Agnon, S(hmuel) Y(osef) 1888–1970
Born in Galicia, Austria-Hungary (present-day Poland), Agnon lived in Palestine (Israel) from 1924 until his death. He spoke no English and was the first Israeli author, and the first author writing in Hebrew, to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Drawing upon ancient Jewish folk materials, Agnon fashioned his lyrical, humorous, and ironic stories around the themes of Jewish myth, legend, and tradition. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Agnon first became known in Hebrew literature because he eschewed the innovations that had been introduced by some of his older contemporaries and chose to base his style on a pattern which had been used for a thousand years or more in the writing of children's stories and "popular" narrative. Moreover, the heroes of his tales were not those who were trying to escape from and change the course of Jewish tradition, but rather those who lived within it. As a result his work first attracted notice in the circles of Germany and Central Europe where a reaction against nineteenth-century rationalism, particularly in the Hebraic form known as the Haskala, was setting in. By the middle 'twenties, Agnon had won himself a place entirely his own in Hebrew literature, as a classic of a new kind, and he is now universally acknowledged as one of the leading figures of contemporary Hebrew literature.
The tales by which he is best known deal with Galician Jewish life, first in the post-Napoleonic period, then in and about the early days of the Zionist movement, and finally in the period between the two world wars. In addition he has written a large number of timeless and universal Jewish legends, often based on folk stories, but equally frequently of his own private vintage….
Agnon's stories of life a hundred years and more ago are shrouded in a mellow nostalgia, a family-chronicle warmness similar to that of a grandmother telling the tales of her clan. The closer he comes to the contemporary scene, however, the less pleased with his subject matter he appears to be. His tales of life fifty years ago are marked by an almost photographic realism, while when he comes to the present day a certain undercurrent of asperity can be detected in the apparent serenity that characterizes all he writes.
I. M. Lask, headnote to "Tehilla," by Samuel Joseph Agnon, in Tehilla and Other Israeli Tales (copyright © 1956 by Abelard-Schuman Limited), Abelard-Schuman, 1956, pp. 9-10.
Utilizing vast sources of midrashic, hasidic and folk literature, [Agnon] created a unique Hebrew prose style. His work links historic Jewish piety and martyrdom with the longing for Palestine. He is the portrayer par excellence of the saintliness and simplicity of Eastern European traditional Jewish life before the advent of the modern temper. In [later] years he [became] preoccupied with the epic of Jewish rebirth in the land of Israel….
When Samuel Joseph Agnon began to write, the new chapter of modern Hebrew literature was dominated by the general European spirit…. The young passionate poets were anxious to forget the Jewish village together with the traditions of their fathers and to become part of European civilization. They extolled man, the human being, and not the Jew within him…. They used the national tongue, Hebrew, but the song they sang was a universal one. They were all possessed by a common desire—to capture outposts in a newly opened world, to become equal partners in universal human attainments, to create values that would command respect in world literature—but to do so in the language of the Jewish renaissance, in Hebrew. Their Jewishness they would assert by the language in which they wrote, their universalism through its content….
Agnon appeared on the scene and began a counter-revolution. He reversed the trend from Europe homeward again, from alien ways back to the native road. He did not burst upon the scene in stormy fashion. He brought no theories or arguments with him. He said not a single word pro or contra. He simply began to write in a different manner, different from all other Hebrew writers of that time. His novelty lay in his old-fashionedness. His uniqueness consisted in his return to the old sources, to the folk-character and its traits of simplicity and sincerity, purity and piety….
With Agnon the Hebrew short story reaches artistic heights. He has the secret of the perfect blend of content and form, style and rhythm, inner beauty and outer grace. He has tapped new sources of Jewish ethical and esthetic values, revealing the spiritual grandeur in Jewish life. He has done what others have sought in vain to do: to convert simplicity and folk-naiveté into a thing of consummate art and beauty….
In the serenity of Agnon's world, "the weariness, the fever and the fret" of living are forgotten. The piety and simplicity of his hasidic style had led many to believe mistakenly that his is merely an imitative technique. But one entering Agnon's world is caught by the spell of his narrative and touched by something more pervasive and more deep-rooted than mere stylistic novelty. While it is true that his literary style is graceful, his real power lies in his vision. This is manifested in his character portrayals. His style is not a question of "literature" but of "life." It mirrors the very soul of his characters. It radiates the mild and kindly humor of brotherly understanding and forgiveness, the humor of an artist who is at one with his characters, their suffering, their faith and hope, their silent study and their fervent prayers.
Only one who denies the basic truth underlying all creative art could suspect Agnon of creating a "style for style's sake." If naiveté were not a genuine and integral part of his characters, he would not have been able to portray with such consistent infallibility the inner state of their minds, their inevitable reactions and their particular speech. But even were one to insist that Agnon consciously stylizes his narratives, playing only the part of a weaver of tales, projecting himself with conscious effort into the role of his heroes, one would still have to admit that Agnon is an unusually brilliant artist.
However, careful observation of Agnon's creative technique shows that his true greatness lies in his knowledge of Jewish folk-life….
In the travels and adventures of Menasseh Haim as well as in the wanderings of Reb Yudel in The Bridal Canopy, we see the life of the people vividly depicted. It is marked by two dominant characteristics—poverty and the study of the Torah. In the despair and hope of the motley assortment of characters who cross Menasseh Haim's path, there is something sublime and majestic. One is moved by the sight of so much suffering and yet one cannot help admiring the people's simple faith. At times one gets the impression that these are not beggars and paupers but princes in disguise who at any moment may throw off their tattered rags and appear before us in shining splendor. Though they wear no splendid garments they are possessed of an inner spiritual beauty. Midas-like, the hand of a great artist has transmuted the grime of poverty into a golden dust. Agnon endows his characters with divine qualities without making an effort to emphasize the mystical. One senses this most strongly in his cycle of legends, Poland, in his short stories and in some parts of his Stories of Love….
In his works, just as the boundaries disappear between reality and dream, this world and the next, so too do the boundaries between diaspora [Jewish life apart from Israel] and the Land of Israel almost vanish…. The Holy Land, in Agnon's works, is a land of mystical purity. It is for him more than just a geographical term, more than a politico-social entity. It is a place where the old become young again, the weak strong again. When an old man merits the privilege of going to Palestine, then all the years he has lived in the diaspora are erased from his allotted number and he begins the days of his life anew. For living in Palestine is like getting a foretaste of the next world—and in that next world life begins again. That is why Agnon scarcely needs any young characters in his stories in order to portray youth. The old are his youth.
Menachem Ribalow, "Samuel Joseph Agnon: Major Novelist of Yesterday and Today," in his The Flowering of Modern Hebrew Literature, edited and translated by Judah Nadich (copyright 1959 by Mrs. Menachem Ribalow; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co.), Twayne, 1959, pp. 273-305.
Agnon, the distinctive artist, is, it need hardly be said, much more than a Hebrew Kafka. Even his "Kafkaesque" stories bear the unmistakable marks of Agnon's own special vision; in any case, they constitute only one segment of his varied literary production over more than half a century. But beyond all similarities, there is one radical difference between the two writers: while Kafka exemplifies the distress of rootlessness that has characterized so many Jews in modern times, Agnon's uniqueness derives from the fact that he is so deeply rooted in a tradition. Agnon is in many ways the most profoundly Jewish writer to have appeared in modern Hebrew literature, and it is in his role as heir to a Jewish religious and cultural heritage that much of his artistic distinctiveness is to be sought….
While … [his] Jewish erudition has served as an inexhaustible mine of materials—both verbal and conceptual—from which Agnon has fashioned his creative vision, the relation between Agnon the author and Agnon the learned and pious Jew is to some extent ambivalent. There are times when he looks ironically on his own role as writer (or sofer, which in traditional Hebrew meant Torah scribe, and in modern usage generally means author); a Jew, he implies, ought to be an inscriber of holy scrolls, not someone who simply tries to write pretty things. In at least two of his stories he attempts to resolve this conflict by imagining himself as a sofer in both senses of the word—a writer whose stories and novels form one long Torah scroll….
[There] is really no analogue among the Western languages to the body of Hebrew upon which Agnon draws. One tends to think, for example, of older literary English, at least since the later Middle Ages, as more ornate, more rhetorically elaborate and consciously artificial, than its modern counterpart, while Old English has for most of us the roughhewn look of a less developed language. The Hebrew of the Midrash, on the other hand, does not suffer from either old-fashioned ornateness or from even the appearance of crudeness. The style of this great medieval collection of homiletic and legendary variations on biblical themes is simple, even-toned, quietly modulated (and consequently Agnon's own style can be deceptively "easy and simple"), but it possesses a peculiar lyric grace, and its flexibility of syntax and breadth of vocabulary make it capable of representing minute details of action and fine nuances of feeling.
Midrashic Hebrew is, moreover, much closer to the modern Hebrew reader than its history of nearly two thousand years would suggest. The source books in which it is used have been traditionally studied from childhood on with the sort of application that would make them as familiar to the cultivated reader of Hebrew as, say, Pilgrim's Progress once was to English schoolchildren. Agnon's Hebrew stands with the readers for whom it is intended on a footing of old and intimate acquaintance, in all its archaic accouterment. It has a distinctive poetic charm that necessarily disappears in translation, and because of the deliberate simplicity of the style, Agnon in a Western language is likely to look rather wan and anemic….
Together with the words of tradition, Agnon has adopted for his own uses a wide variety of motifs and symbols from this religious—and often highly poetic—literature. In effect he has found in it one solution to a problem that has typically concerned modern writers beginning with Yeats, Eliot, and Joyce: the need for a living body of mythology from which the artist can draw symbols meaningful to his audience to use in his own work. Agnon discovered a virtually untapped reservoir of symbolic richness in Jewish tradition, and, most particularly, in the Midrash. His development of traditional motifs endows his vision with an unusual poetic coherence, even over the apparently ambling stretches of some of his longer novels. A novel by Agnon is likely to prove to be, among other things, an extended variation on several symbolic themes, frequently themes he has taken from the Midrash….
Of all his achievements in adapting the materials of Jewish tradition to his own fictional modes of expression, the most important has been his remarkable success in weaving the legendary tapestry of the medieval Midrash into the texture of the twentieth-century world lived in and experienced by Shmuel Yosef Agnon. One significant instance of this process is his treatment of the theme of the house. Perhaps the greatest single concern in Agnon's writings is the problem of modern man who, spiritually, finds himself with no place to live. Though this theme is almost everywhere in Agnon's fiction, it receives its most extensive and resonant expression in A Guest for the Night: the very title of that novel suggests the uneasy fate of transience to which most of his central characters are condemned, and the main action is the futile, finally self-deceiving attempt of the protagonist, who has returned from Jerusalem to his native Szybuscz, to revive there the old studyhouse, the key educational and religious institution that in fact had been the sheltering spiritual "home" for East-European Jewry in recent centuries….
Jewish tradition always opposes to the hut of exile the image of the house that was, which is also the image of the house that will be; the dark reality of exile is confronted in the unswerving belief in a redemption to follow the exile. There are many moments in Agnon's stories when his dispossessed protagonists seem on the point of being wholly submerged by the forces that threaten them, but what ultimately distinguishes Agnon from an uprooted Jew like Kafka is the fact that at times he can honestly envisage a restoration of the shattered order, a rebuilding of the ruined house. To be sure, it is often difficult to know quite how to take Agnon: even his occasional images of hope flicker ambiguously, are gravely threatened by the world of shadows around them, but they possess an imaginative reality that cannot be entirely discounted.
Agnon has in his varied literary enterprise confronted some of the most disturbing aspects of the contemporary world, and he is too shrewd, too tough-minded an observer to be capable of deceiving himself about the way things are. Yet by remaining constantly in touch—both in his art and in his private life—with the spiritual wholeness of the past, he has preserved the conviction that such wholeness of spirit is both indispensable and still possible to achieve, however unreachable it may now seem.
Robert Alter, "S. Y. Agnon: The Alphabet of Holiness" (originally published in a slightly different version as "The Genius of S. Y. Agnon," in Commentary, August, 1961), in his After the Tradition (copyright © 1962 by Robert Alter; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), Dutton, 1969, pp. 131-50.
[The] Bridal Canopy [is] one of Agnon's major novels and a highpoint in modern Hebrew literature….
An element [in this work] is the search for a past, a probing into a once-upon-a-time way of life. In The Bridal Canopy, Agnon is the literary archivist of Galician Jewry, the comprehensive preserver of a now destroyed civilization. As Reb Yudel and his driver Nuta wander through early 19th-century Galicia trying to collect enough alms to dower Reb Yudel's three daughters, they listen to and exchange countless stories with the people they meet. There is an enchanting inner rhythm to the work where the adventures blend with the "told" stories. The tales the characters tell are often an extension of their personality and relate artistically to the main plot….
Realism and fantasy mingle in this enchanting storybook world. Horses converse, men speak in formal rhyme—reminiscent of the rhymed prose picaresques written by Spanish Jews 800 years ago. Yet the total fabric of Galician Jewry—its beliefs, traits, humor and folklore—is described in epic grandeur with absolute fidelity of detail. Yiddishkeit suffuses this book, as it does most of Agnon's works….
Like The Bridal Canopy, the novella In the Heart of the Seas is a retrospective glance at early 19th-century Jewish life; but whereas The Bridal Canopy is a huge canvas, the novella is a fine miniature. Here Agnon focuses only upon a small group of Hasidim who decide to make the aliya to the Land of Israel. Since this is a story about Hasidim, the spirit of Hasidism pervades the work….
As usual, Agnon makes use of the entirety of Hebraic lore…. In the tale he assumes the same role he has carved out for himself during the past sixty years—a teller of stories who sweetens the passing time for the company of travelers. On the one hand this displacement of self may seem like a charming literary gesture. However, on the other hand, given the problem of spiritual tension that pervades Agnon's fiction—man perpetually seeking tranquility and faith—the removal of self may be a form of wish-fulfillment, an escape from the problem-laden 20th century into the security of the past.
Curt Leviant, "Mirror of The Jewish Past," in Congress Bi-Weekly, September 25, 1967, pp. 20-21.
[Agnon's] fiction spans five to six generations of Jewish life in East Central Europe and Palestine, from the Hasidic revival at the end of the eighteenth century through the Zionist revival at the end of the nineteenth, and beyond that into the present worlds of European and Israeli Jewry. (p. 1)
Agnon's powers are not primarily the powers of a novelist; he has no gusto, no thirst for experience, no substantial gift of empathy. He has never been concerned with the plastic creation of character, and he has, on the whole, shunned the task of fleshing out human responses within the finely meshed web of social relationships. His gift is essentially a lyric one, though his lyricism is coupled with a nearly misanthropic thrust of satiric imagination. The grand felicities of his prose, like those of Mann and Proust, of Kafka and Joyce, come to serve as a vehicle for meditation upon the life of the soul, for a meditation that appropriates the actualities of the outer world in order to evoke the sense of an elusive subjectivity. (pp. 1-2)
Agnon in his fiction plays continually with the redemptive, messianic associations of Jerusalem, the Holy City, which signifies security and integrity, as opposed to the Diaspora (the Exile), where rootlessness and insecurity prevail. Yet the city of Jerusalem is also of this world, is a modern environment of alienation, disruption, and fragmentation. (p. 7)
[In] parables like "Ido and Enam" and in a still later story, "Forevermore," he attempts to formulate an attitude toward the entire experience. The final perspective is neither so clear nor so definitive as Agnon's best work promises it could or would be. But it is a wide perspective, and one that, like these parables themselves, includes the greatest dilemmas of modern Jews and, in some respects, of all modern men. (p. 9)
The Bridal Canopy represents Agnon's emergence from the twilight of the early tales. I find it at times tedious, labored, and too sustainedly coy. It displays his remarkable architectonic gifts, however, and it seems to have confronted him with the crucial problem of history, of the relation between the past and the present, which forms the central concern of the late parables and of his major fiction. Even as he was summoning up a vision of the old world of the "fathers," he seems to have begun to come to grips with his own problematical relation to it. Agnon's later novels deal with the impact of that world's decline upon people like himself who must bear the body of its death. His own historical situation becomes the focus of his work—a situation in which the individual remains sentimentally bound to a decaying social and cultural order which magnetizes his sensibility and prevents him from shaping a satisfactory life in a changing universe…. [The] ancestral past continues to serve Agnon as the foundation of his consciousness and even of his judgment, as a source of stability and the basis of his alienation from modernity. His judgment of that foundation remains achingly obscure, but his novelistic manipulation of it is almost uniformly impressive. (p. 17)
Much of Agnon's short fiction since the early 1930's has been concerned with representing either the radically equivocal states of being that arise when one is unwillingly possessed by the past or when one willfully tries to recapture it. These stories fall roughly into three groups. There is the usually brief nightmarish tale, rather Kafkaesque in technique, that renders the experience of an individual whose life is disrupted by an onrush of incomprehensible events obscurely related to his wishes and fears. Then there is the expressionist tale, directly related to the last volume of Hermann Broch's novel The Sleepwalkers, but with affinities to the art of Frank Wedekind, Robert Musil, and even the early Bertold Brecht. These present an utterly fragmented and demented outer world which often reflects a disrupted inner world but which has independent validity as an image of chaos and upheaval. And finally there is the self-conscious parable of a quest, like "I do and Enam," in which characters consciously and unconsciously seek out ways of resuscitating the old, sanctified modes of existence, trying to order their experience and find goodness, beauty, and truth in a wayward, desperate present.
One notes the persistence, in all three types of story, of certain motifs, involving what we might call an Agnon figure—that is, involving a writer or scholar … who deliberately tries to contact, record, or preserve a lost or elusive reality. All these characters share an alienation from ordinary experience; all of them pursue their interest in relative or complete isolation, often with a Magian intensity…. Curiously, however, these special characters are not essentially different from the more commonplace figures who move through Agnon's work. Agnon's ordinary protagonist is a little man who tends toward a bewildered incomprehension of the things that happen to him. He is—one might say—an archetype of bewilderment.
This figure represents the peculiar strength as well as the peculiar limitation of Agnon's achievement. He has been compared to Kafka's heroes, just as the modernist tales about him have been compared in style and form to Kafka's work. If one seeks analogies in modern literature, however, one would do better to look to Faulkner, whose characters remain caught up in the traditions of the old South and continue to live within its mythos without being able to evolve viable relationships in the world which has supplanted it. The difference is that Faulkner's people respond to this situation with glorified self-dramatization in postures of defeat, while Agnon's people respond to their circumstances with Chaplinesque incomprehension and a reflexive shrug of the shoulders, in which wit and imbecility coincide. (pp. 23-4)
In view of Agnon's own "Zionist" choice to write in Hebrew, and in view of his massive contribution to the development of modern Hebrew as a literary medium, it is supremely ironic that his language should often seem a transmogrified, quintessential rendering in Hebrew of something native to Yiddish at its most reflexive. His prose is a language never heard on land or sea, impeccably Hebraic and yet molded in the cadence of another mode—a Yiddish one—another language, another form of consciousness. Indeed, the pleasures which Agnon's prose style affords are themselves a symptom of the underlying difficulty. So much is invested by Agnon in the language that, instead of serving as a pane of clear glass through which we might envision a world, it often seems one of those finely wrought products of vitreous art in which figures are etched into the glass itself. His language ultimately points back to itself, rather than outward into an objectified fictional universe. There is an objective attunement to the outer world and its problems. But there is also always the self-regarding, aestheticizing intrusion of Agnon's sensibility. I insist, in contrast to some of Agnon's more sensitive readers, that he is not a mere aesthete; his work is too rich and too deeply engaged with some aspects of reality for him to be seen as one. But I hold that he does not achieve a vigorous substantive engagement with the ultimate implications of his experience.
In a sense, his range is too narrow, and the historical scope of his fiction fails to make up for the limited span of experience it encompasses. Agnon lacks gusto, and so do his characters. Their inherent passivity—their incapacity to engage in passionate struggle—oppresses the reader and, in the end, makes for a lack of conviction as to the integrity of the total vision. One always feels that something is left out—that some range of energies and impulses remains unconfronted.
The common comparison to Kafka suggests one source of the weakness. Within the psychic smog of Kafka's world there is a tensed, even compulsive will to be, to achieve, to escape…. Such tension is largely absent in Agnon. (pp. 25-6)
More damaging, ultimately, is the underlying irresolution in Agnon's attitude toward his material. The late parables bespeak the hopelessness of attempting to embody the high aims and ravening dreams of the Rechnitzes, Ginats, and Gamzus. Yet they may also be said to constitute a kind of elegiac celebration of that fond, foolish effort—the only effort worth making in this shattered world. It is surely no accident that Agnon's first novel had Don Quixote in its background; The Bridal Canopy and all the work that follows are riddled with a Cervantesque ambivalence toward the figure of the hero—treating him as saint and fool, martyr and "fall guy"…. It is the sort of ambivalence that mocks the objects of its heroes' desire, and it accounts in part for the quality of unpleasantness in Agnon's work. The price of the remarkable lyricism of the pathetic comedy of his own and his people's journey through the anterooms of modernity into the center of its hell is a faint nastiness, an uneasy afterstench of self-indulgence which precludes wisdom, passion, and even the larger energy of a truly hellish ordeal. (p. 27)
Agnon's finest noncomic work in the traditionalist mode has a kind of luminous loveliness and musicality, reminiscent of the medieval tale at its best. In it there is a fine orchestration of feelings that spring from pain and loss, but never a direct representation of the rawness and anguish they involve…. It is as though Agnon turns to the ancestral past partly because he finds within it a set of attitudes that permit a deeply desiderated transcendence of the harshness of inner conflict and a deeply felt need to circumvent the horror of death itself. (p. 50)
The Bridal Canopy is an extraordinary book, in its handling of both [its] world and Agnon's ambivalence toward that world…. [It] renders, as no other work does so extensively, the unique shtetl sense of nature and history. Much admired for this, it has been hailed as the "epic" of the old village culture, and as the representation of the shtetl before its decline…. One can say that the tales of the ancestral world "diminutivize" the denizens of that world and substitute quaintness for vigor and active striving. (pp. 72, 75)
Agnon's gift is such that it provokes the highest expectations and impels us to make the most aggressive demands. The pleasures the work affords compensate for many limitations: the terrible muting of his peoples' passions, whether they be of love or of rage; the chilling lack of sympathy with ordinary human aspiration; the tamping of dramatic urgencies; and the cloying indulgence of sheer verbal effect. These limitations often yield in the face of the sheer beauty of Agnon's evocations and of his astonishing architectonic virtuosity in the projection of themes and of worlds. More than anything, they yield, for those who have the patience to follow the development of the entire body of his work, in terms of the larger architecture of the revelation that is apparent in the context of the whole: an architecture that indeed has "epic" dimensions, and that embraces so much that is vital to the history of his culture over hundreds of years. The awareness of Agnon's strengths, however, is somehow again subordinated to the intuition that something essential is missing: the agony of final confrontation, which will bring muscle and bone and blood and guts into the wrestling with the angel of nullity—not so much sweet singing and exquisite purling of song. (pp. 189-90)
Baruch Hochman, in his The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon (copyright © 1970 by Cornell University; used by permission of Cornell University Press), Cornell University Press, 1970.
For generations, the Jewish way of life … was a religion and a culture at the same time. It enveloped the life of the individual and the community from the cradle to the grave. You could make your own list of parallel characteristics: the Sabbath candles, the black mantle, gefilte fish, pickled herring, dumplings; playing with a spinning top on Hanukah and with nuts on Passover; tearing the hem of the coat as a sign of mourning, kissing a holy book when it dropped to the floor, never kissing your beloved in front of strangers; singing traditional songs for every occasion; your grandmother, her spectacles perched on her nose, reading old tales of the pious from a book on her lap at Saturday twilight … thousands of customs and habits that everyone observed and followed and was imbued with. A paradise for writers, as it were. S. Y. Agnon … who was conceived in the womb of this all-embracing "religion-cum-culture" and grew up in its bosom, demonstrates in every story of his the pleasure of this writer's paradise….
[The] Hebrew style, typically Agnonian as it is—economical, legend-like, with ironic undertones alluding to the naivety of popular beliefs—is at the same time traditional, derived from Hassidic tales and holy Scriptures. The distinction of it lies in this very combination of individuality and convention, when the single voice ripples with the echoes of past generations. Thus, reading a story of Agnon is like looking into a deep well, where your own image is reflected through mysterious half-darkness encircled by ancient stones.
Aharon Megged, "How Did The Bible Put It?," in Encounter, January, 1971, pp. 39-43.
Now that Shira has been published … the novel has perplexed many of Agnon's devoted readers. Agnon is known as a master of synoptic perception. His work is read and interpreted on literal, allegorical, symbolic, and mystical levels, but in Shira he has shifted from connotative to denotative meaning. What is perplexing is that the scholar of the cabala and its intricacies, the teller of Hassidic tales and Kafkaesque fables should leave as his last work an explicit, open story dealing with a sexual affair, a story about real people, set against the background of Jerusalem in the 1930s and early 1940s. The Agnonite labryinth has given way to a vivid picture of mundane life.
Perhaps the explanation is that his shift from the religious to the secular in this novel—from the symbolic to the realistic, from the connotative to the denotative meaning—is itself part of the "symbolic" content of his work as a whole. Seen in this light, the "matter" of the novel reflects the general transition from a symbolic to a realistic Weltanschauung in Jewish culture as a whole; and the "manner" of the novel is entirely consistent with this process. Thus, Agnon has written a secularized novel, after having witnessed the long process of secularization in Jewish culture.
In the face of this process Agnon's novels nevertheless kept their connotative richness, and his readers came to expect symbolic material which they could interpret in a variety of ways. And now, as well, commentators have continued this many-sided interpretation of Agnon; they have hurried to point out that the name of the heroine, Shira, means "poetry" in Hebrew, while the name of the hero, Herbst, means "autumn" in German. There is also a Weltfremd, German for "alien to the world," as well as a Wechsler, German for "money-changer" or "one who produces changes." Yet the fact that commentators must latch onto such obvious symbols points to the breakdown of a deeper symbolic orientation in general culture. It is exactly this breakdown which Agnon seems to have made one of his main themes in a novel which departs entirely from his symbol-filled writing….
[In] all his novels before Shira, the surface story provided a key to a wider perception of a totality of life, a symbolic perception greater than that carried by the narrative. In Shira the motifs are confined in their meaning to the particular event or anecdote, and they do not permeate the book as a whole. This is exactly what one would expect, since the world he describes is a world lacking any transcendent or pervasive meaning. His Jerusalem (like his protagonist) is a secular city in a secular world, a world having to search for a meaning within itself. But this search can proceed only if this world believes that its past is truly dead and that it therefore must look within itself in its present….
[In Shira, the] religious theme involves a change in character; but in the secular theme, the character is merely thrown against himself, he never comes out of himself and therefore remains unchanged. The theme of love, so rich with symbolic meaning in Agnon—in Agunoth God is the male figure weaving a relationship with the female Israel—is here reduced to a physical level which is meaningless not only to the characters but also to the reader. The love of Herbst and Shira only accentuates their loneliness.
The novel is much more significant as the last work of a great writer than it is as a work on its own terms. Considered on its own, it loses its breath and momentum as well as the causal connectedness expected in a novel. Viewed, however, as Agnon's last statement, it expresses his realization that the Westernization of Judaism represents its decline as a living, generative, and ever-meaningful spiritual power.
Gila Ramras-Rauch, "'Shira': S. Y. Agnon's Posthumous Novel," in Books Abroad, Vol. 45, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 636-38.
Sippur Pashut (A Simple Story) is … set in Galicia in the declining world of Eastern European Jewish life [of about 1910].
The broad outlines of the story are indeed quite simple, although the novel is far more complex in its symbolic structure, character development, and potential "levels of meaning." A seventeen-year-old boy, Hirshel Horowitz, is trapped between the values of his bourgeois parents, Baruch Meir and Tsirel Klinger Horowitz, and his own spiritual needs in the changing world. The novel treats the conflicts and resolutions which grow out of his situation. Galician society of 1910 decreed that Hirshel would marry the respectable Minah Tsiemlich (meaning "so so") instead of the night blooming Blumah Nacht, whom he truly loves and who represents eros and freedom as well as personal fulfillment. The forced marriage and its implications for Hirshel's freedom contribute to what really amounts to a nervous breakdown which Agnon perceives in metaphysical terms. Hirshel's cure is coupled with his return to society, acceptance of his "so so" wife, and the regeneration of a new family. Hirshel strives throughout the novel to "correct his attributes" by breaking away from his family and establishing an independent ground of operation, and thus the conclusion of the novel is a surprise and, indeed, a disappointment. He rejects his idealistic gropings and settles down into the family business, inheriting his grandfather's store in the same way that he inherited a family curse, another cause of his mental disturbance.
For Agnon, no less than for Shakespeare, human events have metaphysical implications, and an incorrect marriage reflects a state of the universe, just as fixing what is wrong in the world has possible messianic implications. The time is definitely "out of joint" in Shibbush, Hirshel's town; something is rotten there, though the narrator hides the rottenness under layers of irony. The name "Shibbush" in Hebrew means something like "malfunction" and seems to be a distortion of the name of Agnon's own hometown, Bucacz.
A debate has been conducted around this novel with regard to the narrator's feelings about Hirshel's resolution. Scholars have suggested the levels of irony within the story; on the one hand, Hirshel's capitulation to bourgeois norms is disgusting, but on the other, it seems to be the only resolution. Is Hirshel to be scorned for having given up his ideals? Or is the world unfixable, in which case his capitulation is not only tolerable but appropriate? A line which appears throughout the novel is the narrator's assurance that "the bourgeoisie are the essence of the world"; and while the line strikes a biting tone each time it is said, one cannot help but feel that Agnon meant it in the most literal sense….
Setting enriches the problems of Sippur Pashut by adding layer upon layer of paradox to an already paradoxical and ambiguous world. Agnon is always implying that things are not what they seem. He means this, also, quite literally….
Sippur Pashut is in part a novel of manners and morals,… and Hirshel's emotional disorder and subsequent "adjustment" is directly related to his ability or inability to "belong" to that setting in which those manners and morals find expression. The settings are rarely metaphoric in nature, rather they operate as extensions of the protagonist. The social environment yields synecdochic details which contribute to the recurring motifs that take the story beyond its social levels. As a novel in which social environment plays such a great part, Sippur Pashut is replete with rich descriptions of setting…. A consideration of varying aspects of setting will demonstrate that setting is used not to clarify the status of the protagonist, but to complicate it….
Agnon uses his setting to maximum advantage, without forcing the reader to be aware of the importance of the role of setting within the novel. He creates metaphor, metonymic settings, and synecdochic details; often the detail becomes symbolic of Hirshel's changing personality at a given time. Setting in the novel is central to the descriptions of Hirshel's efforts to draw near to and away from his social surrounding…. The vacillating hostility and friendliness of a variety of settings suggests that Hirshel really belongs nowhere. His residence in Shibbush may be uncertain in the same ambiguous and paradoxical way in which setting (and indeed the entire universe) is treated throughout the novel.
William Cutter, "Setting as a Feature of Ambiguity in S. Y. Agnon's 'Sippur Pashut'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 3, 1974, pp. 66-79.