Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘Enemies, A Love Story’

One hears today of novels “about memory” or “of memory” and whenever I hear a contemporary American novelist talk about memory I look for the nearest open window to leap from. Nostalgia is an artist’s curse, and yet many middle-aged novelists wallow in it, name dropping events and trends and fashion and music in simple stories that go nowhere and move nobody.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story is a novel of memory, of the many memories of a single man, an inveterate liar and crafty survivor named Herman Broder, late of Poland, currently of Coney Island. He’s a hustler who earns his living ghostwriting for a lazy rabbi, and his mind wanders between the big ideas of philosophers he has read or misread, and a fear of impending doom, that Nazis might be around every corner, waiting to do to him in Americawhat they couldn’t do to him in Europe.

Herman Broder has three real world problems, his three wives. Yadwiga is a dim peasant from Poland—she hid Herman from the Nazis, they became lovers and moved to America, but she is a “right shoe left foot” simpleton. Masha, Herman’s mistress, is wild and beautiful, satisfying Herman’s primitive urges like no other—but Masha has issues with herself, her mother, God, and more than a few men in her past. Then there is Tamara, Herman’s dead wife, mother of his two sons, all killed by the Nazis—but Tamara didn’t die, and now she is in New York, seeking Herman, and perhaps some of the back and forth arguments that made her and Herman an intellectual match.

It is difficult to separate the plot from the prose in Enemies, A Love Story but they both work well, as Herman is engaged in a fight-or-flee staring match with upheaval—he worries that his lies will be found out, and of course they are, but the reactions aren’t what a reader expects; to Singer’s credit no conflict is resolved easily.

One can read a good novel like Enemies, A Love Story many ways; it occurred to me late last night that it is a near perfect thriller parody, a dumb Lee Child novel transformed into a great work of art. It is a novel of constant action and activity, and it allows Herman and a reader little rest. It is also a tough hilarious comedy.