S. Y. Agnon 1888—1970
(Born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes) Austro-Hungarian-Israeli novelist, short story writer, and poet.
The following entry provides criticism on Agnon's works from 1975 through 2003.
Agnon was known for his ironic and lyrical fiction, based largely on Hebrew folklore and tradition.
Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in Buczacz, Galicia (then Austria-Hungary, now Poland) 17 July, 1888. His father, a rabbi, taught him the Talmud and Hasidic literature, along with secular Hebrew and Yiddish writings, while his mother recited German stories. His love for literature led him to publish stories in Hebrew and Yiddish while still a teenager. In 1908 he settled in Palestine, but was rejected both by the Russian-Jewish population and the new settlers who prized manual labor above intellectual rigor. Agnon took his pen name, which later became his legal name, from the title of his first published story, “Agunot,” which was published in Jaffa, Israel, in 1909. “Agnon” is based on a Hebrew word meaning abandoned or forsaken. In 1912 he settled in Germany, finding a more comfortable life there for around twelve years and forming friendships with well-known Zionists. In 1919 he married Esther Marx, with whom he had two children. Agnon became well known among German Jews and achieved literary success when his Hebrew works were translated into German. He also built a notable collection of ancient Hebrew manuscripts and was devastated in 1924 when a fire in his home destroyed them, along with his personal manuscripts. Agnon then returned to Palestine, settling in Jerusalem. In 1929 his personal library was again destroyed by fire when Arabs rioted in the city. Agnon won the Israel Prize in 1954 and the Nobel Prize in 1966. He died in 1970.
Agnon was virtually unknown to Western readers until his works began to be translated from Hebrew into English after he won the Nobel Prize in 1966. Unlike many other modernist Jewish writers of his era, he emphasized original folk sources and dwelled on the lessons of the Torah. His earlier short stories and novellas concerned Jewish life in Eastern Europe, but after his immigration in 1924 until his death, he wrote almost exclusively about life in Palestine. Agnon's work has been compared to that of Cervantes and Kafka in its air of mystery and its imaginative power. His short stories are remarkably diverse, some magical fables, some accounts of modern-day alienation and exile. Others attempt to deal with the ways Judaism has survived throughout history in periods of political turmoil. His first successful work was a novella, Ve-Hayah he-'Akov le-Mishor (1912; And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight). After the manuscript for his first novel was destroyed in a fire, he produced Hakhnasath Kallah (1931; The Bridal Canopy), a novel set in the eighteenth century about a Jewish man who travels about seeking dowries for his daughters. While continuing to write short fiction, he published the novel Sipur Pashut (1935; A Simple Story), an account of the development of a psychosis and its ultimate cure. Ore'ah Nata Lalun (A Guest for the Night) appeared in 1937 and in 1945, Tmol Shilshom (Only Yesterday). The former novel, a comment on the waning spirit of European Judaism, was written just before World War II; the latter is a picaresque and imaginative story set in Jerusalem, told from the point of view of a dog whose astute social and political commentary exceeds that of most his human counterparts. Bi-levav Yamim (1948; In the Heart of the Seas: A Story of a Journey to the Land of Israel), which follows a group of Jews in their journey from Galicia to Palestine, was followed by Edo ve-Enam (1950; Edo and Enam), a tale of the supernatural. Shirah (Shira), posthumously published in 1971, is a story of a bourgeois German exile in 1930’s Palestine who seeks an escape from the conformity of his life. Several editions of Agnon's short stories and a collection of his poetry also were published after his death.
Critical discussion of Agnon’s work has truly been what one commentator called an “industry.” Agnon's multifaceted writings, concurrent with the growth of Hebrew as an accepted language in American and British universities, have also substantially increased interest in literature in modern Hebrew. The wealth of Hebrew and German criticism during Agnon's earlier career presaged a still-growing American and British critical following, encouraged by scholarly journals such as the Hebrew Annual Review, Judaism, and Prooftexts. Early English-language Agnon critics, such as Arnold Band, used New Critical and comparative literature approaches or discussed the dilemmas of relating modern Jewish culture to the past. From the late 1970s through the early 2000s, critical approaches to Agnon came in what eminent Agnon scholar Alan Mintz called “a polyphony of voices,” following the general trends of scholarly inquiry. Gershon Shaked and other critics emphasized the rich intertextuality of Agnon's fiction, which has provided a rich vein for further critical analysis. A variety of approaches to Agnon's work, including poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, postcolonialist theory, reader-response criticism, and feminist criticism, have developed among Agnon scholars. The close text-centeredness most Agnon critics embrace, Mintz says, suggests “the hovering spirit of classical Jewish learning.”