Study Guide

Shmuel Yosef Agnon

by Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes

Shmuel Yosef Agnon Essay - Agnon, S(hmuel) Y(osef) (Vol. 14)

Agnon, S(hmuel) Y(osef) (Vol. 14)


Agnon, S(hmuel) Y(osef) 1888–1970

Born Shmuel Yosef Tchatsky in Buczacz, Galicia (formerly Austria-Hungary; now Poland), Agnon settled in Palestine (later Israel) in 1924 and remained there until his death. Agnon found the material for his fiction, which possesses an ironic, lyrical quality, in ancient Hebrew folklore. He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, the first Israeli and the first author writing in Hebrew to receive this award. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

Dan Jacobson

["Betrothed"] has some moments of lyrical description and of direct psychological notation which are immediately successful. Yet we are absolutely compelled—by the deliberate insubstantiality of its central events and characters, by its studied narrative disjunctions, and by the author's own interpolated comments—to take it allegorically….

[Reading] Agnon's tales one feels that anything can happen next; and that the author fully intends that the secret of why one thing happens rather than another should remain his own….

Confronted with a series of riddles to which I have no key, I am bound to suspect that my not having the key is the very point of the stories: that they are essentially fables about the universal failures in communication between God and man, and among men. This interpretation would perhaps be confirmed by what one knows of Agnon's passionate attachment to the Talmudic tradition, to the many centuries of devotional writing and study which came to a catastrophic end with the destruction of East European Jewry. In English his work hardly has the power to make us realise anew what that destruction must have meant to the author. But his Hebrew is, I believe, closely packed with evocations of the past; and it may well be that these constant echoes go a long way towards providing the ballast of common experience, the burden of necessity, for which the reader of his fantasies in any other language looks in vain.

Dan Jacobson, "Two Views of Agnon: I. Dan Jacobson," in New Statesman (© 1966 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 72, No. 1865, December 9, 1966, p. 877.

Naomi Shepherd

[Agnon] is a writer of startling and total originality, resembling other Hebrew writers of the century almost as faintly as he does his European contemporaries.

He draws on vast knowledge of Jewish tradition—that of the commentaries and homilies of the Talmud and the folklore of the Hasidim. His use of their language, their dialectic, their rhetoric, is deliberately imitative, but the ends to which he turns this tradition are entirely his own. Though highly allusive, his prose style is simplicity itself. His range is enormous….

Agnon is not a historical novelist in the accepted European sense: he writes of the last century partly from hearsay, from a kind of folk knowledge passed down from one generation of Jews to another. Nor is he entirely an elegist of a past age, for he can subject the past to satiric appraisal. Nor is he a moralist, though he uses the moralist's voice as a stylistic device. Much of his subject-matter would seem to indicate that he is a religious writer: but his intensely distinctive tone—a combination of the false-naive and the ironical—immediately sets him apart from the writer whose view of the world is dictated by his religious beliefs. His is certainly that recognisable Jewish irony which meets disaster with argument, seeking to reconcile the glories of the divine promise with the realities of the Jewish predicament.

No European writer has expressed more powerfully...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Arnold J. Band

When we assemble the major motifs found in [Agnon's early] Yiddish poems, we are struck by the similarity between them and the major motifs of Agnon's mature works: the struggle with the devil; violent deaths; the failure of religious ritual to inspire the worshiper; the pervasive sensation of decay in the buildings as opposed to the vitality of the natural world outside; the self-consciousness of the creative artist; the love poems; the deep concern with the destiny of the Jewish people. The inescapable fact is that the kernel of much of Agnon's thematic preoccupation is found in these Yiddish poems. (p. 35)

Not all young Agnon's attempts at prose narrative were successful. At times the didactic message is too obvious, and at times the end of the sketch is painfully artificial. And yet, he already knew how to vary his narrative technique, at times with a "philosophic" preface …, at times with a monologue …, at times by a situation that becomes intelligible only via flashback, and so on. His forte is neither the description of landscape, nor the external features of his characters, nor psychological detail, but rather human actions, comic or tragic, sublime or ridiculous.

Here already are the ironic tone and structured situation that are salient characteristics of the mature writer. (p. 43)

The Hebrew version [of Agnon's stories] is invariably shorter and presents the plot action in balder form than the Yiddish. He obviously possessed much greater mastery over the Yiddish, which flows effortlessly and melodiously. The Yiddish always conveys a sensuous delight in language for its own sake, which is absent from the Hebrew; in Yiddish the imagery is richer, the verbs more intense, the adjectives more varied than in the Hebrew version. The achievement in prose composition evident in the Yiddish is so superior to that in the Hebrew that one wonders why [Agnon] ceased writing in Yiddish, but continued in Hebrew. Surely only a sentimental or idealistic attachment to Hebrew, the language of the national revival, is the explanation. (p. 49)

Following the Yiddish stories chronologically it is possible to discern a steady growth in mastery of narrative technique from story to story, culminating in the most fascinating of all [Agnon's] literary creations in Buczacz, "Toitentants" ("Dance of Death"). The story really does not comprise a narrative unit (it falls into three distinct sections) but more than makes up for its structural flaw by the force and virtuosity of each part. In addition to pure literary interest, the story is an invaluable historical document for charting the writer's development. (p. 52)

[The opening of "'Agunot" ("Agunot"), 1908] is one of the most famous in Agnon's works, not only because of its historical interest as the first paragraphs printed under the name 'Agnon,' but also because it presents the central cluster of themes in the artist's imagination. The deeds of the Jewish people are a lovely thread that the Lord weaves into a resplendent prayer shawl of grace in which the congregation of Israel wraps itself. This prayer shawl shines even in the lands of exile as it did in the house of the Lord in the royal city of Jerusalem, and when He notices that it has not been sullied or befouled, He nods His head approvingly: Thou art beautiful, my beloved, thou art beautiful. "And this is the secret of the greatness and the might and the exaltation and the true love that every Jew feels." But when the thread breaks, the shawl is blemished and evil winds penetrate within, tearing it; immediately all are ashamed, realizing that they are naked. Then the congregation of Israel wanders grieving and moaning, love-sick like the Shulamite of the Song of Songs. This love sickness for the Lord can be cured only if a spirit descends from on high stirring men to good deeds that repair the lovely thread of grace.

Drawing its metaphorical relationship from the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, wherein Solomon becomes the Lord and the Shulamite becomes the congregation of Israel, the midrash adds substance to the abstract relationship of love by injecting the image of the thread and the prayer shawl. Agnon, in turn, carries the process one step further by spinning an attractive tale around the midrash, which immediately gives his tale a cosmic dimension by establishing a meaningful correlation between human action and human destiny and by raising a simple love story to a commentary on the human condition. It is crucial to concentrate upon this point, whether we call it a technique of composition or an intuitive imaginative grasp of reality, since the midrashic resonance gives body to so many of Agnon's stories and the midrashic method of homiletical expansion automatically induces him to think symbolically, to grasp abstracts through realistic objects and situations and, conversely, to infuse the tangible with transcendental meaning.

Inasmuch as the implication of the cited midrash is general and universal, that is, human strength, happiness, and love are predicated upon divine grace which is predicated, in turn, upon human deeds, the narrative possibilities are virtually infinite; secondary themes can be added and the initial theme of "the broken thread" can also be subordinated to other themes. In "'Agunot" the midrashic theme is injected into a love situation and is itself suffused with religious mystery. (pp. 58-9)

["'Agunot"] is a tale of disembodied souls doomed to be tragically anchored to that which they desire but apparently cannot obtain. That this romantic theme pulsates through a traditional, religious world that theoretically and historically held human experience together in a meaningful fabric, only serves to intensify the sense of alienation and to rend asunder the fabric, the "prayer shawl," of religious life. The void in the human soul immediately transcends the specifically Jewish situation in that it concerns first and last the human soul, which we accept as universal. (p. 60)

To many of Agnon's most devoted readers the stories that appeal the most are those called folktales or legends. It is statistically true that a major portion of Agnon's literary output is usually classified under the generic rubric Folktale, yet, the term folktale is by no means clear or precise and often signifies only external qualities. Broadly speaking, Agnon's folktales have as their milieu the community of pious Jews of either Eastern Europe (mostly Galicia) or the old yishuv in Palestine; the frame of reference is understood to be the world of traditional Jewish life, overseen by an almighty divinity identified as the God of Jewish history, and governed by talmudic law and accepted norms of behavior. The folktale we usually encounter in Hebrew literature since the 1880's is not the creation of naïve pious Jews, but rather of sophisticated urban writers who had experienced the milieu of the folktale as children, but had left that milieu for the city. The folktale therefore becomes a framework for various types of tales; its generic implication is often only external. (pp. 78-9)

[To this day the novelette "Vehaya he'akov lemishor" ("And the Crooked Shall Become Straight"), 1912] stands out as one of Agnon's greatest successes, a work that required but minor editing in later years…. If the story was written in four days, as Agnon claims it was, it was a prodigious literary feat. This is the first of Agnon's stories that evoke that "shock of recognition" the reader must feel as he stands in the presence of a great work of art. (p. 83)

More than any other story of this period, "Vehaya he'akov lemishor" utilizes the "new wine in old bottles" technique first tried successfully in "'Agunot"; within the framework of what seems to be a traditional folktale with conventional characteristics, Agnon tells a story that implies values and sentiments utterly different from those ordinarily conveyed by the folktale. An inner tension is therefore created between the plot and the genre in which it is contained. (p. 86)

The narrative technique displayed in the description of the decline of Menashe Hayim at the fair at Lashkovits, and in the moving passage leading up to the discovery that his wife had remarried, is remarkable and has rarely been equaled in Hebrew prose. The significant details are so deftly arranged and controlled that the reader is beguiled into the acceptance of an artistic illusion so convincing that even the constant deliberate intrusions of the writer with deliberately naïve remarks reminiscent of the Hebrew and Yiddish folktale cannot destroy the artistic illusion. The raconteur's ability to charm his audience into the acceptance of the reality of the tale he tells, be it near to or far from the experience of the listener, is unquestionably Agnon's talent and it first manifests itself in overpowering force in this story. (p. 89)

Within the genre of the Agnonic folktale, ["haNidah" ("The Banished One"), 1919] is almost archetypal in that it includes most of the thematic and compositional elements of the other stories of the genre. Great pains are taken to present the folkloristic milieu through which the plot moves; situations rely for their color and causation on the mores of the pious Eastern European community, here called Shibush as it often is in Agnon's stories. Indeed, the plot itself is motivated by the opposition between two distinctly different points of view as to the very nature of life in this milieu. (p. 97)

The suspense of the story is created by the deliberately slow pace in which Agnon works his way to the inevitable tragic ending. Situation by situation we learn more about Gershom, begin to understand him as a person, and consequently watch his steady progress to his doom in sympathy and horror…. The drama of Gershom is played out on two levels. On the metaphysical plane he is doomed because of the curse of Reb Uriel, hence the innocent victim of an ideological clash; on the psychological plane he is victimized by his own hypersensitivity. Both tensions, the metaphysical-ideological and the purely psychological convulse the tranquil folkloristic milieu resulting in the inevitable death….

The cycle of stories published under the rubric ["Polin: Sipure agadot" ("Poland: Legends")] constitutes a representative sample of Agnon's creative activity in the [Berlin period]. (p. 99)

These fourteen stories deal with Jewish life in Eastern Europe in past generations…. (p. 100)

By positing an expanse of historical experience and referring to local customs and places, Agnon succeeds in creating the image of a distinctive community, an image that becomes more and more central to the writer's imagination as the years pass. Indeed, it is important to note that Galicia and its peculiar Jewish folkways became the main focal point of Agnon's imagination precisely when he was living in the metropolitan centers of Germany and when Buczacz was no longer his home. The Jewish community is unquestioningly God-fearing, a basic fact that provides the writer with a ready-made world of mores and values and allows him to slip naturally into a world of fantasy and mystery. (p. 101)

["Bin'arenu uvizkenenu" ("With Our Youth and with Our Aged"), 1920, one of Agnon's most neglected works,] lacks the coherence and universality that make for great satire. Individual chapters, however, are terribly amusing as they shrewdly expose the foibles of life in Buczacz. The point of view, however, is not sustained for the twenty-seven chapters of the satire and too many autobiographical remarks and passages are strewn among the satiric sections, thereby creating a mixed effect. The writer's attitude toward his youthful persona in the story is not consistent. Only rarely does he include himself in the group to be satirized; frequently he is the outsider who is somewhat wiser than his contemporaries but who never has a personality of his own. And finally, even the satiric material is not related to one theme, which would produce a unified effect. The central object of ridicule, the activities of the young Zionists in Shibush (the literary correlative of Buczacz), is often lost amidst tangential matters and does not add up to the comic comment upon ineffectual political action that it purports to be. (p. 121)

Paradoxically, [Hakhnasat kala (The Bridal Canopy)], the first Agnon novel translated into English, is the most alien in atmosphere and style to forms of the novel known to the general reader, and presents the most problems. To one unfamiliar with the Hebrew or Yiddish folktale popular for centuries in Eastern Europe, this novel must seem bizarre; to the Hebrew reader or literary scholar, the novel-like structuring of diverse folktales around several interrelated folk motifs creates numerous questions of interpretation. The internal contradiction is inescapable: the folktale breathes the air of naïveté and ingenuousness while the structuring of a novel implies sophistication and artistic subtlety. (p. 126)

A close reading of the text and a perusal of the critical literature on the novel are more than enough to convince the scholar that the book must be dealt with in terms of ambiguity, parody, and oscillating reality. Unquestionably, the archetype of Don Quixote must be invoked, not for its superficial resemblances to Hakhnasat kala …, but for the narrative modes through which Cervantes set out to parody the chivalric tale. To be successful, a parodist must pay his price to the object of his parody; in entering the spirit of the object, he inevitably adopts some of the characteristics he intends to parody. The closer the parodist is to the object of parody either in temperament, background, or artistic imagination, the more ambivalent will be his attitude toward his object and the more ambiguous his style. Many of the critical problems raised by Hakhnasat kala can be solved if we understand that in this work Agnon identifies with the object of his parody to such a degree that there emerges a remarkably sustained ambiguity that is aesthetically independent and ultimately the most fascinating feature of the book.

Its very name, Hakhnasat kala, is indicative of many of the problems presented by the novel. The English title, The Bridal Canopy, is neither precise nor does it signify the main theme as does the Hebrew; literally, Hakhnasat kala means "bringing the bride under (the bridal canopy)," or, more loosely, "marrying her off according to traditional Jewish practices." (pp. 126-27)

No small part of Agnon's success in this novel and in his other works can be ascribed to his felicitous selection of the family as his dominant metaphor for it was both a living unit suitable for novelistic manipulation and the basic cell of the social and religious organism he was describing…. (pp. 127-28)

The subtitle, too, is significant: in an obviously archaizing method Agnon follows the convention of certain collections of Jewish folktales by adding an amplification of his title: "The wonders of the Hasid Reb Yudel of Brody (Brod, in Hebrew) and his three modest daughters and the account of the greatness of our brethren the children of Israel who reside in the country of his Majesty The Kaiser." The information given is comprehensive and essential. This is a tale of wonders in which the hero believes in miracles and expects them to happen in his life, in which the very climax of the plot is a miracle. (p. 128)

[The] plot presents a challenge to the critic for once one places it within its literary tradition or questions the simplicity and unity of its point of view, the entire plot appears...

(The entire section is 6473 words.)