A Guest for the Night Summary
Initially serialized (1938-1939) in the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha-Arets, A Guest for the Night is a first-person narration of the disappearing world of Galicia and of one individual’s relationship to two places and two times: Shibush and Israel, before and after World War I. On one level an autobiography, the novel grew out of Agnon’s brief visit in 1930 to Buczacz. Like Agnon, the narrator loses home and library and is separated from his family. The story moves beyond autobiography, however, as the narrator describes how World War I has all but ended the old way of life in Galicia. The artfully articulated characters reflect different aspects of the narrator’s perception of his own situation.
He returns to visit Shibush on Yom Kippur. In contrast to what he expected, he finds himself a stranger. Shibush seems very quiet, as if spiritually deserted, bearing the evidence of the ruins of war and of the pogroms that followed. The people he meets are crippled physically and emotionally, including the narrator’s companion, Daniel Bach, whose brother has recently been killed by Arabs near Jerusalem and who has himself seen a corpse, wrapped in a prayer shawl, blown up. In the postwar decay, the scenes in the synagogue are haunting: Because of the war, there are no prayer shawls, no adornment for the sacred scrolls. The entirety of the novel, however, is not so bleak.
Everyone is going to leave Shibush, so the narrator is given the key to the bet midrash (house of study and worship), the only place of wholeness and tranquillity for the narrator. He loses it, replaces it, and, when he uses it to close the bet midrash for the last time, gives the key to the first baby born in Shibush in four or five years. In Israel, the narrator discovers in his suitcase the lost key. A legend states that all Jewish houses of prayer and of study in the Diaspora will relocate themselves in Palestine. When the bet midrash of Shibush relocates, the narrator will be able to enter.
The narrator says to Hanokh, a wagoner, “without the power of imagination the world would not go on living.” Ironically, the narrator’s problem with Shibush is not that it is in decline or that it is ravaged by war, but that he came seeking the Shibush of his imagination—as it was when he was a child, and as it has been constructed in his remembrance. He dreams also the dream of redemption in the Holy Land. In a sense, the people in Galicia, those who remained and those who returned, stopped being able to imagine, and therefore stopped living, while those in the land of Israel had to imagine in order to survive.