S(hmuel) Y(osef) Agnon’s classic A Simple Story, first published in Hebrew in 1935 as Sipur pashut, is now available for a wider audience in Hillel Halkin’s lucid English translation. For this Schocken edition, Halkin also contributes an insightful afterword, partly to provide for the general reader useful background information to the novella, partly to analyze Agnon’s complex treatment of theme and structure. However simple the story appears to be, the work rewards close and careful attention. Like other fiction by the 1966 Nobel Prize-winner, this novella also re-creates the lost world of early twentieth century Jewish life. In general, Agnon’s work is—at least superficially—nostalgic, conservatively religious, often moralistic. On a deeper level, his fiction treats a quest for values in a once-static society slowly disintegrating or changing because of modern pressures. As such, A Simple Story, like Days of Awe (1938), A Guest for the Night (1939, 1950), or The Bridal Canopy (1931), should be read not merely as an old-fashioned narrative depicting a bygone age but also as an ambiguous moral parable that concerns the human soul in turmoil.
From the point of view of an obtrusive narrator, a native of Galicia wise and tolerant concerning the foibles of men and women in love, Agnon tells a simple tale that grows ever more complex and meaningful. He begins with the fortunes of Blume Nacht, an attractive, clever, and industrious young woman who, as a penniless orphan, arrives at her cousin’s home in Szybusz, a Jewish shtetl in southern Poland. Baruch Meir Hurvitz and his shrewd wife, Tsirl, look the girl over, decide that she might well serve as a maid in the household to earn her modest keep, but their only son, Hirshl, looks at the girl with deeper appreciation. In time he falls in love with her, but—too inexperienced in the ways of the world to approach Blume—he allows fate to take control of his romance. Hence the shtetl matchmaker, Yona Toyber, works out for the young man a much more promising match—with Mina Ziemlich, from the nearby village of Malikrowik.
Passively, Hirshl allows his parents to prepare for his marriage; passively he courts the equally inexperienced Mina; and passively he weds her. Always he had thought—or perhaps he had hoped—that Blume might intercede for him and that they might run off together. Such things, however, do not generally occur in the village of Szybusz; people follow Jewish traditions, and Hirshl is, if anything, obedient.
Only after his marriage does he show signs of agitation, which swell into revolt against the conventions of married life and finally turn to depression and near madness. Desperate with his unrequited love for Blume, Hirshl strays from his home, suffers an emotional breakdown in the forest, and—through the assistance of his worried family—is placed in the care of the wise Dr. Langsam and committed to a sanatorium. There, allowed time for sleep and the renovation of his frayed nerves, he...
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Agnon’s irony begins with the title of A Simple Story. Nothing in this simple story is as it seems, aesthetically or thematically. Like many of Agnon’s works, it is set in a shtetl in Galicia during the first decade of the twentieth century. Bluma Nacht is orphaned and taken to Shisbush, where her aunt, Tsiril Horovitz, and her uncle, Baruch Meir Horovitz, take her in but require that she serve as their maid. Bluma is a romantic figure, an unconstrained spirit. Heartbreak complicates the plot when Hirshel Horovitz, Bluma’s cousin and in spirit her direct opposite, falls in love with her. Socially awkward and especially inept at romance, Hirshel is railroaded into a marriage with Minnah Tzeimlich, someone more appropriate to his station. Even this triangle seems simple compared to what is revealed when Bluma leaves the Horovitz household and goes to work for Akavia Mazal, who had, earlier in life, also been kept from marrying his love for economic reasons as had, incidentally, Baruch Meir Horovitz and Bluma’s mother, Mirel.
Just as Hirshel could not oppose his mother and the matchmaker, so he cannot assert control over anything else in his life. Like the other characters, he does not have the religious faith of the world of The Bridal Canopy. Things are done in certain ways merely because that is the way they are done. Empty ritual provides no meaning. His frustration is turned inward, and he descends into madness, as have others...
(The entire section is 465 words.)