For the first time in a long while, I have been rereading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of stories The Spinoza of Market Street, published in 1961. It is even better than I remembered. I wonder how much he is read today by people decades younger than I, and how they see him. The words on the pages haven’t changed, of course, but the books are not the same today.
In “The Public Square” many years ago, Richard John Neuhaus (blessed be his memory) sneered a bit at Singer. Chaim Grade, he assured us, was a much better writer! Oh, dear. Neuhaus’s comment came to mind while I was reading the title story of this collection. Then I remembered, as if it were yesterday, an episode I hadn’t recalled for ages.
For three years starting in the late 1970s, I taught English as an adjunct at California State University, Los Angeles (not to be confused with UCLA). As a non-driver, I took the bus to and from the Cal State campus, boarding at the corner of Lake and Washington in Pasadena. (For readers who live or have lived in Pasadena, our house was on Prescott, a short street that runs between Los Robles and El Molino, one block south of Washington.)
It took thirty-eight minutes, when all was proceeding according to schedule, for me to get from the bus stop to the building that housed the English Department. By the time the bus left Pasadena, it was packed with commuters, ranging from business types in sharp suits to women who were heading for cleaning jobs. Especially during the first year of commuting (I only had to teach three days a week), I found the mix of people, the overlapping fragments of conversation, quite intoxicating. But I almost never talked with anyone on the bus.
One afternoon in 1979 (I think it was), when I boarded the bus to return home, I took an available seat on the aisle; a woman with prematurely gray hair was sitting next to the window. She was in her mid-thirties, I thought (I was thirty-one), and she looked intelligent and intense. I turned my attention to my book: A Word Child, by Iris Murdoch, published several years earlier. I had been reading for about ten minutes when my seatmate surprised me by asking what I thought of Murdoch. I said I thought she was a very good writer. The woman next to me gave me an ironic look. “But all those people suddenly falling in and out of love! It’s hard to take seriously.” We talked for a little bit more about Murdoch, until we reached my seatmate’s stop.
The next time I took the bus home, I saw my conversation partner and sat down next to her again. This time I was reading a book of stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Séance. Ah! The trouble with Singer, she told me, was that he toyed with Judaism, he believed and he didn’t. She was Jewish, it turned out, and observant. I told her I was an evangelical Christian, which seemed to interest her, and that I agreed with her to some extent about Singer, but that I also loved him.
Thereafter, for a period of a few weeks, we had regular conversations on the bus. I learned her name—Beth—and a little bit about her; she’d had a serious illness, which she didn’t name. In general she was quite reticent about personal matters, whereas I told her about Wendy and our two children (two more were to come later) and my mother and brother and more. She was uncannily perceptive; I felt she could almost read my mind. She teased me a good deal. And she had a very distinctive scent, which I couldn’t identify.
In short, Beth was patently a character from the pages of Singer. I told her that, finally, and she laughed. Our conversations continued to the end of the ten-week quarter. “See you next quarter.” But I never saw her again.
If you do pick up The Spinoza of Market Street or another of Singer’s books, I’d love to hear from you.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.