Review of ‘Scum’ by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Modern-day Krochmalna Street, Warsaw. This street of 1906
is thematically important as the “geographic backbone” of Scum.

Though best known for two greatly differing love stories – The Slave and Enemies, a Love Story, which both centre around a dilemma – I would like to make a case for Isaac Bashevis Singer’s lesser-known and, in my view, most fascinating novel, Scum, which is informed by many of the same preoccupations. Scum’s protagonist, Max Barabander, is a man of deep contradictions. He pines for his dead son Arturo with a desperation which is both intensely moving and somewhat troubling, but otherwise appears to lack a moral compass. That is not to say that Barabander does not love. Like Herman Broder, the tortured protagonist of Enemies…, he is a man who loves deeply, but rarely loves those whom society dictates that he should. Like Broder, he is disinterested in his wife. On Max’s return to Poland, the place of his birth (where the entirety of the novel is set), he soon becomes embroiled in the society he had known as an adolescent and erroneously informs those he meets that his wife is dead. With a ruthless local woman, he begins the process to sell a servant girl into prostitution in his native Argentina, concurrently falling under the metaphorical spell of a humble and enigmatic Rabbi. Helplessly impulsive, as so often in the novel, Max proposes marriage to the Rabbi’s tempestuous but beautiful daughter Tsirele, who strikes Max, whose career has seen him rise from criminality to legitimate success, as “both provincial and cosmopolitan”.

More than anything else, Scum is an exploration of the issues of motive and individual destiny, with Max haunted by a recurring dream of incarceration in a Warsaw prison, a threat which seems to hang over him until the novel’s gripping climax. Yet Scum is also very much a novel about disorder; a disorder represented both by Max’s internal state and the external disorder he creates, destabilising young Tsirele as she fails to see through his promise of marriage, falling into sexual relationships with women already in relationships, and even trying to uproot the ‘natural order’ of life and death by attempting to communicate with his dead son through a medium.

The related matter of irony also informs the text. The two things Max intends to do on his return to Poland – to ease his troubled mind (to paraphrase the words of Tom Paxton), and visit the graves of his parents in the town of Roszkow – are things he fails to do. Singer, as so often in his fiction, is a master intimator. He never explicitly says that Max will fail to visit his family, nor that he will fail to realise the peace and clarity of mind which form the reasoning behind his return to Poland. Still, there remains a strong feeling throughout the novel that he will achieve neither goal. Max’s confusion at the first buds of remorse, borne mostly out of his guilt at letting down Tsirele, only fuels his anger. His remorse, though, is not entirely pure, tempered as it is by his selfish fear of the Rabbi putting a “curse” upon him. For Singer, the Rabbi, patient and humble, is the most likeable figure in a text which abounds with chararacters riddled with internal impurities. As an author who had strongly criticised elements of Orthodox Judaism in The Slave, Scum’s primarily positive portrait of the Rabbi is interesting.

As with most of Singer’s texts, the novel’s location in the Warsaw of 1906 is both vividly real and thematically important. The bohemian Krochmalna Street is the novel’s geographic backbone, as it is in Shosha, though the narrative of that novel takes place as the cataclysmic events which led to World War II slide into motion. In both Scum and Shosha, the individual tragedy (or tragedies) at their core seem minute in comparison to the large-scale horrors of the two World Wars which follow. Singer, though, celebrates the validity of individual suffering in Scum, just as he indicates the quickness to violence, the machismo posturing and internal strife which provide something of a link of causality to what Singer and the reader know follows.

Scum is an intensely powerful novel, just as it is a deeply unsettling and successfully frustrating one. This frustration is borne not only out of Max’s inability to make what seem the ‘right’ choices – to follow the spiritual advice of the Rabbi and to marry Tsirele – but also a wider frustration at what sometimes seems an inability to escape the premonitions that we fear. Singer notes with bitterness that perhaps Max “had come to Warsaw to perpetrate all this craziness for only one purpose, to realize his dream”, and his concise turns of phrase (translated faithfully from the novel’s original Yiddish, by Rosaline Dukalsky Schwartz) often sum up in few words ideas which take lesser authors twice as much in print to elucidate only half as well, heightening the sense that this is a work of great philosophical merit, but also one which is, despite (or perhaps due to) its uncomfortable narrative train, intensely gripping and entertaining.

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