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by Bamber Gascoigne

Shmuel (Yosef) Agnon (1888-1970) - pseudonym of Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes

Israeli writer, one of the greatest Hebrew novelists and short-story writers. Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 with Nelly Sachs. Resisting easy classification, Agnon's work represents a fusion of irony, religious storytelling, experimentalism, and surrealism. Agnon explored the subjective and collective experiences of the Eastern European Jews throughout history. He used the traditional religious sources and folklore, blurring later in his works the boundaries of sacred and secular texts. His language was a blend of classic and rabbinic Hebrew and Yiddish revived in a spoken Hebrew.

"I belong to the Tribe of Levi; my forebears and I are of the minstrels that were in the Temple, and there is a tradition in my father's family that we are of the lineage of the Prophet Samuel, whose name I bear." (in the Nobel acceptance speech, 1966)

Shmuel Yosef Agnon was born in Buczacz, Galicia, Austro-Hungarian Empire (today the city is part of Ukraine). In a letter from 1927 to the writer M.E. Zhak he said: "I, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, son of Rabbi Shalom Mordechai [...] was born on Tish'a be'Av in the year 5648 in the holy [Jewish] community of Buczacz in East Galicia." (Agnon's Story: a Psychoanalytic Biography of S.Y. Agnon by Avner Falk, 2018,  p. 167) Later Agnon dropped the Messianic birth date of Tish'a be'Av. His father, who had received rabbinical training, was a fur trader by profession. Agnon was given a traditional education. Under the tutelage of his father and a local rabbi, he studied the Talmud.

From this Eastern European background, that placed the study of Scripture at the center of communal life, Agnon acquired a deep knowledge of the rabbinical texts. Moreover, thanks to his mother, he became interested in German literature. At the age of eight Agnon wrote both Hebrew and Yiddish. His first poems, composed in Hebrew and Yiddish, were published in a newspaper when he was fifteen. However, after leaving Buczacz, Agnon never again wrote in Yiddish.

In 1907 Agnon moved to Jaffa, Palestine, where he served as the first secretary of Jewish Court in Jaffa. He also had other clerical jobs. From the title of his story 'Agunot: A Tale,' printed in Ha-Omer in 1908, Agnon took his name, which became his legal surname in 1924. In 1912 Agnon went to Berlin. There he continued his studies of literature and moved in literary and scholarly circles. His first book, published in 1912 by Yosef Hayim Brenner, was a story entitled 'Ve-Hayah he-Akov le-Mishor' (And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight).

Throughout World War I Agnon lived in Germany. He served as a research assistant to scholars, and helped to found the journal Der Jude (The Jew). During this period Agnon formed a lifelong friendship with the businessman Salman Schocken, his patron and publisher. In Germany Agnon also met and married his wife, Esther Marx, the daughter of a German-Jewish family prominent in Jewish scholarship and Zionist acticities. Together they settled in Homburg. Esther typed up her husband's almost illegible manuscripts and prepared them for publication. Their home was destroyed in a fire in 1925;  Agnon lost his books and the manuscript of an unpublished autobiographical  novel.

Agnon returned in 1924 to Jerusalem, and his family followed soon after. And again, in 1929, Agnon lost his home and library, this time in Talpiyot, in an anti-Jewish riot. Agnon built there a new house, where he lived for the rest of his life. A sign near his home warned visitors to be quiet: a writer at work.

Hakhnasath Kallah (1931, The Bridal Canopy) was an allegory on the decline of the Jewish religious life in Poland. The plot chronicled the travels of a Jewish Don Quixote, Reb Yudel, a Hassidic, who starts to seek a dowry for his daughters in the early 19th-century Europe. Frummet, his wife, has complained: "How much longer, said she to him, will you be as unfeeling as a raven toward your children? Have you no pity for your hapless, hopeless daughters who sit sighing and weeping like wives whose husbands have vanished, an who know not whether they are widowed or not? Why, the girls have all but wept their eyes away and the hair on their head is turning white, yet here you sit like a lump of clay in form of a man, without lifting a finger to marry them off." Yudel's inner, religious world, is at odds with his surroundings. Finally he returns home, and finds a buried treasure, making him into a wealthy man. Nowadays the novel is regarded more complex than merely as a homage to the traditional religious world and a portrait of simple faith in God. Agnon weaves together in the story references to biblical and rabbinic texts, balancing between pious fable and comedic farce.

Agnon constantly revised his works. Kol sipurav shel Sh. Y. Agnon (1931) was the first four volumes of the author's collected works, which was published in much enlarged form in 1966. Sipur Pashut (1935, A Simple Story) a bittersweet romance, was set in the small town of Szybucz, Agnon's fictional name for his hometown of Buczacz. The city's Jews were killed by the Nazis. Simon Wiesenthal, twenty years of Agnon's junior, was also from Buczacz. He used to say that "the people went to bed at night without knowing what uniforms the local policemen would be wearing in the morning – Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, or Austro-Hungarian." (Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends by Tom Segev, 2012, p. 30)

"For a while she lingered in the bed thinking of her mother, who, while sick all her life and barely able to eke out a living, had never asked her cousins for anything. If ever one of the neighbors said to her, "You have such rich relations, why don't you let them know that you exist?" she would reply with a smile, "Do you know what the best thing about rich relations is? That you don't have to support them." (in A Simple Story)

During the early 1930s Agnon's works were widely published in German language editions. When the Nazis closed the Schocken publishing house, the company moved to Tel Aviv, and opened later a branch in New York City, which brought Agnon's works to new readers. Oreah natah la-lun (1938-39, A Guest for the Night) was about Agnon's hometown in Poland following the World War I. It described the spiritual decline that he witnesses, his yearning for restoration of an imagined past in the "shtetl," and forebodings about the future of Jewish life in Europe. The work was inspired by a brief journey the author made to his birthplace.

Temol shilshom (1945, The Day Before Yesterday) is generally considered Agnon's greatest novel. It is set in the period of the second aliyah, the wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine between 1907 and 1913. Agnon contrasts old and new ways of Jewish life and intertwines two plots – a story of Yitzhak Kummer, would-be pioneer, and the wanderings of the dog Balak. Kummer journeys from Europe to Palestine and dies of rabies after being bitten by Balak. The work anticipated the emergence of Israel out of the Holocaust. Noteworthy, Agnon never directly discussed the Holocaust in his fiction; instead he recreated the world that had been destroyed.

The short story 'At the Outset of the Day' appeared three years after the establishment of the State of Israel, and its mood of bewilderment reflects the uncertainty of the future and Agnon's theological doubts. In the story the narrator flees from enemies with his daughter to the city. There fire burns her daughter's dress, she trembles from cold, but father has nothing to cover her. He asks clothing from his friend, Reb Alter, a religious leader and is turned away empty-handed. The story ends in the open courtyard of the Great Synagogue. The father sees the House of Study full of Jews, the doors of the Ark are open. "My soul fainted with me, and I stood and prayed as those wrapped in prayer and ritual gowns. And even my little girl, who had dozed off, repeated in her sleep each and every prayer in sweet melodies no ear has ever heard." Agnon's God was both omnipotent and merciless.

Sefer Hamaasim (1951) was a collection of 21 short stories, in which Agnon used a technique akin to stream of consciousness. Critics have found from these stories connections to the world of Kafka and noted that Agnon and Kafka actually shared the same cultural background – that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To those who have made comparisons with Joyce, Proust, Faulkner, Eliot, and Thomas Mann, Agnon said that his inspiration came mainly from the Scriptures and the sages. ('Agnon, Shmuel Yosef,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 16) In the late 1950s critic Edmund Wilson proposed that Agnon receive the Nobel Prize. The city of Jerusalem made him an honorary citizen in 1962; he came to be regarded as an Israeli national institution.

When the critic Baruch Kurzweil asked Agnon in 1956 what he was currently working on, the answer was: "I am building a city – Buczacz." ('Introduction,' in Ancestral Tales: Reading the Buchacz Stories of S.Y. Agnon by Alan Mintz, 2017, p. 1)  Agnon collected a vast amount of documents and materials of his town. His daughter Emunah Yaron compiled the book, a collection of texts that alternated between ethnography and story, after her father's death. Agnon left her a series of guidelines to put the stories together. The cycle of stories was published under the title 'Ir umelo'ah (A City and Its Fullness) in 1973, the year when the Yom Kippur War broke out. The stories were received with mild intetest, in spite of containing one of Agnon's major novellas, Hamashal vehanimshal (The Parable and Its Lesson).

Acknowledging his statues as a classic author, Alan Mintz has noted, that reading Agnon is not easy. "Even committed and discriminating readers who are native speakers of Hebrew have to deal with many unfamiliar references, especially if they lack a background in the traditional Jewish texts. ('Introduction¨by Alan Mintz, in The Parable and Its Lesson, translated by James S. Diamond, 2014, pp. xi-xii) Amos Oz regarded Agnon as one of his literary mentors, "his sage, subtle, ironic voice helped me, back in my formative years, find my own voice – partly by struggling to free myself from Agnon's linguistic spell." (The Silence of Heaven: Agnon's Fear of God by Amos Oz, 2000, p. vii)

Agnon died of a heart attack on February 17, 1970. He was buried on the Mount of Olives. The unfinished novel Shirah, set in the German-Jewish academic community of Jerusalem, appeared posthumously in 1971. As typical to Agnon's style of writing, he challenges the expectations of the readers in this "latter-day Hebrew reprise of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina". (Agnon's Art of Indirection: Uncovering Latent Content in the Fiction of S.Y Agnon by Nitza Ben-Dov, 1993, pp. 10-11)

For further reading: Masot 'al sipure Shai 'Agnon by Baruch Kurzweil (1962); Nostalgia and Nightmare by Arnold Band (1968); S.Y. Agnon by H. Fisch (1975), The Fiction of S.Y. Agnon by B. Hochman (1970); 'Agnon, Shmuel Yosef,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Shay Agnon's World of Mystery and Allegory by I. Rosenberg (1978); Agnon: Texts and Contexts in English Translation, ed. by Leon Yudkin (1988); Shmuel Yosef Agnon by Gershon Shaked (1989); Between Exile and Return by Anne Golomb Hoffman (1991); Agnon's Art of Indirection: Uncovering Latent Content in the Fiction of S.Y Agnon by Nitza Ben-Dov (1993); Tradition and Trauma, ed. by David Patterson and Glenda Abrahamson (1994); Mar'ot u-mekorot: Mahadurach mu'eret ume'uyeret shel Hakhnasat kaleh le-Sjai 'Agnon by Avram Holtz (1995); Agnon in Jerusalem: A Reminiscence and a Teaching by Herman Wouk (1998); The Silence of Heaven: Agnon's Fear of God by Amos Oz (2000); Agnon and Germany: The Presence of the German World in the Writings of S.Y. Agnon, edited by Hans-Jürgen Becker, Hillel Weiss (2010); Agnon's Moonstruck Lovers: The Song of Songs in Israeli Culture by Ilana Pardes (2013); Me-ohev le-oyev: ʻAgnon meharher ʻal Biyaliḳ = From Friend to Foe: Agnon and Bialik, a Story of an Unpaid Debt by Ziṿah Shamir (2017); Agnon's Story: A Psychoanalytic Biography of S.Y. Agnon by Avner Falk (2018); Be-ʻiḳve ha-av: ʻAgnon - talmido ha-nistar shel Biʼaliḳ = In His Father's Footsteps: Agnon as Bialik's Secret Disciple by Zivah Shamir (2020); Agnon's Tales of the Land of Israel, edited by Jeffrey Saks and Shalom Carmy; foreword by Steven Fine (2021); American Hebraist: Essays on Agnon and Modern Jewish Literature by Alan Mintz; edited by Beverly Bailis and David Stern (2022); Building a City: Writings on Agnon's Buczacz in Memory of Alan Mintz, edited by Sheila Jelen and Wendy Zierler (2023)

Selected works:

  • 'Agunot', 1908 [Forsaken Wives]
  • Ve-hayah he-'akov le-mishor, 1911
  • Giv'at ha-hol, 1919
  • Be-sod yesharim, sipure ma'asiyot, 1921
  • Me-hamat ha-metsik, 1921
  • 'Al kapot ha-man'ul, 1922
  • Ha-nidach, 1923 [The Banished One]
  • Ma'aseh ha-meshulah me-erets ha-kedoshah, 1924
  • Sippure ahawim, 1925
  • Hakhnasath Kallah, 1931 - The Bridal Canopy (translated by I. M. Lask, 1937; revised and amplified 1953)
  • Bi-levav yamin, 1935 - In The Heart of the Seas, 1948 (tr. I.M. Lask, 1948)
  • Sipur Pashut, 1935 - A Simple Story (tr. Hillel Halkin, 1985)
  • Yamim Noraim, 1938 - Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days (edited by S.Y. Agnon, 1948)
  • Sefer, sofer, vesipur, 1938
  • Oreah natah la-lun, 1938-1939 - A Guest for the Night (edited by Naftali C. Brandwein and Allen Mandelbaum, translation  Misha Louvish, 1968)
  • Shevu'at emunim, 1943 - Two Tales: Betrothed & Edo and Enam (translated by Walter Lever, 1966) - Uskollisuuden vala (suom. Jussi Aro, 1966)
  • Temol shilshom, 1945 - Only Yesterday (translated by Barbara Harshav, 2000; with a new foreword by Adam Kirsch, 2018)  
  • Sefer Hamaasim, 1951 [The Book of Deeds]
  • Chemdat, 1952
  • Atem Reitem, 1959 - Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law (commentaries selected by S.Y. Agnon, 1994)
  • Kol sipurav shel Sh. Y. Agnon, 1931-62 (collected works in 11 vol.)
  • Twenty-One Stories, 1970 (edited by Nahum N. Glatzer)
  • Selected Stories of S.Y. Agnon, 1970 (edited by Samuel Leiter)
  • Shirah, 1971 - Shira (afterword by Robert Alter, translation  Zeva Shapiro, 1989; a newly revised translation from the Hebrew by Zeva Shapiro; with an illustrated afterword by Robert Alter; and a newly translated chapter from the author's archive, 2013)
  • 'Ir umelo'ah, 1973 (contains Hamashal vehanimshal) - The Parable and Its Lesson (translated by James S. Diamond; introduction by Alan Mintz, 2014)
  • A Dwelling Place of My People: Sixteen Stories of the Chassidim, 1983 (translated by J. Weinberg and H. Russell)
  • 'Ad henah: sipurim, 1973 - To This Day (translated and with an introduction by Hillel Halkin, 2009)
  • Sefer ha-otiyot, 1983 - Agnon’s Alef Bet: Poems (translated by Robert Friend, 1998)
  • A Book That Was Lost: And Other Stories, 1995 (edited with introductions by Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman)
  • Yafo yefat yamim: Leket mi-tokh sipurav shel Sh. Y. Agnon, 1998 - Jaffa, Belle of the Seas: Selections from the Works of S.Y. Agnon (selection and painting, David Sharir)
  •  Mi-sod hakhamim: mikhtavim 1909-1970, 2002
  • Shira, 2013 (a newly revised translation from the Hebrew by Zeva Shapiro; with an illustrated afterword by Robert Alter; and a newly translated chapter from the author's archive)
  • Two Tales, 2014 (translated from the Hebrew by Walter Lever; newly revised and annotated by Jeffrey Saks ; with an afterword by Robert Alter)
  • The Parable and Its Lesson: A Novella, 2014 (translated and annotated by James S. Diamond; with an introduction and critical essay by Alan Mintz)
  • Only Yesterday, 2018 (translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav; introduction by Benjamin Harshav; with a new foreword by Adam Kirsch)
  • 'Two Chanukah Lamps,' 2023 (translated by Atar J. Hadari, in One for Each Night: The Greatest Chanukah Stories of All Time)

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