Let’s Talk about “Scum” – another Singer book

Having read “Shosha” and come out of it with mixed feelings, I noted “Scum” on our shelves and thought I’d give another Isaac Bashevis Singer book a whirl.  “Shosha” is a book written mid-career, while “Scum”, published in 1991, was one of the Nobel Prize winner’s last books.

Both are set in Warsaw, and I think my choice was somewhat influenced by a conversation I had with a friend who had recently visited the Polish capital and was telling me how the decision had been made to rebuild the city after World War II to look as close as possible to the pre-war city.  “Shosha”, I knew, and “Scum”, I learned are topographic novels – Singer often leads you block by block, square by square, sometimes building by building through the city.

“Shosha” was largely set in immediate pre-war Warsaw, the 1930s.  A prominent location is the Bristol Hotel, described as a luxury hotel and the choice of American real estate mogul Sam Dreiman and his actress-companion, Betty Slonim.  I asked my friend if he saw the Bristol on his trip, and if it still existed.  He had not seen it, and did not know if was still (or again) in operation.

I think Googled the Bristol and found that it is still there, and still elegant.  I also saw that construction began in 1899 and the hotel opened in 1901.  I also learned that the German occupiers took over the hotel after the invasion of Poland, but that the hotel was not bombed and survived the war, unlike the major part of the city of Warsaw.

I wasn’t surprised when I read that the focal character of “Scum”, Poland native, Argentinian resident Max Barabender, stayed at the Bristol.  “Scum” is set in the year 1906, thirty years earlier than “Shosha”.  But something else did surprise me (and I know I am being picky).  Max Barabender had left Warsaw 23 years earlier (that would be 1883), when he was 24, yet he remembered the Bristol Hotel, and its reputation for luxury from those days.  An anachronism, right in the heart of “Scum”.

OK, let’s put that aside.  What about “Scum”.  Hit, or no hit?

In 1991, Isaac Singer was 88 years old.  And he wrote this book about 47 year old Barabender, traveling to Warsaw to regain his youthful ardor and cure his impotence, by finding willing women.  And willing women, he did indeed find.  There was the 19 year old daughter of a poverty stricken rabbi, there was the mistress of an aging underworld figure, there was the young servant girl who just wanted out of her straits, there was the over the hill wife of the baker.

So, how does he do it?  (Well, of course, so many of Singer’s characters seem to have this sexual magnitism.)  Well, he does it first by propositioning almost everyone he meets, and not only verbally but through what today would be closer to “date rape”, through physical pressure.  But none of the women seem to really mind, even those who fight back, to it knowing that they will give in eventually (eventually being in about five minutes).  No, Singer’s women are not very believable.

Max has a wife in Buenos Aires.  She lost all interest in physical, and emotional, contact after their teenage son, and only child, suddenly died, and eventually she sent her husband off to Warsaw with her blessings.  Once in Warsaw, Max tells everyone that his wife has died, that he is a wealthy widower looking for companionship.  He asks for the hand of the rabbi’s daughter, he tells the gangster’s wife that he will become her partner is encouraging Jewish girls to leave Warsaw for Argentina (without telling them that, upon arrival, they will be sent to a brothel), she tells the servant girl that he will travel with her anywhere she wants.

So is this just a silly story by an over-the-hill author, or is it a tale amplifying the existential condition of the typical middle aged male?  I vote for the former.


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