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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

A Tale of Two Writers

By Norman Lebrecht / May 24, 2004

It has taken me all my reading life to realise that the two novelists I have most admired were born in the same year. The coincidence of their current centenary is no excuse for sentimental reflection on my part, but the more I reread their work the more unexpected confluences arise between two epochal storytellers who never met nor (when I asked them) admitted to reading the other.

Both have been victims of fluctuant taste. Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize in 1979, has fallen so far out of fashion that British publishers are no longer bothered to keep his works in print or raise a bid for a recent tell-all biography by a French journalist, Florence Noiville. Graham Greene, who was denied the Nobel amid imputations of sexual jealousy on the part of one of the judges, has regained popularity. His titles are perpetually recycled in fresh paperback covers, his life has attracted a dozen prurient memoirs and the final tome of a footstep-by-footstep biography by Norman Sherry will hog the review pages come autumn. 'Don't ask me, ask Sherry,' he laughed, when I nagged him on some fact-checking detail.

One of the privileges of journalism is that, with persistence, you can get to meet everyone you've ever wanted to. I spent a day with Greene in 1984, roaming his wartime haunts, and a day and a night with Singer in 1983, talking beneath the stars on a magic mountain. Both were reputed to be difficult. Greene had agreed to the interview at the pressing of his publishers, anxious to revive stagnant sales. Singer I caught when bored; his wife, Alma, would drag him for six weeks each summer to a mind-numbing Swiss resort.

I picked Greene up at the Ritz and took him to sit for a portrait by Lord Snowdon. In the car, he volunteered that Snowdon had been his last appointment before he left the country in 1966, 'one of few occasions when I was cheerful'. He would come back four or five times a year to see his family, but he leaped at my suggestion that we take a stroll around Greeneland, the backstreets of St James's where he plied a spook's trade in MI6 during the blackout. His memories were anecdote-free. He talked of smells and sights, of physical sensations and questions of faith. We wound up in a dingy pub squabbling over christological references in the Talmud.

Singer cornered me at the reception desk of his hotel. 'From the Times?' he inquired. 'A yeshiva bocher?' Something told him I had been to rabbinical seminary. We sat outside in the Alpine night. Any quotation that I began he would complete in Aramaic and recite the next half-page, though he had not opened a religious book for half a century. He sought, as Greene did, universal principles. Amid the chattering of crickets he declared, 'Man is a Nazi to animals.' I became, overnight, a vegetarian.

No two writers belonged, it seemed, to more different backgrounds. Greene was born on 2 October 1904, son of the next headmaster of Berkhampstead School, groomed for the establishment. His brother became director-general of the BBC, his nephew chairman of the British Museum. Singer saw light in Warsaw on 14 July 1904, third child of an indigent rabbi. His elder siblings Joshua and Esther would become writers in New York and London (Esther Kreitman's stories, titled Blitz, were recently published by David Paul); his younger brother, along with the rest of the family, perished under Nazi occupation.

Greene went to work for the Times. Singer contributed to pinch penny Yiddish journals before following Joshua to America. His English was horribly accented and barely colloquial. He wrote to the end of his life in a language most deemed dead.

What united them was a tradition that knows no borders. Singer said he owed his narrative style to Dickens and Dostoievsky: 'There was a man. He lived in such a place. One day something happened.' Greene cited Dickens and Conrad - 'a disastrous influence ... I had to stop reading him. Neither had much time for modern writers who developed character ahead of plot. Singer snorted at the mention of Saul Bellow, who translated Gimpel the Fool in 1953, Singer's first appearance in English. Greene scowled when I asked about John Updike: 'a perfumed writer.'

Both claimed to be tone-deaf, never listening to music. Both spoke in a dusty monotone, Greene hesitant and lisping, Singer's voice squeaking when excited. Yet both wrote with a sense of rhythm and mellifluous line that would be the envy of any composer. Singer's masterpiece, The Slave, is the most assured European novella after Death in Venice. His family sagas maybe dispensable but his memoir, In My Father's Court, is a unique evocation of a forgotten world and the semi-autobiographical Shosha is a powerfully sympathetic portrait of a conflicted 1930s woman.

His reputation, or what presently survives of it, has been marred by a movie. Barbra Streisand's 1983 adaptation of Yentl, which Singer abhorred, is a travesty of his nuanced story of a girl who lived between the sexes, longing for a man's religious duties while preserving her feminine integrity. Two other films - the Golan/Globus Magician of Lublin (1979) and Paul Mazursky's Enemies (1990) - made mercifully less impact.

Greene liked to regard himself as a screen professional, a sometime film critic and screenwriter of The Third Man, Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana and The Fallen Idol. At the time we met he was selecting the 17 best adaptations of his novels for the Brighton Festival. Yet Greene, like Singer, was distorted by film. Memorable as Trevor Howard was in The Heart of the Matter (1953), magnificently as Otto Preminger directed Tom Stoppard's script of The Human Factor (1980), neither film begins to convey the moral dichotomy that sunders Greene's characters into equal good and evil.

The common legacy of Greene and Singer is an art that art was driven not by action, which is Hollywood's ideal, but by an idea of human suffering and transcendence in morally ambiguous circumstances. Few writers today deal in such shades of grey. The overuse of irony and satire diminishes suffering and denies transcendence. The gimmick and the grotesque command attention. Simple, spell-binding storytelling is critically undervalued.

It will return. It always does.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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