Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

Shmuel Yosef Agnon (AHG-nahn), corecipient of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature, is considered the leading modern writer in Hebrew. Taken as a whole, his works are sometimes called “the modern Jewish epic.” Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes on July 17, 1888, in Buczacz, a small town in eastern Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His middle-class Jewish parents came from a scholarly Orthodox tradition that Agnon seemed destined to continue. As a child, he was steeped in Jewish folklore and religious teachings, studying in Hebrew school, taking private Talmud lessons, and reading independently in Hasidic literature. His imagination embraced the cozy world of the eastern European shtetl that would become the main subject of his early fiction and a symbolic focus throughout his work.{$S[A]Czaczkes, Shmuel Yosef;Agnon, Shmuel Yosef}

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In 1907, after making his start as a writer in Hebrew and Yiddish (the everyday language of the shtetl), Agnon emigrated to Palestine. He had been active in Zionist circles, and, in his fiction, to “go up to” the land of Israel is the ambition of every pious Jew. In Palestine, he continued to work for Zionist organizations and to write short fiction (henceforth only in Hebrew), first in Jaffa, then in Jerusalem. The idealistic young man from Buczacz apparently found Palestine inspiring, but it was also racked by turbulence, violence, and disorientation. Jewish homeland or not, Palestine was the scene of a confused present that contrasted with the orderly past represented by the shtetl. As such, Palestine formed the other symbolic focus of Agnon’s imagination.

Agnon’s change of surnames marks his suspension between these two places and all they symbolized. His pen surname is derived from his novella Agunot. Agunot is the plural of aguna, a Hebrew word for a woman whose husband has left her without granting a divorce; thus she exists in a marital limbo, neither taken nor available. Metaphorically, her state of suspension suggests any divided spiritual state which one can neither change nor escape. Like an aguna, Agnon was suspended between the two worlds—one dying and the other waiting to be born—represented by the shtetl culture and Palestine. Agnon’s literary mission was to depict, to contrast, and ultimately to bridge those two worlds, using his personal dilemma as a mirror of modern Jewish history.

In 1913, Agnon went to study in Germany, where he was stranded by the outbreak of World War I. Agnon ended up staying in Germany from 1913 to 1924. There he read widely in contemporary European literature, mingled with leading Jewish intellectuals (such as theologian Martin Buber), and gained a patron, Salman Schocken, who became his publisher. He continued to write short fiction that resembled folk tales; he also wrote a number of Kafkaesque stories. He met Esther Marx, whom he married in 1919; they had a daughter, Emuna, born in 1921, and a son, Hemdat, born in 1922. When their Homburg home burned in 1924, destroying Agnon’s valuable collection of books and manuscripts plus an unfinished novel, Agnon and his family moved to Jerusalem.

In the following decade, Agnon produced his long comic masterpiece The Bridal Canopy and a novella in a similar vein, In the Heart of the Seas. Set in the small towns and villages of Galicia around 1820, The Bridal Canopy tells the picaresque story of a pious but poverty-ridden Hasid, Reb Yudel Nathanson, who is on a quest to raise dowries and find husbands for his three ripe daughters. Various commentators, including the Nobel Prize Committee, have referred to The Bridal Canopy as a Jewish version of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605), complete with a Sancho Panza in Nuta, Reb Yudel’s wagon driver. Besides Cervantes, Agnon’s narrative technique here characterized by verbal play, joking, gossip, folklore, scriptural exegesis, rabbinical argument, and short stories embedded within the larger story also recalls such early masters as François Rabelais and Laurence Sterne. One could hardly find a more entertaining celebration of the old shtetl culture.

Even as Agnon was writing this celebratory work, he was forcibly reminded of the shtetl culture’s demise. In 1929, Agnon toured Galicia, and out of his disillusioned return to his hometown came, years later, the novel A Guest for the Night. This bleak, autobiographical novel shows the destruction of the shtetl culture after World War I plus the destruction of one of Agnon’s symbolic focuses. Thereafter, his unhappiness expressed itself as growing alienation from a modern world severed from its spiritual roots, a feeling no doubt intensified by the Holocaust (which Agnon does not treat in his writings). This sense of spiritual impotence prevails in his later work, such as the novellas in Two Tales. In A Guest for the Night and later works, the shtetl culture lingers over Agnon’s work only as a ghost: an implied contrast and a symbol of longing.

Agnon’s talent as a writer was recognized early in Jewish circles and later honored repeatedly by the state of Israel. An official sign admonishing quiet, agnon is writing was posted in his Jerusalem neighborhood, and he was accorded a state funeral when he died of a heart attack in 1970. Agnon’s work also has universal appeal. He offers particular insight into the tortured turns of modern Jewish culture and history, but these turns have various types of significance for the rest of the world. For example, Agnon’s “modern Jewish epic” has close parallels with the depiction of Appalachian culture in the United States by such writers as novelist Harriette Arnow and poet Jim Wayne Miller. Agnon thus provides another installment of a great modern theme, the development from a traditional society (ordered, religious) to a modern society (confused, secular), and his images of spiritual loss have universal significance.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 296

Shmuel Yosef Agnon derived his pen name from the novella Agunot, which he published in 1909. He was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes, the eldest of the five children of Shalom Mordecai and Esther Czaczkes. From his father, an ordained rabbi and merchant with whom he studied Talmudic commentaries, he learned Hebrew scholarship; from his mother, he gained an appreciation of German literature. He had no formal education beyond six years in private hadarim and a short period at the Baron Hirsch School, although he was given honorary doctorates by the Jewish Theological Seminary (1936) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1959). In 1903, when only fifteen, he had his first poems published. At eighteen he moved to Lvov to work on a newspaper. In 1908, he became the first secretary of the Jewish court in Jaffa, Palestine, and Secretary of the National Jewish Council. After two years in Jerusalem, he moved to Berlin, where he taught, wrote, and met his future publisher. Salman Schocken tried from 1916 to 1928 to have his friend’s stories printed and gave him an annual stipend so he could continue writing. Finally, Schocken founded his own publishing firm, which he moved to Tel Aviv in 1938 because of the outbreak of World War II. He opened a New York branch in 1945. Agnon married Esther Marx on May 6, 1919. When his home in Germany burned down in 1924, he lost not only his library of some four thousand volumes but also his seven-hundred-page manuscript of an autobiographical novel called “Eternal Life.” Agnon returned to Jerusalem in 1924. From 1950 to 1970, he was president of the society for the publication of ancient manuscripts; he was also fellow of the Bar-Ilan University. Agnon died after suffering a heart attack on February 17, 1970. Some eighty-five of Agnon’s works have been published in translation in eighteen languages.

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