S. Y. Agnon

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(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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...

(The entire section is 95,612 words.)