Saturday, September 7, 2013

On "Enemies, a Love Story," by Isaac Bashevis Singer *****

Singer's novel reminded me of why I like fiction, and that is not a small feat. As I've gotten older, I've found myself more and more drawn to nonfiction. I think that is because nonfiction seems somehow more important or pertinent to me. But when I return to books for rereading, it is almost always a fictional work, not nonfiction. Why is that the case? And why does so much fiction, in my older years, fail to impress?

I think that is because a lot of contemporary fiction seems to be simply that: a story. And I want to walk away from a book with more than a story. I good book makes me think (and most nonfiction does that) or it makes me feel (some fiction does that); a truly great book makes me do both.

Singer's book was more one for thinking. But it was also great storytelling. The plot revolves around a man with three wives. The setting is post-World War II New York. Herman Broder has survived the Holocaust by hiding out in a hayloft. The woman who sheltered him--his family's former servant--is now his wife. We get the sense, as the novel continues, that Broder married her more from duty than desire (though early on this isn't necessarily as clear). Broder also has a mistress, another Holocaust survivor. This woman gets pregnant at one point and insists on marriage. Beyond that, there's Broder's former wife, who apparently did not die in the concentration camps as he had been led to believe: she's resurfaced. How Broder keeps these plates spinning is truly engaging.

But along the way, we also wrestle with what it means to exist and to have faith and to love. Interestingly, Broder's servant wife, Yadwiga, grows more religious as the novel progresses, becoming Jewish (giving up Catholicism). This, at times, even infects Broder, who wishes to return to his faith. But in a world where "all the good Jews" were killed (that is, the ones faithful to Torah and their beliefs), faith in God no longer seems to make much sense. Try as Broder might, he can't bring himself any longer to do what is right.

Of course, Broder was never a saint to begin with. He treated his first wife awful and took little concern in his family. So in a sense, we also are watching a man trying to reform--and failing--which is itself rather fascinating and sad. Also amazing is to see how these three women--and how much these three women--love this man, even at great cost to themselves. Unable to choose, Broder contributes to the ruin of each of their lives.

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