Agnon was recognized as a major literary talent with the arrival of his first Hebrew short story in 1908. He acquired fame, status as a classic writer, and numerous literary prizes in Israel (in 1966, Jerusalem put up a sign on his street: quiet—Agnon is writing). The scarcity of English translations of his works, however, limited his reputation among English-speaking readers, at least until he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966.
Agnon belongs among the late nineteenth century neo-Romantic writers such as Micah Joseph Berdichevsky and Isaac Leib Peretz. Not influenced by Franz Kafka (also a product of that movement), Agnon’s work nevertheless has often been compared to Kafka’s, as Reb Yudel has inevitably been compared to Don Quixote. Critical opinion of Agnon is so varied that he has been labeled as both a traditionalist and a modernist. One of the causes for the confusion is that Agnon developed as a writer over a long literary life, frequently revising his works for later publication. In addition, he donned many public and private masks. These personas fed into critical analysis, especially since much of the raw material for his fiction was drawn from his personal experience and was then extensively reworked, and in fact distorted, by his artistic imagination. In reality, none of his work is in any real sense autobiographical.
Agnon was an individualistic and sophisticated literary craftsman. He was the master of the short story; his few novels are episodic. The quiet, yet lyric and flexible, Midrashic Hebrew style that he adopted is archaic but familiar to modern Hebrew readers and has influenced the development of modern Hebrew. Yet its simplicity in translation may seem lifeless and lose much of its charm, as well as its rich biblical and rabbinic allusions and wordplay.
Several themes recur in Agnon’s works, and critics have debated their meaning. Agnon himself refused to provide any clues, declaring that a writer said all that he had to say in his writings. On one occasion, he went so far as to tell an editor, “I write things simply as they are.” His fantasy intuitively recast reality. To recapture an ideal world is impossible, and turns nostalgia into nightmare; Agnon bridged the ideal and the real worlds through fantasy and his mastery of literary form.