Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Magician of Lublin


The magician is 'good' with women, exceptionally good. He has a wife, his theatrical assistant is also his mistress, a third woman, deserted by her own husband, clings to him and a fourth, the widow of a professor awaits him eagerly in Warsaw.

It is this fourth who sparks the crisis. She is a Christian, the magician a Jew and she wants him to convert and seek recognition (and his fortune) in the 'West' settling first in Italy so that the climate can assist her daughter's health. To make this possible, the magician will have to not only abandon his faithful wife but also his religion; and, he will have to find money, a finding only possible by theft. The theft ought to be easy (he has already promised himself that he will return the money when he is a famous and better remunerated performer) as he is both agile and an accomplished springer of locks. It is not to be - his attempted burglary of a miser goes awry - either through divine intervention or unconscious slippage and his life unravels.

His leg hurt from his escaping the bungled burglary, he finds himself taking refuge (for the second time in recent weeks) in a prayer house and his tradition returns to claim him. His assistant, despairing of his potential going away, commits suicide. The deserted wife, drawn to Warsaw, to be with the magician, is drawn into a relationship with a white slaver and ends up in Argentina presiding over a brothel. The magician's relationship with the widow is doomed as he realises he cannot give her what she wants - either spiritually or materially.

So far so melodramatic and the 'piece de resistance' is his returning home and rather than embracing his wife and the life of a restorative domesticity decides to suffer penance and walls himself up in a small construction in his yard where he spends the day in prayer and examination of conscience, supported by his long suffering, and unsurprisingly complaining wife. The irony being that this attracts to him the reputation of being a holy man, a rabbi, and people flock to him to either unburden their sins, ask for miraculous intervention or, in a minority of cases, to mock.

The tale is told beautifully by Isaac Bashevis Singer - all its improbabilities are undercut by an acute psychology and a willingness to entertain the spiritual properties of the world such that you find yourself in a magical realism, acute as it is entertaining, a moral and spiritual fable. You recognise the play of belief and doubt, the way situations you thought were under your control have a life of their own and the way in which the mind justifies to itself the decency of its own acts. As the writer and psychotherapist, Marion Milner, noted we judge people by their actions, ourselves only by our intentions.

You watch too how we respond to one crisis - the magician's dissolute, disintegrating life - by imposing another - an impossible act of penance (that presumes that everything that happens around us is our fault which is as presumptive an egotism as if we assume that nothing is).

But the novel closes on two notes of possible redemption. The first is when his wife delivering a letter to him one morning rather than bewail his situation (as has become customary) simply shares the too and fro of her own life with him. The second is the letter itself which comes from the widow that both shows that her life subsequent to his departure has not lain in ruins (as he fantasises in his own conscience wallowing) and that acknowledges her own part in their separation.

You begin to see as the novel closes, the invitation to a more balanced, sober accounting of a life that offers routes back into the daily round of encounter, responsibility, love and loss, one that is rooted in a religion that offers a framing to life in the world, not a surrender of it.

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