World Literature

S. Y. Agnon

 

BORN: 1888, Buczacz, Galicia, Austria- Hungary

DIED: 1970, Tel Aviv, Israel

NATIONALITY: Israeli, Polish

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The Bridal Canopy (1931)

A Simple Story (1935)

A Guest for the Night (1939)

The Day before Yesterday (1945)

 

Overview

S. Y. Agnon is the most distinguished author in the modern Hebrew language and a major prose writer of the twentieth century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. His work blends authentic Jewish heritage with European sources to comment upon the disintegration of community and spirituality in the modern world. Agnon is virtually unknown outside Israel, mostly because his Hebrew prose, loaded with intricate wordplay and echoes of biblical and historical texts, is notoriously difficult to translate. Within the Jewish state, his standing is akin to that of William Shakespeare in England.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Agnon's famous contemporaries include:

Martin Buber (1878-1965): An Austrian Jewish philosopher-theologian and associate of Agnon, Buber collaborated with Agnon on an anthology of Hasidic stories.

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960): This Russian poet and novelist was the author of Doctor Zhivago.

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940): A Russian novelist and playwright whose satirical novel The Master and Margarita circulated underground in the Soviet Union.

Isaac Babel (1894-1940): A Russian Jewish playwright and short-story writer, Babel is noted for his stories of the Jews in Odessa and his novel Red Cavalry.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991): This Polish American author wrote in Yiddish. His stories deal with conflicts between traditional faith and modernism.

David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973): The leader of the Zionist movement and first prime minister of Israel (19481953, 1955-1963).

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Fleeing the Pogroms. Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in 1888 in the shtetl (Jewish village) of Buczacz, in Galicia, now part of Ukraine but then belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, an ordained rabbi and a fur trader by profession, was a Hasidic Jew who encouraged his son to study the Bible, the Talmud, and rabbinic texts. From his mother, he acquired knowledge of German language and literature, which enabled him to read European writers in translation. When Shmuel was eight, he decided to become a poet, and at age fifteen he published his first poem in Yiddish.

While Shmuel led a sheltered childhood in the shtetl, his youth was a time of turmoil for Jews. The pogroms (persecutions) in Russia following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 led many to migrate westward into Europe. A smaller stream migrated into Palestine (now Israel), where the Zionist movement hoped to create a Jewish homeland. In 1907, at age nineteen, the budding writer moved to Palestine as part of the great wave of immigration known as the Second Aliyah. He became first secretary of the Jewish court at Jaffa. There he encountered the contradictory confluence of Jewish tradition and cosmopolitan Western culture that would become the focus of his writing. In 1908 he published his first story, ‘‘Agunot’’ (Forsaken Wives), in the journal Ha-Omer. With a slight modification to the title, he assumed his pen name—Agnon.

To Germany. Agnon published his first novella, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight, in 1912. Several literary specialists noticed this work; Arthur Rupin, a major figure in the Zionist movement, urged the aspiring writer to broaden his horizons in Berlin. In 1913 Agnon traveled to Germany, where he lived for eleven years. Fluent in German, he gave Hebrew lessons and worked for a publisher of Jewish books, all the while writing fiction.

In Berlin, Agnon met businessman Zalman Schocken, who admired the young author and became his financial patron. Schocken gave Agnon a regular stipend, permitting him to live comfortably free from financial worries and to concentrate on his writing. Schocken promised to find Agnon a publisher and redeemed his promise by becoming one himself. While in Germany, Agnon’s chief work was on Hasidic folklore and legend, his tales capturing the spirit and flavor of a way of life deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.

Home to Jerusalem. In 1916, during World War I, Agnon was summoned for a medical checkup and possible conscription into the Austrian army. Horrified by the possibility of going to war, he chain-smoked and ingested a large number of pills, managing to get sick enough to avoid the draft. He remained in Berlin through the end of the war. In 1920 he met and married Esther Marx, a young woman from an affluent orthodox family. The couple had two children in Germany and remained together for fifty years.

In 1924 Agnon’s home in Hamburg burned down. Everything he owned went up in flames, including his library of four thousand books and the manuscript of an autobiographical novel. The disaster had a lasting impact on Agnon, who saw the fire as an omen. Convinced that his exile had grown too long, he returned to Palestine and settled in Jerusalem. But five years later, his home was wrecked and much of his library again destroyed during the Arab riots of 1929. Fond of connecting his own life story to the annals of Jewish history, he likened these two events to the obliteration of the two temples. The feeling of homelessness, of losing one’s dwelling, or simply not having a house where one can lodge, is a strong current in Agnon’s work, serving as a metaphor for the precarious situation of the Jew.

Agnon settled permanently just outside Jerusalem and spent the next forty years writing in his small library-turned-office. He wrote by hand, standing at a polished wood podium. Although he had written in Yiddish as a youth, Agnon wrote his major works in Hebrew, the ancient holy tongue that had been revived in the late nineteenth century after centuries of being unspoken.

Unlike other pioneers of Jewish secular fiction, such as Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Agnon chose Hebrew as an outgrowth of his Zionist beliefs; he was writing for a future nation that would be located in the Middle East. The city of Jerusalem became not just Agnon’s home but the central axis of his fiction, a symbol of stability and continuity in Jewish life.

Major Works. The next years proved to be productive for Agnon. He dramatized the conflict between Jewish tradition and modernity in short stories, dozens of which were published in the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz, and novels. His first acclaimed novel, The Bridal Canopy (1931), concerns a Hasidic rabbi who travels through nineteenth- century Galicia seeking a dowry for his daughters. This folk epic also portrays the decline of religious life through a protagonist whose devotion to God is obtrusively at odds with his secular surroundings. A Simple Story, his 1935 novel is anything but simple; it is a social treatise juxtaposing Jewish middle-class mores with European modernist ideas of religious and sexual freedom. Its hero, the classic schlemiel (chump) Hirshl, enters into an arranged marriage at the behest of his overbearing mother, but his obsessive love for his cousin Blume drives him to mental collapse.

Agnon’s talent was at its peak in A Guest for the Night (1939), a nightmarish account of the decline of European Jewry after World War I, as related by an unnamed narrator returning to his native town. This work was inspired by Agnon’s visit to his birthplace in the mid-1930s. World War I had shattered the old faith and traditions, and on the horizon loomed the still greater menace of World War II. Another major achievement, The Day before Yesterday (1945), is based on Agnon’s experiences in Palestine before World War I. Set in Palestine during the Second Aliyah, the story is a bleak and critical appraisal of the Zionist endeavor that reveals the gap between lofty ideals and the dark realities of human nature.

The dreams of Agnon and the Zionists came to fruition with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. The writer evacuated his home during the Arab-Israeli War that broke out when Israel declared its independence, returning after the end of hostilities. Annually, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, hundreds of thousands ofsynagogue congregants recite the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, which Agnon cowrote with chief rabbis Yitzhak Herzog and Ben Zion Uziel.

Agnon wrote until the end of his life, despite steadily declining health. After he was diagnosed with a heart condition in 1951, he began to sit while working. His reputation was such that when he complained to the city council about traffic noise on his street, the municipality closed the street to cars, while a sign hanging at the head of the street proclaimed to all passersby: ‘‘No cars are to enter. Agnon is writing.’’ In 1966 Agnon received the Nobel Prize, along with the German poet and dramatist Nelly Sachs. He died in 1970. His daughter, Emuna Yaron, subsequently collected and released many of his unpublished works, including the novel Shim (1971), which he had worked on for twenty-five years but left unfinished, and which she edited according to his instructions.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The stories and novels of S. Y. Agnon chronicle an eventful period in Jewish history, from the murderous pogroms to the founding of Israel. The following works of fiction also open a window onto the European Jewish past:

''Bontshe the Silent'' (1894), a short story by I. L. Peretz. In this classic Yiddish story, a poor, pious Jew suffers, dies, and goes to heaven, where angels agree to grant his greatest wish: a warm buttered roll every morning.

''Tevye the Dairyman'' (1911), a short story by Sholom Aleichem. The stories of Tevye, his wife Golde, and the daughters they try to marry off inspired the famous Broadway (and movie) musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Breakdown and Bereavement (1914), a novel by Yosef Haim Brenner. A harrowing novel about the challenges faced by Zionist pioneers, this work was by an author whose encouragement was important in Agnon's early career.

Exodus (1958), a novel by Leon Uris. This historical novel about the founding of Israel was a huge best seller in the United States.

Mister Mani (1990), a novel by A. B. Yehoshua. In this acclaimed Israeli novel, six generations of a family pass along domestic secrets against the backdrop of a century of Jewish history.

 

Works in Literary Context

Agnon was widely read and was conversant with European novelists; for example, he exalted the virtues of Gustave Flaubert. His prose is crossed with references to Scandinavian, Russian, German, and French literature. The episodic, picaresque style of The Bridal Canopy has brought comparisons to Cervantes’s classic novel Don Quixote. Critics also frequently compare Agnon to Franz Kafka; both possessed the ability to create menacing psychic dreamscapes, and they share the qualities of irony and alienation, though Agnon insisted that he never read Kafka’s work.

Agnon and the Jewish Canon. As Agnon claimed in accepting the Nobel Prize, his major source of literary influence was the canon of Jewish literature. The Torah (Jewish Bible), Talmud, Mishnah, and commentaries by Hebrew poets and philosophers such as Moses Maimonides all suffuse his writing. In his book Tradition and Trauma: Studies in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon, critic David Patterson wrote, ‘‘The first impressions of apparent simplicity soon give way to a realization of the overtones, references and allusions arising from the author’s complete familiarity with the whole vast corpus of Hebrew literature. The ancient vocabulary of Hebrew is pregnant with associations of all kinds, and the skillful juxtaposition of words and phrases can be made to yield a variety of nuances.’’ These nuances, found in every passage of Agnon’s stories, make his prose a formidable challenge for translators.

A Folk Modernist More than any other writer, Agnon advanced the idea of creating not only a new literature in Hebrew but a new culture synthesizing eastern European traditions and modern Israeli norms. While living in Germany, Agnon noted the sharp contrast between rural, traditional Jews emigrating from the shtetls and the more cosmopolitan, secular German Jews. As a writer, he could neither discard the religious tradition of Judaism nor shun the realities of modern secular life. He knew that for Jews to negotiate the twentieth century, both would be necessary. Sensing the alien aspects of European culture, he initiated a return to Jewish folk material, to the Hebrew language, and to the ancient sources. His deceptively simple, ironic prose reads as though it had been written long ago. While his stories often have the quality of folk literature, they also incorporate modern literary devices such as shifting viewpoints, nonlinear narratives, and the intermingling of fantasy and reality.

 

Works in Critical Context

Agnon is widely regarded as the most accomplished author of fiction to have written in Hebrew. He is such a venerated figure in Israel that since 1985, his image has appeared on the fifty-shekel banknote. In 2002, when the National Yiddish Book Centre listed their one hundred greatest works of modern Jewish literature, three of Agnon’s novels occupied the fourth, fifth, and sixth places. In addition, his novels and stories appear frequently as compulsory reading in Israeli schools. Yet, outside Israel, very few readers have even heard of him.

The Problem of Translation. The difficulty of getting across in English the full flavor and profundity of Agnon’s prose is certainly a major reason why he has not received the broad, lasting international appreciation given to other modernist giants, despite the Nobel Prize. Commentators have attributed much of the subtlety and complexity of his writing to the Hebrew language itself and its capacity to construct a web of associations. English-speaking literary scholars frequently debate whether translation can sufficiently convey the art of prose written in other languages. In Agnon’s case, that question has often taken center stage. Noted American author Cynthia Ozick observed, ‘‘For decades, Agnon scholars (and Agnon is a literary industry) have insisted that it is no use trying to get at Agnon in any language other than the original.’’ Indeed, his nuances and dense layers of allusion challenge even Hebrew readers.

Little Known in the West. Many scholars of Jewish literature have tackled Agnon. Haim Be’er, who wrote a book on the author in 1992, said, ‘‘Agnon is the centre of our cultural discourse. His work is the most frequent subject of Hebrew literary research.’’ Little of his work was translated into English until late in his life. The illustrious American critic Edmund Wilson praised Agnon in 1956, calling publicly for him to be given the Nobel Prize, largely on the strength of The Day before Yesterday. The publication in English of Betrothed, & Edo and Enam: Two Tales in the summer of 1966 coincided with a wave of international critical acclaim for his earlier work that contributed to his winning the prize. Afterward, more of his works were translated; his short fiction was showcased in a volume titled A Book That Was Lost, and Other Stories (1995).

 

Responses to Literature

1. Using your library resources and the Internet, research the Zionist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a short essay, explain how its values are reflected in the fiction of S. Y. Agnon.

2. Read several of Agnon’s short stories and focus on the theme of community. How does Agnon convey what is special about the Jewish community? Why is the community in danger of disintegration?

3. Read the short story ‘‘Pisces’’ from A Book That Was Lost, and Other Stories. Discuss how Agnon’s use of magic realism, folklore, humor, and irony contribute to the story.

4. Agunot is the term applied to women who have been abandoned by their husbands and are left in a state of limbo since they cannot remarry. Based on the story ‘‘Agunot,’’ why do you think Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes took the pen name Agnon?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Aberbach, David. At the Handles of the Lock: Themes in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Alter, Robert. Hebrew and Modernity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Band, Arnold J. Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Ben-Dov, Nitza. Agnon’s Art of Indirection: Uncovering Latent Content in the Fiction of S. Y Agnon. New York: Brill, 1993.

Green, Sharon. Not a Simple Story: Love and Politics in a Modern Hebrew Novel. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2002.

Hochman, Baruch. The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Katz, Stephen. The Centrifugal Novel: S. Y. Agnon’s Poetics of Composition. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

Mintz, Alan L. Translating Israel: Contemporary Hebrew Literature and Its Reception in America. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2001.

Oz, Amos. The Silence of Heaven: Agnon’s Fear of God. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Patterson, David. Tradition and Trauma: Studies in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1994.

Ribalow, Menachem. The Flowering of Modern Hebrew Literature: A Volume of Literary Evaluation. London: Vision, 1959.

Roshwald, Miriam. Ghetto, Shtetl, or Polis? The Jewish Community in the Writings of Karl Emil Franzos, Sholom Aleichem, and Shemuel Yosef Agnon. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo, 1995.

Wisse, Ruth. The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture. New York: Free Press, 2000.

Yudkin, Leon I., ed. Agnon: Text and Contexts in English Translation. New York: M. Wiener, 1988.