S. Y. Agnon 1888-1970
(Born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes; also transliterated as Josef; wrote under the pseudonym Shmuel Yosef Agnon) Israeli novelist, short story writer, novella writer, editor, and essayist. See also S. Y. Agnon Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism and S. Y. Agnon Contemporary Literary Criticism.
A major twentieth-century author, Agnon was one of two writers to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. Nevertheless, his international fame has been limited by the fact that he wrote primarily in Hebrew and devoted most of his fiction to the consideration of Judaic history, culture, and language. Yet Agnon's underlying commentary on the plight of the individual in the modern world has universal application, highlighting the growing disintegration of community and spiritual faith and the accompanying spread of secular and materialistic values and cultural rootlessness. Furthermore, his skill as a writer is unquestioned: Agnon is highly regarded for his adroit use of modernist literary techniques and exceptional control of language.
Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes on July 17, 1888 in the city of Buczacz in Galicia, an historical region of southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. His father, an ordained rabbi and a fur trader by profession, was an Hasidic Jew who exposed his son to rabbinic texts, the Bible, and Talmud and maintained a family library in which his son spent much time. Agnon attended a small local school, studied privately with a teacher, and also received tutelage in German, which enabled him to read European literature in German translation. In 1906 Agnon became an assistant to the publisher of a small Jewish weekly journal; during the next year or so, a number of his poems appeared in that publication. In 1907, at the age of nineteen, he traveled to Palestine, where he stayed for six years, mainly in the city of Jaffa. There he became first secretary of the Jewish court and secretary of the National Jewish Council. Agnon also published several stories in the newspaper Hapo'el Hatzair. The title of one of these, "Agunot" (1908), was adopted—with slight modification—as his pseudonym.
Agnon departed for Berlin in 1913. At this time Germany was a melting pot of sorts. Agnon observed various Jewish groups coming into contact there, and the culture of persecuted Jews who had immigrated from rural villages in eastern Europe stood in stark contrast to that of the comparatively cosmopolitan German Jews and of Zionists (those Jews who called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine). Agnon was struck by the difference between the Judaism of tradition and that of modern Jews subsumed by secular society. While in Germany, Agnon became friends with the eminent Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem and the businessman Salman Schocken, with whom he shared an interest in old Hebrew books. Schocken served as Agnon's patron, enabling the young author to focus on his writing. Other noted figures with whom Agnon associated while in Germany include the philosopher Martin Buber, the poet Hayyim Bialik, and Ahad Ha'am, a vocal proponent of Zionism. Agnon returned to Palestine in 1924, settling permanently just outside Jerusalem. In 1931 the initial volumes of The Collected Works of S. Y. Agnon were published in Hebrew by Schocken. Agnon continued to live and write in Palestine (officially Israel as of 1948), and eventually became a celebrated figure in his country. In 1966 he received the Nobel Prize along with the German poet and dramatist Nelly Sachs. Agnon died in 1970.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Agnon's stories display striking diversity. His narratives include coming-of-age tales such as "The Kerchief"; magical fables such as "Pisces" and "Buczacz"; unusual love stories such as "Metamorphosis" and "First Kiss"; and accounts of modern alienation such as "A Whole Loaf" and "At the Outset of the Day." Other works, like "The Tale of the Menorah" and "Fernheim," explore the relationship of Judaism to political turmoil and exile. Agnon's stories often have the quality of folk literature and legend but incorporate modern literary techniques and devices such as shifting points of view, wordplay, symbolism, historical allusions, nonlinear narratives, and intermingling of fantasy and reality. Agnon's literary inspiration and allusions are rooted largely in Jewish culture, language, and history. Nitza Ben-Dov has observed that, "Most of Agnon's fictional works are composed of all the many linguistic strata of Hebrew, from the Bible and on through the Mishnah, the Talmud, the midrash, the prayerbook, the medieval Hebrew poets, the rabbinic commentaries, and the Hasidic tales of Eastern Europe." Nonetheless, Agnon was also familiar with the writings of German authors and those of Scandinavian, Russian, and French authors in German translation.
Like Austrian writer Franz Kafka, with whom he is often compared, Agnon occasionally depicted characters rendered ineffectual by vacillation, passivity, or psychological inertia. Employing a version of these themes, "The Face and the Image" tells of a man who is summoned to visit his sick mother but is prevented from doing so by a series of absurd obstacles. Similarly, "To the Doctor" revolves around the device of numerous delays, which in this tale contribute to the death of a sick man. Kafka and Agnon also shared the ability to create surrealistic, dreamlike stories in which the world seems menacing or inhospitable. Agnon's "The Lady and the Pedlar," which contains more atmosphere than plot, is of this mold. As well, many of Agnon's characters, like those of Kafka, suffer from alienation. Nahum N. Glatzer has observed that in Agnon's Kafkaesque stories, "Man is lonely, homeless, in exile; meaning disintegrates, lines of communication break down; there is no exit."
As already suggested, Agnon often focuses on the difficulty of establishing and sustaining relationships. The protagonist of "The Doctor's Divorce" is a doctor (and therefore a man of science trained to rely on reason and objectivity) who cannot dispel the unsubstantiated suspicion that his wife had an affair prior to their marriage. Eventually his inner turmoil brings the marriage to an end, in spite of the doctor's unabating love for his wife. In "The Tale of the Scribe" the main character's holy calling as a scribe of religious texts proves to be incompatible with normal human relationships, or with earthly existence for that matter. The novella Betrothed, which treats the subject of unfulfilled love, tells of a scientist lured away from his betrothed and from Judaism by the temptations of worldliness and modern life.
Agnon is the most accomplished author of fiction to have written in Hebrew. Commentators have attributed part of the subtlety and complexity of his writing to the capacity of that language. According to David Patterson, "The ancient vocabulary of Hebrew is pregnant with associations of all kinds, and the skillful juxtaposition of words and phrases can be made to yield a variety of nuances. Linguistically, as well as thematically, Agnon's writings can be read at different levels." With regard to many foreign-language authors, scholars have debated whether the art of their writing can be sufficiently conveyed in translation. In the case of Agnon, that question has often taken center stage. Noted author Cynthia Ozick observed that, "For decades, Agnon scholars (and Agnon is a literary industry) have insisted that it is no use trying to get at Agnon in any language other than the original. The idea of Agnon in translation has been repeatedly disparaged; he has been declared inaccessible to the uninitiated even beyond the usual truisms concerning the practical difficulties of translation. His scriptural and talmudic resonances and nuances, his historical and textual layerings, his allusive and elusive echoings and patternings, are so marvelously multiform, dense, and imbricated that he is daunting even to the most sophisticated Hebrew readers." Setting aside issues of translation, critics generally agree that Agnon was concerned foremost with the enduring relevance and meaning of Judaism through history. According to Lippman Bodoff, "The struggle to provide and maintain a Jewish identity as the core of Israeli culture, in the face of the chasm in Jewish life opened up by modernity between the self and reason at war with community and faith, is an underlying theme in much of Agnon's work." Agnon saw growing secularity and loss of tradition as threats to Judaism, community, and spiritual piety that would eventually lead to isolation and alienation. Conflicts and oppositions similar to these run throughout the author's works. Bodoff, though speaking specifically about Betrothed, identified a pervading theme in Agnon's fiction, "a battle between Past and Future, Religion and Nature, Spirituality and Science, Hebraism and Paganism, Jewish tradition and Greek and Roman culture, God and Nature . . . ." Agnon's subtlety as an artist is evidenced by the fact that the victor in those battles is not always apparent.