Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm


Isaac Bashevis Singer

Translated by Nina Michalak

Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm: What is your message to the men and women of letters?1

Isaac Bashevis Singer: That they meet three conditions. First, that they have a story to tell. Present-day literature is increasingly careless about that. We do not have to adhere to Aristotle's rules for writers, but it is imperative for the storyteller to have a good story to tell. A consuming desire to get published makes writers forget that their mission is to describe human experience.

Second, have a passion, a need to tell this particular story as opposed to some other one. I remember a time when I had a good theme but no passion, so in the end I wrote nothing.

Third, it must be your story. You must be convinced that no one else is able to describe it so well. It is not easy to have such a conviction. It only comes to the greatest writers. It is important to write about what you are familiar with, what you know best. Have your own story, your own topic.

When you read the Bible, you do not know what somebody was thinking, but you always know what the person was doing... It is a heresy of our times to use our thoughts and moods as the yardsticks in appraising almost everything that is around us.

As for myself, what I know best are Jewish people, not those living in Sweden though, but those in Poland. We all have our limitations, our constraints. One should be able to realize that. I am not able to describe everything. It took me years to understand that. Initially, I wanted to imitate Knut Hamsun. I eventually learned that I was neither Tolstoy nor Hamsun, nor Gorky, that I must write about my milieu, one that has become my own and personal passion.

When I read Pan Tadeusz,2 I know that Adam Mickiewicz was perfectly familiar with what he was portraying. Joseph Conrad never wrote about Poland.3 He wrote in English and, in his books, the sea was the centerpiece and people played a secondary role. Had he been writing in Polish, his characters might have been more vivid, more authentic.

We should not cut ourselves off from our ancestral roots... A cosmopolitan person will never write anything exceptional.... I learned Yiddish and I write in that language.... I try to write about people I know best.

I know Hebrew, I learned Yiddish and I write in that language. Some people told me: 'You write in a dead language for people who are dying off.' But fortunately, due to translations, my books reach out everywhere. I put a lot of work and creativity into the English version.

At one time, in Poland, somebody wrote about me in Wiadomosci Literackie:4 'A no-nonsense writer, expressing himself in Yiddish.' I write about Jews and about Poles. My characters, whether Jewish or Polish, may be thieves or prostitutes. I do not generalize. I could not care less for readers looking for generalizations in my books. I do not write for them.

It is important to write about the people one knows best, regardless of whether they are Jewish, Protestant, Turks or what have you. Writing about the most familiar things or people reveals our origins, as new or as incomplete as they may be. We should not cut ourselves off from our ancestral roots.

A writer should never abandon his mother tongue which is a veritable treasure house of idiomatic expressions. More than any other artist, a writer belongs to his countrymen, his language, history and culture.

I do not generalize. I could not care less for readers looking for generalizations in my books.

A true creator belongs to his people, to his community, regardless of whether he likes it or not. A cosmopolitan person will never write anything exceptional, since his work will be a generalization. Literature is intimately connected with one's origins. Great masters' roots are firmly embedded in their nation's past. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol belong to the Russian nation. Dostoevsky dreamed of the world falling in love with Russia. Kafka was the only great writer without roots. What I can, however, say about him is that he was searching for them, was trying to discover them.

A writer must stay within themes that correspond to his passions, that spring up from the depths of his being. This is what makes a writer original and great. Leave it to a dilettante to take up any subject. It is not up to the artist to worry about creating principles. His role is to accentuate what is individualistic, to be interested in what is exceptional. A scientist, regardless of how how much he admires the exceptional, tries to make it unexceptional. That is his job. Modern man is increasingly interested in the abstract and in the underlying principles. His mind works in a scientific way: it refuses to get acquainted with just one exceptional person. It wants to familiarize itself with characters and systemize their classification.

I believe that if a true writer wants to describe or a painter to paint an apple, it has to be an exceptional apple, worth the effort. The role of literature is to demonstrate the uniqueness of a life being lived. To present this reality in an interesting way is what I call the quintessence of talent.

It is important to show simultaneously the exceptional and the common, the national and the universal, the realistic and the mystical. The moment a writer attempts to generalize a problem and see it on an expansive scale, he stops being a writer. It is only after his literary endeavor is completed that he may go and make a speech in support of a candidate or a loved one. His novel, however, must not be a political dissertation. The role of literature is not to analyze ideas but to describe experiences. Frankly, mixing social and political issues with writing is not a very healthy practice: its outcome will reside outside true literature.

True literature focuses on experiences and situations. When you read the Bible, you do not know what somebody was thinking, but you always know what the person was doing. People may sit and talk for hours about what they are thinking, but it is only through their action that we may judge their true colors. It is a heresy of our times that we use our thoughts and moods as the yardsticks in appraising almost everything that is around us.

Instead of searching for words, the contemporary art of writing consists of restricting them so much that they become cliches. I refer to such words as good, bad, decent, immoral, charming, ugly, noble, abstract, cunning, talented those and many others which have been emasculated.

Talents are born; I do not believe talent can be achieved through hard work. Genes do not produce many talents, in every generation talent is a rarity. Talent is a freak of nature.

At the same time, it would only be fair to say that a talented person may write bad novels and bad stories.

AZ-B: How do you write?

IBS: In my early days, I wrote in the third person, now in the first, but I will go back to narrate in the third person. I write with a pen, then I type, but I find it more and more difficult to write by hand. I think I will soon switch over to a typewriter. I spend two hours everyday in the morning writing.

Sometimes, I would blend my characters into one. I would move the clock back for a couple of years and place an event in Poland; using a character whom I might have met recently on a holiday.

As I write, I realize how many traps lie in wait for a writer. The worst one is the premise that a writer must be a sociologist or a politician constantly tuning into the process of social development and change. Yet another danger is the desire to make a lot of money and get quick recognition. And finally, the need to be original by working under the illusion that rhetoric, fancy stylistic novelties and the game of silly symbols may be able to articulate the constantly changing nature of interpersonal relations, that the pretense of originality may shed light or explain complications arising from surroundings or heritage. This type of 'experimental' writing harmed a great deal of talents, destroyed a lot of contemporary poetry by making it obscure, unattractive.

As elucidated by Spinoza, imagination relates to 'the natural order of things' and not to 'distortions.' Literature is well able to describe the absurd, but it should not itself become absurd.

The first fifteen years are never lost for a writer, since literature wrestles with the past. My present life consists of describing my remembrances. The writer's own life and the people he comes across are the best providers of the necessary raw material. Therefore, even when I write about other people, my personal recollections are part and parcel of the story being told. I do not invent my characters, I reminisce about people that I have met and see how they would be able to help me, how they would fit into my story. Sometimes, I would blend their personalities into one. I would move the clock back for a couple of years and place an event in Poland; using a character whom I might have met recently on a holiday. I always have a model. I think that all genuine painters use models. For I believe that nature has in store more surprises for us than our imagination can possibly think of.

What I try to keep in mind first and foremost is to write in my own mother tongue and about people I know best. By forgetting this principle, a writer who is attempting to assimilate into a foreign tradition fails to enter that society since he absolutely does not belong to it.

AZ-B: What do you think about the modern world?

IBS: Modern man, especially a young person, is unhappy because he lacks religion. I am not necessarily referring to organized religion, but to a faith in higher, supernatural forces. For thousands of years, people believed in God or in the gods. They believed that the world did not just happen and that a supernatural power was their ultimate judge, rewarding the good and punishing the evil. Pagans, of course, did not have such faith. But the Jews had a profound faith in a supernatural power and in justice. They believed that God revealed Himself to some people, and that these people knew what they were doing.

But the philosophy glorifying humankind and centered purely on its interests and values destroyed whatever weak faith there was. Then came wars, revolutions and such people as Hitler and Stalin who considered themselves humanists, spoke in the name of humankind and referred to themselves as socialists. Wars and revolutions not only destroy people but also precious cultural roots, whereas peace makes these roots grow and provides them with nourishment.

Faith in God and His Providence are at the very heart of literature. They tell us that misery is but a mask on the face of fate.

Human beings are constantly spied upon by forces which appear to know all their desires and complications. Having a free will they are, at the same time, led on by a mysterious hand. Literature should be love's and destiny's safe haven, a reflection of the tempest of human passions running wild and man's wrestling with them.

Modern man, especially a young person, is unhappy because he lacks religion....The Jews had a profound faith in the supernatural power and in justice. They believed that God revealed Himself to some people.... Faith in God and His Providence are at the very heart of literature.

Modern man feels as if he were a lottery player: he will either win or lose. He does not believe in any power that will take care of him and his affairs. A peculiar disillusionment prevails among people. I would venture to say that never before in the history of humankind have there been so many people disillusioned and doubtful as now. Suffering makes an intelligent person wiser. A person lacking wisdom may suffer a hundred years and die stupid. There are no set rules.

My brother, Israel Jehosua Singer, was also a writer [author of Josie Kab, Warsaw 1934 and 1960, AZ-B.]. I often discussed with him this very topic of the lack of dignity, the degradation, the abasement of modern man; his shaky, questionable family life, his greed and lust for luxury, contempt for the old, his narcissistic pursuit of a temporal youthfulness, his blind faith in psychiatry and his increasing tolerance of crime.

I do not want to talk about or preach morality. I do recognize its importance, but it is not up to me to preach it. I dislike generalizations; I am not a moralizer nor a statistician, but a writer. For me, every single person counts. Every human being is like a new chapter.

I always felt that God was not too generous, not to say stingy, in his gift-giving. He definitely provided us with a short supply of wisdom and physical strength, and showered us with a profusion of feelings and passions. But, alas, these produce suffering and shame.

No matter whether we want it or not, we must communicate with others. I would say that the best form of contact is through love and sex. Love and sex are great teachers. They reveal our true human nature. In society, a man may be perceived as a powerful player, but in sex, he may be reduced to a role of a child, a dwarf. An eye or an ear would never sabotage its owner. An eye does not stop seeing even if it does not like what it sees. I would say that sexual organs throw light on the human character more than anything else. More sensitive than the mind, they are not diplomatic and are usually merciless in telling the truth.

Of all the readers, children are the most genuine, for they are totally unbiased. Children will not read a book because it was written by a 'great writer' or by an 'authority.' Nor will they be impressed by the fact that Shakespeare wrote so many wonderful works. They would make up their mind to like or dislike a certain writer by simply reading his works. Pages of favorable reviews by literary critics are equally unable to earn a child's admiration.

I have my own challenges. All my life, I made promises to God. I have made thousands of resolutions only to end up going back on them. For instance, I promised myself to get up at eight in the morning, but I get up at ten. In my Warsaw days, almost every day, I promised myself not to waste time in the writers' club, not to engage in gossip and useless meetings, and right after that, I would go there, and waste my time talking nonsense.

My isolation, my seclusion have not changed for years. I surrounded myself with melancholy, becoming its prisoner. How can one run away from oneself? And where? I dreamed of ethics, of humanism that would give us tools to interpret events sent us by Providence....

The role of art is to make us forget about human inclinations, at least for some time.
I try to spend this 'some time' in a worthwhile manner.


1 The interview was conducted in September 1985 and it had never before been published in English. The conversation took place mostly in English, with the understanding that it would appear in an authorized Polish rendition (both Mr. Singer and Dr. Ziolkowska-Boehm are natives of Poland). 'I know Polish, but it is easier for me to speak in English,' said Mr. Singer. The Polish rendition of the interview was based on Dr. Ziolkowska-Boehm's notes. It was duly authorized by Mr. Singer and appeared in Ziolkowska-Boehm's Korzenie sa polskie (Warsaw, 1992). This book was then translated into English.Titled The Roots Are Polish, it will be published by the Canadian Polish Research Institute in Toronto. We are pleased to add this small but revealing fragment to Mr. Singer's English language opus.
2 An epic poem by Poland's favorite Romantic poet. It was published in 1834.
3 Here Singer is wrong. Conrad's "Prince Roman" is a story about Poland and Poles.
4 A literary weekly published in Warsaw in 1924-39.

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