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The man of masks

A biography of Polish writer I. B. Singer, secretive, conflicted interpreter of Jewish life

Isaac B. Singer: A Life
By Florence Noiville
Translated, from the French, by Catherine Temerson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 192 pp., illustrated, $23

A biographer faces serious challenges in researching the life of Nobel Prize recipient and fiction writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Born in Poland in 1904, the son and grandson of Hasidic rabbis, Singer lived in various Polish communities until immigrating to America in 1935, and the grim truth is that nearly all independent biographical sources of information about his early world were obliterated by the Nazis. Compounding this, Singer was little noticed until the age of 49, when his work -- written in Yiddish for a small, vanishing audience -- first received widespread English translation. Until then, he had been the undistinguished younger brother of the best-selling novelist Israel Joshua Singer.

Another complication is that Singer was secretive, often duplicitous, given to misleading those closest to him. He developed few enduring friendships, outlived nearly all contemporaries who might be available to interview, and did little other than write, take brief vacations with his wife, make public presentations, and teach late in life. Singer's son, abandoned in Poland, has written a bitter memoir; a young woman who once served as his translator has written a limited account of their time together; and there have been three scanty efforts at biographical portrait of this hidden, circumscribed life.

All this may explain why Florence Noiville's "Isaac B. Singer: A Life" totals only 192 pages of text despite her subject's 87-year life. It may also explain why she relies so heavily on Singer's autobiographical writings -- and even his fiction -- to shape her account. Much of her book either restates or directly quotes extensive material from Singer's own memoirs. Consequently, it concentrates where Singer himself concentrated, on the undocumented early Polish childhood, and skims where he skimmed. Since Singer wrote almost nothing autobiographical about his 50 years in America, Noiville struggles to offer anything beyond a superficial account of publications, awards, and speeches.

The basic facts are accounted for. Noiville sketches Singer's family: the loveless parents -- an inept, mystical rabbi father and a frustrated, hyper rational mother -- who lived apart much of Singer's childhood; the successful and resented older brother and sister, both writers. She covers the years in Warsaw, when Singer reads extensively and feels his calling as a Yiddish intellectual but is unable to publish more than a few stories and one novel; the secret son, left behind when Singer flees to America; the first frustrated, silent decade in New York, with his troubled marriage and pattern of infidelities; the sudden success after Saul Bellow translates "Gimpel the Fool" in 1953; the triumphant years culminating in the 1978 Nobel Prize; and the final, dementia-ravaged period in Miami.

To her credit, Noiville tries to supplement the familiar story. A French journalist and literary critic for Le Monde, she approaches Singer in the manner of a biojournalist, traveling to Poland, visiting places associated with Singer. Her findings, as when she tours Leoncin, where Singer was born, are stark: "Not a trace of its former Jewish life remains." In Radzymin, where Singer moved at the age of 4, when his father became the rabbi there, Noiville discovers that "no one here knows Singer and no one seems to pay attention to his childhood home." In Warsaw, where he spent vital years as a child and young man, where much of his work was inspired, she sees that "practically nothing remained . . . of Singer's landscapes." Before long, Noiville's frustration boils over, becoming intrusive: "But what of the old days? Soap and herring? The pale lighting of the inner courtyards?"

With so little to add to existing scholarship, Noiville offers psychological analyses of her subject and his work. Since Singer's parents did not get along, she concludes that "he would have to create his own inner world very quickly, escape and protect himself from others, and rely primarily on himself." Since Singer's siblings were known to be critical of the rabbi and religion in their village, "it was probably in Radzymin that, for Singer, the first crack began to appear in the 'stronghold of Jewish puritanism.' "

"Isaac B. Singer: A Life" might be a handy central resource for information, but the poor quality of its writing makes it a trying one. Noiville relies upon the posing and answering of questions as a way to introduce her points, often several times per page. Here she is speaking of the woman with whom Singer had his only child: "What was she like? No doubt a combination of Sabina and Lena as they appear in A Young Man in Search of Love and Lost in America." She frequently uses exclamation points to intensify observations: Speaking of the differences between Yiddish and English versions of Singer's work, Noiville writes, "He even changed the protagonists and altered the endings and entire passages of his stories!" There is also the awkward, occasional use of Yiddish dialect to represent Singer's speech in his later years, and distracting repetitions of fact. The overall effect is of a person trying anything and everything to compensate for the lack of material at hand.

The best introduction to Singer's life is still Ilan Stavans's "Isaac Bashevis Singer: An Album," produced in 2004 to accompany the Library of America's three -volume collection of Singer's stories. Including a biographical essay by Jeremy Dauber as well as photographs and appreciations, it gives a fuller, less cluttered sense of its subject and his journey.

Floyd Skloot received the 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction for his memoir, "In the Shadow of Memory." His next book, the novel "Patient 002," will appear in April.

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