Michael Havens's Reviews > Meshugah

Meshugah by Isaac Bashevis Singer
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's review
Aug 21, 2011

it was amazing

Meshugah is a Yiddish word that can mean crazy, senseless, insane. And that is exactly the right title for this work by the late Issac Bashevis Singer. For what we have here is several links between friend and family relations of outrageous craziness, a comedy of post-war, post-holocaust, semi-religious/Jewish/atheistic muddled vision of life. And it circles around an even more muddled love triangle of a young woman, Miriam, who already has a husband, one she can't stand, who is having an affair with an older man, one Max Aberdam, whose friendship with Aaron Greidinger, a 47 year old writer for a magazine, 'Forward', gets more complicated as Miriam starts to eye him and loves him “equally” with Max.
Aaron has his own muddled life. A Jew turned atheist. Aaron bounces between a serial novel he's trying to complete on time at his New York Newspaper (3; 123), and a radio advice show which he does not always give heartfelt and true convicted answers to (181). His life is the runaway train that we ride though the maze of other characters who weave in and out of the novel. One of the ways Singer peppers and shapes our impressions of his story is through the ingenious use of dialogue. The dialogues dance their way across the pages, and his sense of that Jewishness, that old world, come to New York familiarity comes through very strongly. In fact, while Singer employs narration as much as he gives to his dialogues, I felt that if I only had the dialogues between the many characters that Aaron comes in contact with, the result would be much more stunning.
From Max's grumblings about an unjust God (which he claims not to believe in due to his experience of the pogroms in his native Poland. See example pgs. 37-38), to the outrageous Priva, whose being a hypochondriac is alchemically mixed with her claims of being a clairvoyant medium who, “receives vibrations from the spirits.” (6, ), and to the almost incidental character, to the young son, Edek, the child of Irka Shmelkes, who also holds contradictory beliefs and ideas, and yet, shares a sort of philosophy about life that the adults seem to possess throughout the novel. At his introduction, he exclaims, “I belong to an organization which denies that the earth is round...There are only about forty of us, but we have been discussing the question thoroughly.” (22).
But later on in the same conversation, he seems quite rational when he discusses the dichotomy between the treatment of Jews during the holocaust, and the non-reaction by the Jews, which is a dichotomy itself of his world view:
“Mama, one day you'll learn the truth, but it will be too late. How did it happen that six million Jews went like sheep to the slaughter? How did it happen that the very same nations who during the Holocaust did not even raise a hint of a protest are the nations that later voted to establish Jewish state?” (24)
He ends his argument by returning to his fascination with things the other people in the room think is nonsense, “Mama, may I tell Mr. Greidinger about the wristwatch?”
No, Edek.” [Irka said].
“Mr. Greidinger writes about demons. He may find the story useful.” (ibid.)
Edik's attempt to piece two competing, one logical, the other, seemingly illogical to the point of ridiculousness, is a common theme, or, “Meshugah”, of the novel. I say seemingly because while going through the novel, there is almost a sense to everything that comes out in the end. Note this very funny exchange between Tzlova, one of Priva's friends, and Max. It's a perfect example how Singer's dialogue ingeniously wraps a true sense of the world through the eyes of those infected with “Meshugah”:
“Tzlova is the best cook in existence,” Priva said approvingly. “Whatever she eats tastes as if it were made in Paradise.”
“There's nothing to it”Tzlova said. “All you need is browned flour and fried onions, and I add a carrot, parsley, and dill. Browned-lour soup is good served with klops [meat loaf: brackets. By translator].”
“Stop talking, Tzlova. Listening to you makes my mouth water,” Max shouted. “The doctor told me to lose twenty pounds. How can I think of losing when you bring up all these delicacies?”
“What did people eat in China?” Tzlova asked.
“Ah, who knows what they ate-fried cockroaches with duck sauce. I spoke to a Galician recently, and when the talk turned around to food, he said that in his shetl they used to eat kilishr and pompeches.”
“What kind of plague is this?” Priva asked.
“I have no idea,” Max answered. (15-16)

While Miriam and Aaron's love affair against his best friend, Max, is supposed to be the center of the story, I happen to believe that Singer's intent and the actual product, are at odds with each other. Rather than concentrating on the love triangle, all of the peripheral elements of he story, especially the dialogue, which I can't praise enough, are in themselves such a commentary as to the emotional, mental, religious (or lack thereof), constitutes to me the notion that the love triangle, which does take more prominent form by end of the first half, as Max leaves America for Poland, in order to get away from investors who are convinced he has been cheating him (91), the construct is firmly set in this reader's mind, as I got caught in the whirlpool of even more of the wayward bopping about, looking for meaning and truth. This is not to suggest a flaw, in fact, by the end o the novel one can say that there has been an honest attempt by the players to find some solace in the friendships ans bonds that surround our main characters. As to whether or not they will abandon their type of meshugah, it is hard to say, and only the reader is left to decide for themselves. This is not a drawback, nor does it change my rating of the work. It is a quest for some sign of certitude in meaning that these individuals find themselves, grabbing at their own meshugahs, tossing it around, and finding out what comes out in the end.


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