Some months back, I relocated an antique bookcase long ago constructed from the headboard of some ancient bed to a wall in our bedroom just opposite my own pillow. It is packed full with scores of mass market paperbacks, a now mostly obsolete format that once thrived as a means to put both great literature and pulp into the hands of a wider population in inexpensive, portable editions. So it was that I went to sleep each night staring at my own eclectic array of mass markets – classics, literature, sci-fi and, yes, some pulp – collected almost entirely during my teen years. This is how it was that I came to read Shosha by Isaac Bashevis Singer, randomly plucked from that shelf between yawns one evening.
Singer, who was born in Warsaw when it was a part of Russia (Poland ceased to be a nation during its long partition from 1795-1918), left Europe on the eve of the rise of Hitler and spent most of his long life in the United States, where he established a reputation in the Yiddish literary movement based upon his themes of Jewish mysticism, morality, philosophy and vegetarianism that eventually earned him a Nobel Prize. Like much of his work, Shosha was originally written in Yiddish.
Shosha is an odd book, by any measure. Written later in life when Singer was in his seventies, the perhaps semi-autobiographical novel looks back through the eyes of its protagonist, fledgling writer Aaron Greidinger, at the Jewish ghetto of his childhood in one corner of the Russian empire where he befriends the eponymous Shosha, as well as the independent Poland of his young manhood defined by the ever-widening shadow of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. When Aaron – known by the affectionate nickname Tsutsik – is reunited with Shosha many years later he is a young man on the make, struggling to earn a living as a writer, moving in literary circles where conversations frequently turn to Spinoza, Kant and Schopenhauer, as well as the orthodox rabbinical tradition he has largely abandoned. Tsutsik, who lives on the margins barely scraping by, nevertheless has one Dickensian event of good fortune after another. Rich men want to sponsor him. Almost every woman wants to bed him – and he eagerly obliges them. Shosha, on the other hand, in the intervening years has endured some kind of catastrophic malady termed a “sleeping sickness” that has left her short and stunted with a body barely developed beyond that of a child. In fact, she is frequently mistaken for a child. She also seems to be at least mildly mentally challenged. Nevertheless, when Tsutsik finds her again, he immediately commences an obsessive love affair with Shosha that is incomprehensible to everyone he knows. And, I might add, to the reader, as well.
I assumed the timeless innocence of the character Shosha to be a an allegory to the lost world of the Warsaw of Tsutsik’s – and Singer’s – childhood, before the Great War, and perhaps a symbol of the fragility of the reborn yet hardly mature new nation of Poland, doomed to fall once more before the onslaught of Nazi tanks. But there is clearly more to it than that as Tsutsik’s romantic love for Shosha deepens and they become betrothed. While Shosha is biologically a grown woman, there remains something creepily Lolita-like about her as an object of sexual lust, especially as it is repeatedly made clear in the narrative that others perceive her as the child she appears to be. My discomfort grew exponentially in the graphic description of the wedding night scene, replete with bloody sheets, in which Tsutsik effectively rapes the terrified, resisting Shosha. This sense of violation is further exacerbated a few pages later, when a peevish Shosha confesses that she wants more of that marriage bed, as soon as possible. Perhaps I am more sensitive than I used to be, but none of this sat well with me at all. In fact, I could not shake a sense of disgust at being forced to serve as audience to a kind of literary voyeuristic pedophilia that was at best gratuitous, at worst repulsive.
Through all of this, I anticipated some sort of dramatic denouement, which was not to be. Suddenly, and without explanation, the narrative ends. It then picks up again in a disjointed “Epilogue” that finds Tsutsik thirteen years later, an established New York author visiting the new nation of Israel, which serves as an uneven vehicle for relating the fate of all of the significant characters from the novel: “anticlimactic” does not even begin to describe it.
I have never read Singer before, nor have I read other works from his Yiddish literary tradition, so I am possibly not qualified to properly judge the merit of this novel. It is clear that Singer was an extremely gifted writer working within a highly-developed intellectual milieu. Portions of the narrative devoted to existential explorations of philosophy, religion, politics and morality are well worth the read. Still, the episodes with the girl-child Shosha that come to dominate the book are deeply disturbing, whatever the author’s intent. If Shosha is indeed a metaphor for innocence, we cannot help but cringe at her defilement by the novelist as protagonist. Would I ever read Singer again? I can’t say. Would I recommend Shosha to others? Not so much.