In facts, Philip Roth writes, about the environment of his youth spent in the Jewish quarter of Newark: “I did not know a child whose family had been separated by a divorce. Apart from magazines devoted to cinema and headlines from daily newspapers, that did not exist, and certainly not among Jews like us. Jews weren’t divorced – not because divorce was prohibited by Jewish law, but because they were like that […]. Indivisibility of the family: first command. ” The opposite happens at the same time (the 1940s), in New York, in the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and in the Charlatan especially. The atmosphere is that of Hollywood comedies where men and women frenzy frantically, with the added bonus of the constant invocation of the Torah. The characters of Charlatan have several divorces on the clock, and “Sentimental complications” are one of the causes of their agitation. Another cause is the cruelty of God: that he abandons them is a misfortune from which they do not recover. Hertz Minsker, the charlatan of the title, arrives in New York since Warsaw in 1940. He fled Hitler and took along a woman who, for her part, left in Poland husband and children. Once in the United States, Hertz saved his skin but suffocated under the weight of his “Addiction to women” and “Inextricable situations” in which his desire places him. “He should have become a rabbi, at the head of a court. Or a great Jewish leader. He had culture, wisdom, sensitivity. And even faith. “ Singer’s characters are immersed in Yiddish culture and metaphysics.
Published today for the first time as a volume, the Charlatan first appeared in serial in 1967 and 1968 in the New York daily Yiddish fosterhome. Like all of his texts, Singer wrote it in Yiddish. The interest of Charlatan does not reside in its frame, but in its excited rhythm of spinning top, in its tragicomic aftershocks and its mixture of modernity and nostalgia for a lost world. The ongoing destruction of European Jews haunts him. It is Singer, a vaudeville overflowing with a beloved culture, whose rituals and objects are regularly recalled. Now these immigrants live in New York. The city, usually celebrated in fiction, is little described here and hostile. It protects the Jews who fled the East, but they despise it because money is king there: “Here, being poor is considered the worst of misfortunes. A teacher told me that one day when he was teaching children the Pentateuch, a boy asked him if Moses was a salaried worker or if he had his own box. This is America. “
The sentence is spoken by Morris Calisher, the other hero of the Charlatan. He left Warsaw for New York in 1935, like Isaac Bashevis Singer. Morris is in the real estate business and nothing is in his mind either. The victories of Hitler and Mussolini as reported in the newspapers overwhelm him, the inertia of God in the face of catastrophe revolts this mystic, who is not Zionist; in all of this, too, Morris is a duplicate of Singer. He’s complaining : “I have raised children who are worse than converts. Fania is an anti-Semite, she hates the Jews. She says things that Goebbels would say too. ” A drop of water overflows the Morris vase: Minna, his wife, cheats on him with Hertz, in whom Morris thought he had a friend. Secondary intrigue abounds, there are too many, Minna’s ex-husband arrives in New York to find her and to pluck Morris by selling her supposedly valuable paintings when they are fakes. “It is indeed my chance to have been the wife of the worst Jew still alive”, plague Minna, who charitably adds: “Naturally, I was happy to know that he was safe and sound. No one deserves to be killed by Hitler. ”
Thieves and “Whores” are the pillars of the Singer world where you torture your soul by practicing rehashing, as with Saul Bellow, Singer’s first translator in English. Immature and cerebral, immoral and obsessed with morality, Singer’s characters are full of contradictions. They release an involuntary comic which will soon be that of the films of Woody Allen. Very often they are serious: “They will exterminate us all, said Morris, speaking of the Nazis, and what will God do? Will he bring souls to heaven? Will Hitler roast in hell? Couldn’t he have organized the universe a little better before? ”
Isaac Bashevis Singer The Charlatan
Translated from the English (United States) by Marie-Pierre Bay and Nicolas Castelnau-Bay, Stock, 416 pp., € 22.50 (ebook: € 15.99).