The Magician of Lublin, by Isaac Bashevis Singer and translated by Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer
Magician is an exuberant and dark fable set in the shtetls of 19th Century Poland. It’s a story of lust and pride, doubt and faith, community and escape. It’s Faust but with no need for Mephistopheles. We are too good at tempting ourselves.
Masha Yazur, of Lublin, is the most famed magician in Eastern Europe. It’s an achievement that gains him friendship and praise but little money. His parochial Polish homeland assumes that anyone home-grown who hasn’t first made it big in Western Europe must be an also-ran.
Masha’s talents are extraordinary and he’s relentless in developing new and ever more impressive feats. Many believe him an actual sorcerer. Sometimes he suspects the same. The book captures his ability in breathless tumbling prose:
It was risky to debate with him since he was no fool, knew how to read Russian and Polish, and was even well-informed on Jewish matters. A reckless man! To win a bet he had once spent a whole night in the cemetery. He could walk a tightrope, skate on a wire, climb walls, open any lock. Abraham Leibush, the locksmith, had wagered five rubles that he could make a lock that Yasha could not open. He had worked over it for five months, and Yasha had picked it with a shoemaker’s awl. I Lublin they said that if Yasha had chosen crime, noone’s house would be safe.
He could walk on his hands, eat fire, swallow swords, turn somersaults like a monkey. No one could duplicate his skill.
If he went to the West he’d be rich but that would mean abandoning Lublin and his loving wife Esther and his culture. He lives the bulk of his life on the road returning home only occasionally and briefly to refresh and recharge.
Esther is childless but otherwise their marriage is blessed. She bakes him cookies to welcome him home and they still desire each other and are affectionate and playful. She reflects that “Every day she spent with him was like a holiday.” Perhaps that’s not an entirely good thing.
Esther suspects that he’s unfaithful while on the road but chooses not to probe too deeply. In this as in many things she’s wise for Yasha is prodigiously, recklessly, incontinently unfaithful.
When he tours he travels with a monkey, a crow and a parrot and with his loyal assistant Magda. She’s a Christian from an impoverished family who is like a second wife. She’s built her life around him and unlike Esther she doesn’t have the option of ignoring his infidelities. What she does share with Esther is the knowledge that whatever happens he’ll come back to her. So far that’s been true.
Yasha heads out to Piask – home to the Piask thieves who wonder at him and ask why he’s never become a thief since he’d be the greatest of them. He has no aptitude for dishonesty and no stomach for the risk of capture. He entertains them with new card tricks and feats of lockpicking. As everywhere there’s no money in it but there’s laughter, a good meal with friends, an always-amazed audience.
Yasha has another woman here of course – Zeftel who is the deserted wife of a Piask thief. The thieves take care of her as one of their own but by sleeping with Yasha she’s offended their idea of honour. Yasha helps her leave but otherwise considers their affair finished. Later all he has to do is see her again for that not to be true. He can’t help himself.
Yasha dreams of flight, of constructing some winged apparatus that will let him soar as the birds. It’s another freedom-dream. He wants to escape but without leaving home. His life on the road gives him that but he doesn’t see it.
If this were all then Yasha’s life could continue as it always had, but like every mythic figure he reaches too far. He falls in love with Elaine – a Christian widow used to a better life than an impoverished entertainer can offer. She wants him to forsake his faith, marry her and then travel to Italy with her to start a career on the Western stages. All they need is money, a lot of it …
Yasha acts as if an atheist, but in his heart he still believes in god. He just isn’t sure that the god he believes in is the Jewish god. He finds it hard to be faithful to just the one deity. Would it make so much difference if instead of failing to pray to the god of the Jews he failed to pray to the god of the Christians instead? What after all do the Jews get from their god?
Jews – an entire community of them – spoke to a God no one saw. Although plagues, famines, poverty and pogroms were His gifts to them, they deemed Him merciful and compassionate, and proclaimed themselves His chosen people. Yasha often envied their unswerving faith.
And yet. To abandon one’s faith is no small thing. And Yasha is not just considering leaving behind his faith but also his community and those he already loves. Esther would be abandoned and he knows she has done nothing to deserve that. Magda too would be left behind since he could hardly take her to his new life with Elaine.
As with so many other women Yasha won Elaine in part by saying whatever she wanted to hear and believing it while he said it. Now he’s committed. With previous affairs he could move on and leave his world unchanged – Esther at home and Magda on the road. Not this time. He considers burglary as the solution to raising the money he needs. He’s lost himself.
Yasha has finally gone too far – soared too close to the sun. He spirals into crisis. He joins prayers at temple though he needs help to remember the trappings and rituals. He briefly becomes a Jew among Jews and takes comfort from it but as soon as prayers end his pride reasserts itself. He thinks too quickly and clearly to accept rote answers and is too restless to study the Torah for more than a source of clever quotes. For all his gifts he has no balance and can’t find a way to live both the life he enjoys and the life of a good Jew.
I won’t of course say what happens though the book wouldn’t be spoiled by knowing. What at first seems a picaresque story of a larger-than-life rogue becomes a story of existentialist crisis. What use is faith if god never answers? Yasha makes a joke of it but it’s stopped being funny:
‘Of course there is [a god], but no one has spoken with Him. How could God speak? If He spoke in Yiddish, the Christians wouldn’t understand; if He spoke French, the English would complain. The Torah claims that he spoke in Hebrew but I wasn’t there to hear it.’
The tone becomes darker. Yasha was comfortable with his doubting faith such as it was. He was comfortable with his equivocal life. Now the escape he always dreamed of is almost in grasp but is the price too high? He’s all too aware that even if it is it won’t be him that pays it but Esther and Magda.
Here Yasha is at the theatre watching a comedy. He’s no longer laughing:
He had seen hundreds of similar farces. The husband was always fatuous, the wife unfaithful, the lover cunning. The moment Yasha stopped smiling, his eyebrows tensed. Who mocked whom here? The same rabble existed everywhere. They danced at weddings and wailed at funerals, swore faithfulness at the altar and corrupted the institution of marriage, wept over a forlorn, fictitious little orphan and butchered each other in wars, pogroms and revolutions.
If there’s a message to Magician I’m not sure what it is. That’s one of many things I like about this novel. Yasha’s choices and fate are surprising and yet reflect his life. Like all fables there’s more here than can easily be measured.
Singer conjures up a vanished world but somehow despite its distance both in time and place – the novel was first published in Yiddish in the US in 1960 and I read it in English in London in 2017 – it is both real and somehow still ours. Yasha and his situation are particular and extreme but the challenge of wanting more than can exist within the one life is I think pretty universal.
Yasha is a man perhaps over-blessed. He is loved by four women. He is skilled at whatever he turns his hand to. He can out-debate rabbis and out-trick thieves. He cannot, however, outwit himself. We contain our own fall.
None I’m aware of. I’d be delighted to be wrong though. There’s a lot I can’t say or discuss here without potentially spoiling the book for a new reader.