Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka” (1970): Part One, Bordeom and Alienation

The major dilemma of the twentieth century has been the conflict between the individual and the institution. While the nineteenth century saw the rise of nations, industrial capitalism, and expanded state power, as well as ideologies that serviced the needs or challenged the foundation of those institutions (liberalism – for the welfare state, scientific management – for industrial capitalism, anarchism – in opposition), the twentieth century proved that these institutions were in practice horrific and degrading. We do not need to even get into the list of horrors of industrialized and mechanized warfare. It is enough to point out the failure of these institutions to deliver on their promise of expanded human freedom or happiness. A Friend of Kafka, a collection of Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories, was published in 1970 with most of the stories appearing in the previous decade. He and his readers had plenty of time to dwell on the growing feeling of alienation that came from decades of broken promises. One of the most powerful themes in these stories is the exhausting banality of life and a total feeling of rootless isolation. Often all that is left for people is to play the game against fate. Interestingly, these stories came at a time when Singer’ career was peaking. He had a solid income and much success, but he was also looking to leave the United States for Palestine.


For today, I read the first half of the stories in A Friend of Kafka. It began with the story “A Friend of Kafka,” which is about a bohemian amateur philosophy and former actor, Jaques Kohn, who spent his life pursuing women, drinking and otherwise living the hedonist lifestyle that his life philosophy demanded.  He was an intriguing figure for the narrator who saw in him glimpses of Western Europe. “The very way he carried his silver-handled cane seemed exotic to me. He even smoked his cigarettes differently from the way we did in Warsaw.” (7) He was also an acquaintance of Kafka, or more precisely a woman that Kafka loved. It often seems he inflated his connection to the writer. Kohn likes to tell a story about Kafka’s failure in a brothel. His sexual reservations are the same as the reservations he had about writing.  Kohn is obsessed with the idea that he is playing a game of chess with fate. “My partner wants to play a slow game. He’ll go on taking my pieces one by one. First he removed my appeal as an actor and turned me into a so-called writer. He’d no sooner done that than he provided me with writer’s cramps. His next move was to deprive me of my potency.” (14) In short, while he finds something invigorating about the struggle, he is slowly dying. His stories of his acting career and his knowledge of Kafka are all that keeps him from total fatalism. Many if the characters in this collection are involved in same sort of slow death. No longer capable of a projectural life, they limp along, trying to find meaning in banalities, religious, hedonism, of their own delusions.


That delusional selfishness is the major theme of “The Key” about a woman so overcome by the fear and loneliness of urban life in New York City that she developed an intense hatred for everyone in her neighborhood. Overtime she comes to neglect everything about her life, paying her bills or writing her will included.  In the end she is barely able to speak to anyone else. She is completely blinded by modern life and saw enemies around every corner. “How many tricks were played on her and how much she had to wrangle in order not to perish or fall into insanity.” (34)

“Dr. Beeber” reminds us a bit of “A Friend of Kafka,” both stories are about bohemians living on the margin of respectability, living lives of hedonistic pleasure. “Mark Beeber remained good-natured and full of lust for life. Poor as he was, he smoked fine cigars. Though his suits were shabby, they were English tweeds. For hours, he would tell stories about Switzerland. He had known everyone personally: Lenin, Kropotkin, Bergson, Kuno Fisher, Wundt, Georg Kaiser – even a number of princes and pretenders to thrones.” (45) Now, while he does not think he is fighting a losing chess match with death, he does become more and more disgusted with his life of pleasure, especially as he ages. He makes the decision to marry. His wife, Saltsche, is fairly well-educated and beautiful. However he soon becomes bored with marriage as well, almost losing his entire family when he gambles away all of his wife’s money. It seems that there is a deeper misery at the heart of these characters. A simple change of position does not make things necessarily better. Like Melville’s characters in Omoo deserting one ship to take a job on a plantation only to leave that a few weeks later, Singer’s characters are unable to find happiness in the banality of their lives. Staying the same fails, changing circumstances fails.

“The Cafeteria” has a more interesting metaphysical argument about time and perception surrounding a former war-time prisoner working at a button factory, who claims she saw Hitler the night the New York City cafeteria she frequented burned down. The narrator, a successful author much like Singer, meets her several times over the years, seeing her one last time after she killed herself. The uncanny visions are disturbing but no more than the paralysis of the characters, rooted in loneliness and habit (such as eating at the cafeterias). The narrator’s vision of the woman shows her happy, in contrast to her normal malaise.

In a more brutal example of isolation, “Pigeons” tells the story of a retired Jewish history Professor at Warsaw University. He had lost interest in history – maybe he never had that curiosity about the past suggesting another example of paralysis – and embraces the study of science. He is alone in life and his only companions are the pigeons he feeds everyday. He is plagued (as he was during his final years teaching) by young gangs of anti-Semitic youth. Eventually, they wound him and he later dies.

These stories pose a very troubling dilemma. if no one seems happy in their habits, whether a career choice, a lifestyle, or a marriage, why is it that change does not help things. One problem is that the tendency of these characters is to replace one paralysis with another. Dr. Beeber replaced hedonism with marriage. The professor in “Pigeons” replaced history with feathered companions. So they question is why is it that our world so boring.

A. J. Libeling, “Between Meals” (1962): Celebration of Pleasure

Outside of reviews on restaurant windows, this may be the first piece of food journalism I have ever read. I have never cared much about food nor believed that food was a very important thing to spend one’s money on (compared to opera, books and booze anyway). Indeed, as a vegetarian, I always found the “foodie” craze a rather vile celebration of excess, undertook at the cost of violence against animals. A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris did not convince me to start caring about food but I find myself in agreement with Liebling on one important point: that a life centered on pleasure and appetite is certainly better than one of restraint. Between Meals is a book that actually documents an entire host of appetites, not confined just to meals.


When you did a Google search for this book by its title–neglecting the author–you find a host of pages calling for restraint. This suggests Liebling’s theme, that taking that extra meal is not a sin.

Liebling begins nostalgically (as he often does) of the time before the First World War when heroic eating was a respected pastime in Europe. “I have known some of the survivors, octogenarians of unblemished appetite and unfailing good humor–spry, wry, and free of the ulcers that come from worrying about a balanced diet–but they have had no emulators in France since the doctors there discovered the existence of the human liver.” (558) A common theme running through his work is that excess is not as unhealthy and restraint. This is probably a clearer case to make with sex, which he does in the second chapter on a M. Mirande. Liebling connects the new regime of restraint on eating with the emerging sexual restraint he saw in France. “He had the pleasure of women. Currently pleasure and women are held matters incompatible, antithetical, and mutually exclusive, like quinine water and Scoth. Mirande also gave women pleasure; many women had pleasure of him. This is no longer considered a fair or honorable exchange.” (574)

One of the major points running through Between Meals is that food is a subjective experience and in this runs some of its power. While the rich can certainly explore food more freely than the poor, there are many foods that the poor enjoy that the rich will rarely get to try. It is an experience shaped in no small degree by class. Tastes in food, wine, lovers, and cities are all ultimately individualized. Interestingly, Liebling is interested not only in the food and his company but in the chefs, who all tended to be colorful, emotionally expressive figures.

The story in Between Meals does not have a moral tale at the end. He does include a chapter about his time at a weight loss “prison,” which failed, as we might expect. (When was the last time a prison rehabilitated a criminal?) The book ends with a narrative of Liebling’s love life during the 1920s in Paris, again connecting the consumption of food with sexuality. Both have been labelled as evils, reflective of excess unsuited to the cultivation of a thrifty, diligent working class. Malthus more of less says this when condemning both charity to the poor along with the the working-poor’s reproductive lives.

Liebling died a very fat man, probably his interest in food played a role in his weight. It is not clear from the biographical details I have that this slowed him down at all. From the 1940s until his death in 1963 he traveled all around the world, spending much of his time in Europe. He continued writing until the end. He tried a few times to lose weight but failed. However, it was not the weight that directly killed him, he died of heart and renal failure after a bout of pneumonia. Perhaps the weight did not help matters, but I do not get the sense that he regretted his appetites at the end. This work, published a year before his death is not a biography of the appetites that killed him. Instead it is a celebration of appetite and a call for a certain degree of professionalism, based on the idea that if you want to write about something (including food) you best know it well.


Personally, I am a bit conflicted about consumption. Taking the world as it is, I think working people should certainly be allowed to consume more. As the producers of the real wealth in the world, they have a right to consume at least as much as they produce in addition to their right to the commons (‘the common treasury of mankind’). Social inequality and stagnant wages has made it more difficult for working people to consume, although they are producing more than before, and more efficiently. However, I am also a believer that we should move toward less work and less consumption. In my own case, I am now working 6 hours a day but making more money than my modest lifestyle requires. I would much rather work 1-2 hours a day but take home a larger cut. As is commonly remarked, we have moved from to a consumer society which directed increased productivity into disposable goods rather than in time off. However we got here, and David Graeber makes a good argument about this in his article on “bullshit jobs,” I think that moving away from work, spreading it out (so that the unemployed and underemployed can contribute meaningfully), redefining what meaningful and remunerative work entails (so that service, raising children, homeschooling, etc. are not second shifts), and ending Puritanical prohibitions on healthy excess are important components of a free society.

Seems it might be a good time to revive the Bacchus cult

Seems it might be a good time to revive the Bacchus cult