alma does. An emissary from the Library of Congress, whom Singer had just been talking about, enters. "We should have spoken about the Messiah," Singer says, "so when the door opened the Messiah would have come." He smiles.
Singer spoke to an overflow crowd at the Library of Congress Monday night, and stayed around the next morning to talk about life and art, ghosts and dybbuks, reading and writing and fountain pens, words and magic -- the sorts of things writers like to talk about if they like to talk at all, and most of them do. Certainly Singer does.
"The worst mistake a writer can make," he said Monday night in a lecture entitled "Literature and Freedom," is to "bore his audience in the name of some higher purpose. In art as in love, the act and the enjoyment must go together."
Singer thinks and writes a lot about love, the act as well as the spirit. "Love of life is the very essence of the artist's soul," he said, "and the passion of the artist must become the passion of all human beings. Art should not meet the same fate as philosophy in this century," that is, impenetrable, solipsistic, irrelevant to anything other than itself. "The fiction writer is an entertainer in the highest sense of the word . . . he draws from the wells of instinct . . . and what he discovers must not only possess beauty but also a sense of humor. Art opposes any kind of routine and established thinking. In the art of fiction, cause and purpose become identical."
November is his month for lectures. In the spring he teaches in Florida. July and August he escapes to Switzerland where he writes in the shadow of the Jungfrau. "The mountains," he says, "they're not interested in my scribblings." But because everyone else is, and because "I actually like human beings and so I give in when one of them wants me," he goes to Switzerland.
"One day I decided to run away from civilization," he said, after making sure his questioner had had breakfast. ("It is good to have breakfast. Are you sure you've had breakfast?") "I thought I would get on a train, any train. So I got on the train and the train went to Pathoque, Long Island. The most miserable place! I stayed three days. There was a woman in the hotel with the most terrible laugh. I was afraid I would develop a terrible laugh. So I got on the train and came back to civilization. If you can call New York civilization." And that's where he's stayed, somewhere on the edge of civilization, ever since. "There's no place a man can escape to now. Like art, life itself is a risk and a hazard in its very nature. It's always fragmentary, never complete. It's validity is in the adventure." So Singer "builds the future by telling tales and keeping the past alive."
It is time to leave. He goes around the room -- a smallish room, not at all the sort of room one might associate with a literary lion -- shutting windows, closing luggage. "Goodybye, room," he says, and departs.