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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Certificate

Isaac Bashevis Singer

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To purchase The Certificate

Title: The Certificate
Author: Isaac Bashevis Singer
Genre: Novel
Written: 1967 (Eng. 1993)
Length: 231 pages
Original in: Yiddish
Availability: The Certificate - US
The Certificate - UK
The Certificate - Canada
The Certificate - India
Le certificat - France
Das Visum - Deutschland
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  • Yiddish title: דער סערטיפיקאט
  • First published, in 1967, in serial form
  • Translated and with a Postscript by Leonard Wolf

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Our Assessment:

A- : charming early-career/crossroads novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chicago Tribune . 1/11/1992 Elie Wiesel
The Independent . 14/5/1993 Bryan Cheyette
The LA Times . 3/1/1993 Kenneth Turan
The NY Times . 7/12/1992 C.Lehmann-Haupt
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/11/1992 Lore Dickstein
Sunday Times . 18/4/1993 Julian Loose
The Times A 29/4/1993 Michael Hofmann
TLS . 30/4/1993 Clive Sinclair

  Review Consensus:

  Exuberant, autobiographical

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is impossible not to feel the charm of this book, which may be the most Jewish of all Singer`s works. The warmest and the saddest too. A great tenderness emerges from its pages." - Elie Wiesel, Chicago Tribune

  • "The Certificate is, above all, a study in the characterlessness of its youthful protagonist. (...) This poignant ending captures something of the unresolved conflict which drove Singer obsessively to recreate the lost world of his parents in the 'ghostly' language of Yiddish." - Bryan Cheyette, The Independent

  • "A speculative, ruminative book, heavier on mood and ambience than on incident, The Certificate is a novel more for Singer completists than for newcomers. It is a mildly engaging piece of work, more fictionalized memoir than anything else, a book whose prime interest lies in its links to his more polished books and its parallels to the author's life." - Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times

  • "A maturer Isaac Bashevis Singer is looking back and simultaneously mocking and celebrating his youthful self. Europe is in thrall to radical new ideas: Marxism, Freudianism, nationalism, secularism, relativity. David embraces the old, and we can see the future Singer emerging (.....) In the end you follow David Bendinger's adventures only halfway engaged. At moments you are moved to mild panic over his romantic and spiritual entanglements. But a certain detachment in Singer's prose always keeps you at arm's length." - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

  • "The Certificate is a small work, a novella really, but one that is bursting with life. (...) Singer is the most magical of writers, transforming reality into art with seemingly effortless sleight of hand. His deceptively spare prose has a pristine clarity that is stunning in its impact." - Lore Dickstein, The New York Times Book Review

  • "While Singer described his funny and poignant autobiography as a fiction set against a background of truth, The Certificate offers the distinct satisfactions of a true novel." - Julian Loose, Sunday Times

  • "Like all the Singer I have ever read it simply flies off the page. It is irresistible in its dialogue, personality and situations. (...) What sets The Certificate apart from the ruck of such books is firstly the dash, humour and lack of pathos with which it is written." - Michael Hofmann, The Times

  • "David is the very personification of the lost Jewish soul; sans home, sans belief." - Clive Sinclair, The Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Certificate is narrated by eighteen-year-old David Bendiger, a would-be author who begins by admitting: "I'd already lost the best years of my life reading books without much purpose". The Spinoza-obsessed young man has fled the backwater Byaledrevne where his father is a rabbi, the book beginning with his arrival in Warsaw, in 1922. He comes with practically nothing, but he knows:

I had to do my best to stay in Warsaw. If I buried myself once more in Byaledrevne, I would be utterly lost.
       In fact, he has a possibly greater opportunity: a letter waiting for him opens the door to emigration, the possibility of him getting the much-sought-after certificate that would allow him to go to Palestine. David has some doubts -- he's turned to writing in Yiddish, and understands that there's probably not much need for Yiddish writers in the new Jewish homeland ("Yiddish, a language no one except a few primitives can understand. It's not a language at all. Only a dialect, a mishmash", he's reminded even in Poland) -- but there should be enough opportunities there. The certificate is good for a married couple, too, so David agrees to a sham-wedding with Minna, who wants to emigrate to join her waiting fiancé. But the getting and processing of documents takes a while, so David has to bide his time in Warsaw.
       As David repeatedly observes, these are tumultuous times. He notes that: "At eighteen and a half, I had already lived through entire epochs". The First World War and the still ongoing Russian Revolution have caused great changes in these regions -- not least in Warsaw itself. Much here is still oriented more towards the east than the west, with many drawn to the new Soviet Union; David's older brother is among those who ventured there (though over the course of the novel he too returns to Warsaw, with wife and child).
       In this time of great upheaval, David is trying to find himself, and to try to make some sort of a future for himself. Teaching didn't work out, and his writings are still early, unpolished efforts. He realizes he is inexperienced, and admits: "My own life seemed dreary, personally and ideologically". Like many, he no longer embraces religion, having distanced himself from his father's orthodoxy. He's hardly alone; as one person observes:
The present generation is neither one thing nor the other. They don't want to be Jews, and they aren't allowed to be Gentiles.
       All this leaves him in without much of an anchor:
I had the painful feeling I had ceased to be myself and was unable to become someone else.
       With little money, he struggles to get by, renting a windowless room from two women, trying to teach Minna Hebrew, and hooking up with an older woman from previous times in Warsaw. He has "intimate dealings" with some of these women -- though the intimacy only goes so far, as only later can he say he has: "tasted of the tree of knowledge, as they would say in Byaledrevne". And for all his personal turmoil, many of those he deals with are going through a great deal too: Minna's family's house is emptied out because of the debts the family supposedly owes; one of the women he rents his room from is arrested; and eventually both his brother and father show up in Warsaw.
       David does get to sniff the air in the Writers' Club, too -- a big event for him -- and finds some support for his literary efforts, but he is very much still a young author, and far from finding his way.
       The novel closes with David's departure from Warsaw -- though the journey he embarks on is not the voyage he, or readers, likely envisaged, a melancholy end to the tale.
       The Certificate is a bit of a jumble, but charming and vibrant, capturing that mix of youthful enthusiasm and numbing reality well. The unsettled times make for a great backdrop too, Singer capturing Warsaw anno 1922 very well. Singer keeps it light, too, but there's actually considerable depth to all this -- appropriately conveyed by a still-teen who registers but can't really fully digest everything that's going on around him.
       There's some debate about whether this is an early work that Singer waited until 1967 to revive (as suggested by translator Wolf in his Postscript, where he writes: "It is impossible to shake the feeling that one is reading a very young man's book") or a late autobiographical return to the author's beginnings. Certainly, Singer captures the feel of the young author -- but there's also considerable maturity here, more (self-)awareness than might be expected from a younger author still so close to the events. Regardless, it is a fine and enjoyable work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 March 2017

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The Certificate: Reviews: Isaac Bashevis Singer: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Yiddish-writing author Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) was awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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