The introduction to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1978 novel “Shusha” is a puzzle:
“This novel does not represent the Jews of Poland in the pre-Hitler years by any means. It is a story of a few unique characters in unique circumstances.”
What is he saying? Why is he saying this?
Is he saying that the book does not represent ALL the Jews of Poland? That goes without saying. Is he saying that the characters in this book are not meant to represent any particular Jews who lived in Warsaw in the 1930s? There are certainly clearer ways to say this? Is he saying that the novel was not represent ANY Jews in pre-Hitler Poland? Every novel is “a story of a few unique characters in unique circumstances”; this is almost a definition of a novel. So what gives here?
I don’t know. But I did read “Shosha” , a book that has been hanging around the house in multiple copies forever, earlier this week and, while I don’t think it’s the most engaging story around, I do think it has some value. But in fact that value depends upon its accuracy in “representing the Jews of Poland in the pre-Hitler years”. Otherwise, why write it?
Singer sure spends a lot of time describing the Jews of Poland, or at least of Warsaw, where the novel is set. He talks about three distinct kinds of Jews: the poor, and often very religious, Jews who live in and around Krochmalna Street, an area which he portrays as a sort of Warsavian Lower East Side. There are the intellectual Jews, also impoverished, but living in various neighborhoods of the city, who hang around the Writers Club. And there are the rich and assimilated Jews, some of whom now live abroad in America, but who return now and then for personal and business reasons.
The story line is a bit odd. The central character is not really Shosha – in my mind she plays a supporting role – but Aaron, a would be writer who grew up in the Krochmalna neighborhood, but who moved out and now is one of Warsaw’s young intellectuals, writing for local publications and dreaming of doing something big. Shosha was his neighbor and best friend until she moved away at age 7; he does not see her for twenty years, and those twenty years have not been good to her. Shosha suffers from some malady (ala Oskar in Gunter Grass’ “The Tin Drum”) where she stopped growing physically and mentally, and has never reached puberty.
Aaron is, among other things, a ladies man (although the description of him and his older companion and mentor Morris, also quite a rake, makes this seem less that possible), and he has recently broke up with Communist girlfriend Dora, who wants him to move to Moscow with her, and has started affairs with his landlord’s maid, the non-Jewish Tekla, with Celia, the outgoing wife of mild, meek Haiml,and with Warsaw born American Yiddish theater actress Betty Slonim, mistress and muse of the wealthy, married, old and not well Sam Dreiman, American real estate mogul. But he marries Shosha.
Why he marries Shosha is a mystery and source of frustration to all of Aaron’s friends, as it is to me. She doesn’t really have a role in the story. She could have been a rag doll for what she adds to the story line. “What? Aaron is marrying a rag doll and bringing her everywhere with him? Why did he do that? She’s not even alive.” These words could be said about Shosha.
Putting Shosha to the side, a lot does happen, mainly surrounding Aaron’s relationship with Betty and Sam. Sam hires Aaron to write a play for Betty to star in, to take Warsaw by storm. Aaron writes and writes, but never succeeds (he has a lot of interference from Sam, Betty and each of the prospective actors, each of whom want their roles amplified and changed). Finally, in a fit of exasperation, Sam pulls the plug.
I guess it’s a coming of age story. The poverty ridden lost writer becomes found through a series of lucky connections, cannot quite adjust to becoming a man of substance and prospective fame, reaches to his past for some sort of security, finds success illusive, and retreats to his adolescent shyness.
Although much of the book foreshadows Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the story line ends before the war begins, except for an epilogue where the now American Aaron visits the now Israeli Haiml – everyone else has perished, some as Holocaust victims, some of natural causes and at least one of suicide. Shosha had died as they were evacuated from the ghetto.
But the book, it seems to me, was about the pre-Hitler era Polish Jews, and about Warsaw, its neighborhoods, its streets, its synagogues, its hotels, its clubs, its Jewish theater. Don’t let that introduction fool you.