Enemies, A Love Story- Isaac Bashevis Singer
I’ve owned this novel for a long, long time. I suspect that I bought it after seeing Paul Mazursky’s 1989 film adaptation. Put it this way, the sticker, which is still on the back, says I bought it new for $4.95.
So what finally prompted me to read it? I saw a notice for a series of book discussions on immigration to be held at my local library and of the 4 titles featured, this is the only one I already owned. So, some 25+ years later, I plucked it off of the shelf.
I was immediately thrown off balance by the first half of the first line of the Author’s Note. It begins: “Although I did not have the privilege of going through the Hitler holocaust. . .” From that moment on, though I had some sense of what to expect, I was still on my guard. Though I lost family members in the Holocaust, I did not live among “refugees from this ordeal” as Singer did. That said, I still have trouble thinking there’s anything particularly funny or clever about the Holocaust. Neither Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (2019) or Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1998) sit well with me. The latter is the more effective movie because the humor is a part of the storytelling Benigni’s father uses to create something resembling a sane world for his son. Jojo Rabbit seems to want us to celebrate it for being cutting edge enough to have a wacky Hitler character.
So when this book started off as a comedy of errors, I was on edge. A man juggles 2 and then 3 women, struggles to keep up the work he does for a wealthy Rabbi who seems more a capitalist Lothario than a spiritual leader and, in his spare time, questions the meaning of continuing to live after so many have died.
Inevitably, as in all farces, the women confront the existence of each other and then the man, Herman Broder. Many complications ensue, there are any number of monologues, and the book finds its way to an ending that’s not as nearly profound as it seems to want to be.
Singer’s eye for details is keen, but his weakness for speeches is tiresome. Though Herman is clearly flawed, the women – and not just the three he’s involved with – are one-dimensional and always willing to abandon everything to be with him. Maybe the insights on the post-Holocaust generation are profound or maybe they are amateur psychology. I found myself wondering if we’d take them as seriously if we didn’t know that the author was a Jewish winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I haven’t seen the movie since that first time so many years ago. I am not sure whether it falls into the same category as Jojo Rabbit and Life is Beautiful, but I imagine to get it made, Mazursky had to play it more for comedy than drama. And in that way, both the book and the movie make light of the Holocaust, an ordeal that has no place for laughter.
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.