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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Israel Joshua Singer - The Brothers Ashkenazi

The Brothers Ashkenazi - Israel Joshua Singer

There once was a writer I ranked among the best ones I've ever read.


That author bore the surname of Singer and won a Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1978. Even though he was born in Poland and spent most of his life in the US, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in Yiddish, his mother tongue. He died at the impressive age of 88 and gained all the honours and the fame he deserved. 


For I.B. Singer wrote in a truly magnificent way.


Now, our Isaac Bashevis had an elder brother - Israel Joshua - who was himself a writer. This I.J. Singer died of heart attack when he was only 50 year old in 1944 and his ouevre stood largely forgotten for five or six decades.
I didn't know anything about the eldest Singer before reading the following line at the opening of 'The Family Moskat', my favourite novel by I.B. Singer:


In memory of my late brother I.J. Singer, author of 'The Brothers Ashkenazi'.


For a number of years I thought that Israel Joshua could have merely been a source of inspiration for the younger and - so I assumed - more gifted Isaac Bashevis whose novels and short stories I kept on buying, reading and revering.
I therefore regarded this mysterious I.J. Singer as an old fashioned and not that successful Yiddish novelist who helped his younger brother to sharpen up his own style and - perhaps - played a part in introducing him to the literary circles of first Warsaw and then New York.


Out of mere curiosity, I tried to look for Israel Joshua Singer's books in either the Italian or the English translation, but I was never able to find any of them in bookshops, libraries and second hand bookstalls.

Due to this reason, I believed that the famous I.B. rather than the forgotten I.J. was the one who modernised the Yiddish literature by elevating it to a cosmopolitan status and by letting it get an international appeal. After all, the literary standards set by I.B. Singer were so high that my assumption was reasonable enough.


Well, I was wrong.


For now that I managed to put my hands and to stick my eyes on 'The Brothers Ashkenazi' I can tell you that this is it. And I mean it.

This is the novel that surpasses everything that Isaac Bashevis Singer has ever written and - what's more - it does it fourteen years earlier than I.B's masterpiece entitled 'The Family Moskat', a book that I love to the bone.


So how exactly did Israel Joshua Singer make it?
Well, first and foremost by being more modern and less tied to the traditional Jewish canons and models than his younger brother.
In fact, whereas I.B. Singer's writing his masterfully chiselled and engrossing but somehow reluctant to delve into topics such as politics and economics, I.J. Singer knew how to deal with that and therefore was a much more modern novelist than his younger brother.


The Nobel laureate Singer was truly mesmerizing in putting onto writing stories, myths, legends and jokes coming straight from an endless oral heritage. And yet, for all this ability or because of it, I.J. Singer is tightly bound to the past. Which is nothing bad and actually fantastic given the great stuff the younger Singer delivered.
But still, there's something missing in what Isaac Bashevis left us: insight. Which stands for the capacity to pinpoint and - to some extent - foresee some of the causes leading to the effects he wrote about.

The dilemmas faced by I.B. Singer's characters - who are often torn between faith and secularism, superstition and progress, Europe and the US - are all too clear but, in a way, bred in their bones not influenced by the times and the society they live in.

At the contrary, Israel Joshua Singer (formerly a journalist) was very aware of the importance of politics and economics - intertwined with history and religion - in shaping the mentality of his characters.

The elder Singer dealt less with religion and traditions and more with a modern and sophisticated Jewish society caught at the zenith of its social, political and economical power before a resurgence in Russian pogroms and the Nazis persecution wiped it out from Europe.
I don't think it's a coincidence that I.B. Singer's first published novel ('Satan in Goray') is set in 17th century Poland and revolves around religion while I.J. Singer's debut ('Steel and Iron') is set in 20th century Russia and very political.


And it's interesting to read how Isaac Bashevis' writing career flourished only after his elder brother's death as if he eventually realised that Israel Joshua was no longer a literary model that he couldn't match. Thus, it happend that I.B's writer's block disappeared and he found his own voice or maybe the courage to put it on paper.


The beauty of 'The Brothers Ashkenazi' lies in its ambitious purpose. I.J. Singer here draws an excellent and ever-detailed picture of Lodz between the end of the 20th century and the end of First World War. Among the forces at work in town to shape it as an industrial there is a thriving Jewish community and a prosperous German enclave.


I've never been to Lodz but I knew something about its sudden growth largely due to a now bygone textile industry.
Well, believe me when I say that this excellent novel is for Lodz what 'The Tin Drum' is for Danzig-Gdansk or 'Buddenbrooks' is for Lubeck.


'The Brothers Ashkenazi' is a masterpiece and it took me weeks to attempt writing a review which could do any justice to the genius he wrote it.
As you can see, I utterly failed. For all of my blabberings, I haven't been able to tell you much about the novel. But I can tell you one thing: it will grab you.


Ignore the graphic-novel style Will Eisneresque cover of the Other Press edition (portrayed) and get into this treasure. It's 432 pages and you will beg for more.