Singer’s Type­writer and Mine: Reflec­tions on Jew­ish Culture

  • Review
By – December 19, 2012

This major col­lec­tion of Ilan Stavans’s short­er writ­ings con­firms his place as a pre­mier inter­preter of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in the Amer­i­c­as. Pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with the nar­ra­tive arts (lit­er­a­ture and film), his range is wide and his pen­e­tra­tion is deep. As he bat­tles through the dis­tinc­tions between the intel­lec­tu­al and the aca­d­e­m­ic, the cre­ative spir­it and the crit­i­cal one, Sta­vans is at once eru­dite, relaxed, and friend­ly. Often seri­ous­ly engaged with high­brow achieve­ment, he is not con­de­scend­ing to writ­ers of low­er ele­va­tion – such as Leo Rosten. 

Sta­vans employs his con­sid­er­able intel­li­gence and knowl­edge in a par­tic­u­lar­ly ther­a­peu­tic way. For one thing, he reminds us not to con­fuse Span­ish-speak­ing Jews with Sephardim. Born into an Ashke­nazi Mex­i­can fam­i­ly, he rep­re­sents a stra­tum of Lati­no cul­ture under­rep­re­sent­ed on most North Amer­i­can maps of Jew­ish life and achieve­ment. Yet Sta­vans has made New York and Boston his homes for half of his life. Intel­lec­tu­al­ly and emo­tion­al­ly, he is at home with the giants (and the over­looked) of mod­ern West­ern cul­ture in both its Span­ish and Eng­lish streams. And let’s not for­get about Yiddish!

In this daz­zling sam­pler of his work, we encounter short essays (book reviews, brief crit­i­cal med­i­ta­tions, trib­utes) and longer sojourns into mul­ti-lay­ered top­ics: Think­ing Aloud: The Edu­ca­tion of Mau­rice Samuel,” Reread­ing Lionel Trilling,” Sephardic Lit­er­a­ture: Uni­ty and Dis­per­sion,” and – of course – the mag­nif­i­cent title essay Singer’s Type­writer and Mine.” In many of these pieces, Sta­vans knits the cir­cum­stances of his own life into the explo­ration of his osten­si­ble sub­ject. Some­how, he man­ages to make this kind of risk-tak­ing pro­duc­tive rather than intrusive. 

Sta­vans is in love with the mys­ter­ies of lan­guages, and he has the equip­ment to exam­ine their oper­a­tions and their occa­sion­al inter­pen­e­tra­tions. Ladi­no and Spang­lish are among his inter­ests, and trans­la­tion is for him a term with so many con­no­ta­tions that he employs the word metaphorically. 

The sec­tion of this book titled Con­ver­sa­tions” has a spe­cial charm and pow­er. Stavans’s engage­ment with his coun­ter­part is not the con­ven­tion­al inter­view, but a more even-hand­ed exchange. Pieces like The Buenos Aires Affair, with Nathan Eng­lan­der” and Nos­tal­gia and Recog­ni­tion, with Mor­ris Dick­son” bring us two minds rock­ing back and forth, each find­ing a new twist or turn of appre­hen­sion in the duet, per­haps undis­cov­er­able in solo mode.

Children’s pic­ture books, graph­ic nov­els, films like Nora’s Will,” and the graces of mar­gin­al­i­ty are all parts of the eclec­tic carousel of deter­mined explo­ration that dis­tin­guish­es the genius of Ilan Sta­vans. Author bib­li­og­ra­phy, source acknowledgments.

Read Ilan Sta­van­s’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Fate Knock­ing at the Door: An Inter­view with Ilan Stavans

Philip K. Jason: What binds your inter­est in com­ic strips and graph­ic nov­els on the one hand and more tra­di­tion­al crit­i­cal explo­rations on the oth­er?
Ilan Sta­vans:
Sto­ry­telling is a form of midrash. I love telling sto­ries, ana­lyz­ing them, see­ing them in con­text. I grew up in a cul­ture that jux­ta­posed the word and the image. As a writer, I don’t see one as supe­ri­or to the oth­er. I also don’t see the dis­tinc­tion between high­brow and pop­u­lar read­er­ships. The capac­i­ty to enthrall knows no boundary.

PKJ: Prof. Sta­vans, as a char­ac­ter in your graph­ic nov­el El Ilu­mi­na­do (Basic Books, 2012), is direct­ly involved in a real world adven­ture. What do you say to those who feel that peo­ple in aca­d­e­m­ic life some­how have removed them­selves from real world expe­ri­ences?
IS: For me the noun aca­d­e­m­ic is deroga­to­ry: it denotes affec­ta­tion, pos­tur­ing, pre­tense. Aca­d­e­m­ic life is shame­ful­ly aloof, removed from the nuts-and-bolts affairs of dai­ly Amer­i­cans. I feel uncom­fort­able with such elit­ism: I pre­fer to get my hands dirty, to delve into the fry­ing pan.

PKJ: Tell me some­thing about the back­ground of the fam­i­ly name.
IS: In vain I’ve sought my roots in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Europe. My con­so­la­tion is the knowl­edge that my ances­tors have roots in the Pale of Set­tle­ments, although I don’t know how deep those roots are. My full name (oy gevalt!) is Ilan Kalmen Stavchan­sky Slo­mi­an­s­ki Altchuler Eisen­berg. Stavchan­sky prob­a­bly refers to Stavchany, in the Ukraine. My father, Abra­ham Sta­vans, a stage and soap-opera actor in Mex­i­co, short­ened the name for artis­tic rea­sons, although he nev­er made the move to change it offi­cial­ly. I chose Ilan Sta­vans to empha­size my debt to him. I dis­cuss this debt in my mem­oir On Bor­rowed Words (Pen­guin, 2002).

PKJ: One of your con­cerns in Singer’s Type­writer and Mine: Reflec­tions on Jew­ish Cul­ture (Nebras­ka, 2012) is about the future of eth­nic iden­ti­ties in melt­ing pot nations” ver­sus fruit sal­ad” nations. You dis­cuss this in your new book The Unit­ed States of Mes­ti­zo (New­South, 2013), which is based on an arti­cle you pub­lished in Human­i­ties. Can pub­lic pol­i­cy or pri­vate advo­ca­cy lead to one or anoth­er out­come in het­ero­ge­neous soci­eties?
IS: The Unit­ed States is a gor­geous mosa­ic of eth­nic­i­ties. Regard­less of pol­i­cy, the nation’s future is Babel-like: a sum of parts. I’m an Amer­i­can because I chose to immi­grate to it in 1985. That is, I chose to become a con­vert to the reli­gion we call Amer­i­ca,” to become a prac­ti­tion­er, to sup­port, for bet­ter or worse, its principles.

PKJ: Am I safe to assume that, in your opin­ion, trans­la­tion is a term with mul­ti­ple mean­ings, going beyond the attempt to ren­der a text com­posed in one lan­guage into anoth­er? You’ve trans­lat­ed Pablo Neru­da, Borges, and Juan Rul­fo from the Span­ish into Eng­lish, Singer from Yid­dish to Span­ish, Yehu­da ha-Levi and Yehu­da Amichai from Hebrew to Eng­lish, Shake­speare, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, and Eliz­a­beth Bish­op from Eng­lish to Span­ish. You’ve also writ­ten fre­quent­ly on the role of trans­la­tion in the shap­ing of nations.
IS: For me trans­la­tion is a way of life. In fact, I live in trans­la­tion with­out an original.

PKJ: What do you mean?
IS: In trav­el­ing from one lan­guage to anoth­er, I no longer know if there is a right way of say­ing things or many right ways.

PKJ: One of your life-long inter­ests is Spang­lish. You’ve pub­lished a dic­tio­nary (Harp­er, 2003) as well as a trans­la­tion of Don Quixote of La Man­cha into Spang­lish. Does Spang­lish have its cor­rel­a­tives in oth­er lan­guage blends? In Yid­dish or Hebrew blends? How and for whom do these hybrids func­tion?
IS: Spang­lish is the new Yid­dish: a mix of Span­ish and Eng­lish used by Lati­nos to com­mu­ni­cate across nation­al, eth­nic, and eco­nom­ic lines. Like Yid­dish, it was looked down upon by the edu­cat­ed elite as bas­tardiza­tion. Then writ­ers embraced it as theirs, pro­duc­ing nov­els, the­ater, music, poet­ry, hence giv­ing it an incip­i­ent stan­dard­ized syn­tax. It is spo­ken by mil­lions not only in the Unit­ed States but across the Amer­i­c­as. Just as there is a dif­fer­ence between the Yid­dish spo­ken, say, by Lit­vaks and Gal­itzian­ers, Cubans, Puer­to Ricans, Mex­i­cans, Domini­cans and oth­ers each have their vari­ety of Spanglish.

As for Hebrew, its inter­course with Ara­bic, called Hib­riya, is an essen­tial com­po­nent of Arab-Jew­ish cul­ture today, which I reflect on in Res­ur­rect­ing Hebrew (Schocken/​Nextbook Press, 2008). This so-called bor­der lan­guage fits a pat­tern that also includes Por­tuñol (Por­tuguese and Span­ish), Franglais (French and Eng­lish), Ching­lish (Man­darin and Eng­lish), and so on.

PKJ: You are attract­ed to brain­storm­ing with a part­ner and tran­scrib­ing those dis­cus­sions into pub­lished con­ver­sa­tions. The top­ics are the Bible, the con­cept of love through his­to­ry, ways of see­ing art, and so on. These dia­logues have been pub­lished by uni­ver­si­ty press­es like Yale, Texas, Duke, Michi­gan, and Wis­con­sin. They have also been trans­lat­ed into sev­er­al lan­guages. What is the attrac­tion? How do you set up and ener­gize these con­ver­sa­tions?
IS:The art of the con­ver­sa­tion is as old as humankind. Mod­ern times have deval­ued it, turn­ing it into a bite-size pro­mo­tion­al tool. Of course, there’s much more to it: two minds in a tete-a-tete, what is Socrates, the father of us all, about?

Delv­ing into a sub­ject with a com­pan­ion is among the most reward­ing plea­sures in life, not to say in lit­er­a­ture. The con­ver­sa­tions — real or imag­ined — Isaac Bashe­vis Singer had with Richard Bur­gin, Kaf­ka with Gus­tav Janouch, Borges with his friend Ernesto Sába­to, are, in my eyes, gen­uine jew­els. They open a unique win­dow into the minds of the conversants.

I love talk­ing to peo­ple. These talks, tran­scribed by friends, often end up in mag­a­zines. But I also enjoy longer exchanges, which take a year, some­times more. I’ve done sev­er­al of them myself with his­to­ri­ans (Iván Jak­sic), jour­nal­ists (Morde­cai Drache), trans­la­tors (Veróni­ca Albin), philoso­phers (Jorge Gra­cia), et al., and no doubt I’m hum­bler as a result. These encoun­ters gen­er­al­ly start dur­ing a pleas­ant din­ner. If and when the chem­istry is right, the dia­logue even­tu­al­ly set­tles on a spe­cif­ic sub­ject, becom­ing its cen­ter of grav­i­ty. Then the con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ues via e‑mail: the mutu­al desire is to be thor­ough, to under­stand things as com­pre­hen­sive­ly as pos­si­ble. Soon­er or lat­er I men­tion the exchange to an edi­tor friend, who then sug­gests turn­ing it into a book. If I fol­low that route, the dia­logue acquires the form of a man­u­script, which is sent elec­tron­i­cal­ly back and forth count­less times until every aspect of the sub­ject has been addressed. What I like about these exchanges is their spon­tane­ity, their jazzy nature… To me they feel like fate knock­ing at the door.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions