What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Isaac Bashevis Singer (United States, 1978)
  • BOOK READ:: The Collected Stories, various translators

For this Nobel project, there are writers I know: for instance, William Faulkner. There are writers I don’t: for instance, Gisouè Carducci. There are writers I sort of know: for instance, Octavio Paz. And then there’s Isaac Bashevis Singer, who’s in a whole different category. One way to put it is that I’ve read and enjoyed his work for a very long time, but that undersells where he fits not only into my life but also into the lives of a small smidgen of the population. For us, it’s more like we’ve been reading him since before we could read. And by “we,” I mean “certain Jews.”

Though Singer was an American writer, with a couple of National Book Awards to prove it, that doesn’t feel like the right nationality to put down on the Nobel list. Nor does Polish, which matches his birthplace. Jew is the word we’re looking for here. He’s not the first Jew to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he’s the first one to win it for writing in Yiddish, and we’re not going to see another one. Yiddish is a language that’s more Jewish even than Hebrew is. Yiddish is actually Yiddish for “Jewish,” now used only in a few scattered Hasidic communities and among the last of a generation of Jewish grandmothers. There’s an effort to keep the language alive, but it feels forced and academic, the way people still learn to play the lute.

More successfully, there’s a small generational slice that grew up on Isaac Bashevis Singer. For a certain kind of Jew, Singer’s work was the perfect way to transmute Judaism. There was some nervousness about passing on the Books of Moses among people who weren’t sure they believed in God. There was unease about praising Israel too heartily, as this would bring up nerve-wracking political discussions. But it was no problem to bequeath Yiddish culture, with its belief that the world is crazy (mishegas!), that we all have our troubles (tsuris!), and that sitting around picking things apart and complaining about them (kibbitzing! kvetching!) is the best way to spend our time.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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