Although it is for his more than two hundred short stories that he has gained worldwide renown, Shmuel Yosef Agnon is also a talented novelist. Three of his novels—Hakhnasat kala (1931; The Bridal Canopy, 1937), Bi-levav yamin: Sipur agadah (1935; In the Heart of the Seas: A Story of a Journey to the Land of Israel, 1947), and Oreach nata lalun (1939, 1950; A Guest for the Night, 1968)—have been published in a twelve-volume set. English translations of his other novels include T’mol shilshom (1945), Sipur pashut (1935; A Simple Story, 1985), and Shirah (1971; Shira, 1989). In collaboration with Martin Buber, he collected Hasidic tales; among his nonfiction works are Yamim nora’im (1938; Days of Awe, 1948), a compilation of learned commentaries on the holidays, and Atem re’item (1959; Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law, 1994). In 1916, he copublished a book of Polish legends, and later he founded and coedited a journal in Berlin.
Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s influence on the development of modern Hebrew literature is unparalleled. His contributions to literature earned the Bialik Prize for Literature in 1934 and in 1950, the Ussishkin Prize in 1950, the Israel Prize for Literature in both 1954 and 1958, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966, shared with German-Swedish poet Nelly Sachs.
Many of the works written by Shmuel Yosef Agnon (AHG-nahn) are available in two comprehensive collections, both titled Kol sippurav shel Shmuel Yosef Agnon. The first volume of the first collection appeared in 1931 in Berlin. The collection included two novels, The Bridal Canopy, parts 1 and 2, and A Simple Story, and three collections of short stories, Me-az ume-’ata (1931; from then and from now), Sipure ahavim (1931; stories of lovers), and Beshuva vanachat (1935; with repentance and joy). This edition was expanded to eleven volumes: Volumes 7 and 8, including the novel A Guest for the Night and a collection of stories, Elu ve’elu (1941; of this and that), were printed in Jerusalem. Volumes 9 through 11, published both in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, included the novel Only Yesterday and two more volumes of short stories, Samukh venir’e (1951; near and apparent) and Ad hena (1952; To This Day, 2008). The second comprehensive collection of Agnon’s work was published in Tel Aviv in eight volumes, seven of them in 1953 and another in 1962.
In addition to his fiction, Agnon published a number of nonfiction works. They include Yamim nora’im (1938; Days of Awe, 1948), an anthology of High Holiday traditions; Sefer, sofer, vesipur (1938; book, writer, and story), excerpts on booklore from various sources; Atem re’item (1959; Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law, 1994), a compilation of rabbinic responsa; and Sifrehem shel tsadikim (1961; tales of the Zaddikim), stories of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. Posthumous publications of Agnon’s works include the two novels Shira and Bachanuto shel Mar Lublin (in Mr. Lublin’s store); three collections of stories, one concerning Agnon’s hometown in Galicia, titled’Ir u-melo’ah (1973; a city and the fullness thereof), and two others, Lifnim min hachomah (1975; inside the wall) and Pitche dvarim (1977; introductions); a book of Agnon’s letters and speeches, Meatsmi el atsmi (1976; from myself to myself); and a work tracing Agnon’s family tree, Korot batenu (1979; pillars of our house). Some of his works have been translated into French, Spanish, and German.
Affectionately known in Israel by the acronym “Shai,” Shmuel Yosef Agnon was during his lifetime, as one critic notes, “uncontestably the dean” of Hebrew letters. He is widely read and almost a household word in Israel but is not as well known to English-speaking audiences. His works, although deceptively simple, are so complex that they do not lend themselves well to translation. He was a prolific writer, the author of more than one hundred tales, yet for many years relatively few of his major works were available in English translation.
Agnon is unique in many respects: He was a religious Jew who wrote fiction rather than biblical commentaries, an intellectual writer who appeals to the simple as well as to the highly sophisticated. Most of his writings appeared in local periodicals, either in Europe or in Israel, prior to their incorporation in the volumes of collected works. In his extraordinary Hebrew prose style, which assimilates biblical phrases and talmudic parables, Agnon insists on a return to Jewish sources. He is an allusive writer who writes with the erudition of his rabbinic background, using the language of the Jewish scholar. His Hebrew is classical rather than modern. Agnon’s works have a timeless, dreamlike, magical quality that takes them beyond the reality he presents. The issues with which Agnon deals are not explicit; they are veiled in layers of symbolism, making his works so elusive that scholars are reluctant to attempt translations. The surface of his fiction, however, is realistic, offering a detailed picture of Eastern European Jewry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Agnon was the recipient of numerous honors and prizes. In 1966, with poet Nelly Sachs, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first time this award was granted to a Hebrew-language writer.
What is the relationship between Hebrew and Yiddish, and what might be the reasons for Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s composing in both languages early in his career?
What is a shtetl and why was this kind of setting suitable for Agnon?
What makes the key an important symbol in A Guest for the Night?
Discuss the effects of unusual points of view in Agnon’s fiction.
How do Agnon’s works illustrate the theme of going home?
Aberbach, David. At the Handles of the Lock: Themes in the Fiction of S. J. Agnon. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. Sets out the major patterns in Agnon’s writing on a work-by-work basis and features discussion of his novels as well as his short fiction. Includes detailed notes and a list of references.
Band, Arnold J. Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Covers Agnon’s literary development text by text and is very useful for the historical background to, and context of, Agnon’s work. Discusses Agnon’s life and his career as a writer and includes both primary and secondary bibliographies, informative appendixes, and a general index.
Band, Arnold J. Studies in Modern Jewish Literature. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003. Anthology of Band’s essays written from the 1960’s to the early twenty-first century includes a section titled “Modern Hebrew Literature” that includes four essays devoted to discussion of Agnon’s work.
Ben-Dov, Nitza. Agnon’s Art of Indirection: Uncovering Latent Content in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. New York: E. J. Brill, 1993. Discusses a number of themes in Agnon’s work; of particular interest is a chapter titled “The Web of Biblical Allusion.” Includes bibliography and index.
Fisch, Harold. S. Y. Agnon. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975. Part of a series on literary greats, this work includes a useful chronology and a brief biography of Agnon’s life. An in-depth discussion of individual writings follows the biographical section. Supplemented by notes,...
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