The Family Carnovsky, by I. J. Singer

Israel Joshua Singer was the older brother of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Also a novelist, I. J. Singer wrote several well-regarded sagas of Jewish life in Germany and Poland. Here’s what Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote in Commentary magazine reviewing a reissue of his novel, The Family Carnovsky, in February 1970:

In an era of novels in which the milieu is evoked with a stroke of the pen if it is rendered at all, in which the novelist’s craft is praised in direct proportion to that amount he is able to show without telling, I. J. Singer comes to remind us of some long forgotten relish in the novelist’s activity. The Family Carnovsky will come with strange thickness to an audience which has learned that the novelist’s genius is economy, those deft single strokes, the gesture which defines a whole universe, as though the art of the novelist were the art of the dancer. It will seem even stranger to the reader who has been given to understand that the more he is left to gather from the unspoken and the unrendered, the more likely it is that he is in the toils of a vision rare beyond rendering.  

Nothing is too rare for Singer. To read him is to know again the pleasures of an endless novelistic energy, a loving and discursive relish for detail not far from the fashion of the 19th-century novelist. Indeed, that is what Singer is, though The Family Carnovsky, his last complete work, was published in 1943. And, though he is more often compared with Thomas Mann than with Dickens, there is the Dickensian in him very much more, in his insistence on the meaning of social detail, and on its moral meaning precisely.  

The world of Singer’s novels is morally fateful, always. In The Family Carnovsky, the social question, and its moral valuation, quite simply hang on the question: how does one live as a Jew, if it is hard to be a Jew? And it is always hard to be a Jew. It is hardest of all to be a kind of Jew or a part of one, since for the most earnest assimilationist, there is no guarantee that the world will recognize which kind of Jew he is, or, if he is part of one, which part is which. There was certainly no such guarantee in the world of the late 19th-century German-Jewish enlightenment, the era in which David Carnovsky leaves his Melnitz shtetl to join, an assimilated Berlin Jewish society.  

The Family Carnovsky is the story of three generations of Jews, each more surely rooted in its German culture than the last. But culture is not blood, and it is not character, and Singer never fails to remind us of the ineradicable ancestry of the Carnovskys. Let them assimilate: their hair is black, their doctor’s hands are brilliant, their scholarship natural and effortless, their ethos prominent…. 

It is that radical difference, that degree between men, which is Singer’s novelistic concern. This he engages without any depth of formal psychological scrutinythough there are things which make for psychic allusion in an old way: Georg’s uneven, flashing teeth, his wife’s blush, the wasted awkwardness of their son. These are all we know: these and circumstances, and somehow it is enough. From a complex structure and milieu, characters emerge affecting and powerful, as much as to say, when we know what happened to them, we know very well how they felt.


2 thoughts on “The Family Carnovsky, by I. J. Singer

  1. I wish the review were longer — seems just a beginning. What does the reviewer think of Singer’s body of work, especially in light of his early death?

  2. The Family Carnovsky fits into a sample of novels by J. Wasserman,H. Fallada, A. Doblin
    and many other talented writers which describe the social and political context in germany between the two wars. What is specific to I. J. Singer is that by detailing the jewish culture in everyday life
    at the time, he also describes how jews display among themselves the racist and conventional
    attitudes widespread among the german population. When driven to their death,
    russian jews also admired the german order (tiajelii piesok).

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