An affectionate portrait of Isaac Bashevis Singer
American Masters: Isaac in America: A Journey with Isaac Bashevis Singer PBS, Monday, 9 p.m. (check local listings). Documentary directed by Amram Nowak. ``This is the King of Sweden, and this is Isaac Singer.''
Isaac Bashevis Singer points to a photo of himself receiving the 1978 Nobel in literature, as he guides viewers through the messy apartment his wife calls the ``chaos room.'' If he cleaned it up, it would lose character, explains Mr. Singer, a reflective man in his 80s who stands amid the literary debris with a slightly bowed head and a gentle gleam in his eye. ``Chaos is not really ugly,'' he says, since it was there before creation.
The scene is one of many that reveal an artist of world stature amid the homely details of his life in New York. As this affectionate, probing, richly evocative documentary follows Singer through old neighborhoods and older memories, its cumulative effect is a memorable portrait of the beloved writer of Yiddish stories - a portrait that is endearing without patronizing ethnic quaintness.
Produced in 1985, the documentary has played in festivals around the world and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1986. It makes an engrossing premi`ere for the second season of the ``American Masters'' series, which profiles creative artists - both native-born and adopted. Singer is definitely adopted, even though he came to New York in 1935, after he and his brother noted Hitler's rise and fled Warsaw. His roots, he makes clear, are in Warsaw's Krochmaina Street, where so many of his stories are laid. ``As far as I was concerned,'' he says, ``this was the center of the universe.'' His voice takes on a special vibrancy as he talks of his life there. ``I was brought up in a home where the supernatural was really life. ... I still have this feeling I am surrounded by powers....'' Of his first visit to a literary club, he says, ``I felt like a fish in water. It was a spiritual home more than I could ever have in the United States.''