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||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 (now 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 also given a traditional education. He studied in his youth the Talmud under the tutelage of his father and a local rabbi. 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. Thanks to his mother, he also became interested in German literature. At the age of eight Agnon wrote both Hebrew and Yiddish. His first poems, written 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). Agnon lived in Germany
throughout World War I. He served as a research assistant to scholars,
and helped to found the journal Der Jude
(The Jew). During this period he met the businessman Salman Schocken,
who became his lifelong 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 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. During an Arab uprising in 1929, Agnon lost again his home
and library, this time in Talpiyot. 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.
Agnon's large novel, an allegory on the decline of the Jewish religious life in Poland, Hakhnasath Kallah
(The Bridal Canopy), came out in 1931. 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.
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. The author constantly revised his works. 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 during World War Two.
"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," his hometown, and forebodings about the future of Jewish life in Europe. The work was inspired by a brief journey the author made to his birthplace.
Agnon's greatest novel is generally considered Temol shilshom (1945, The Day Before Yesterday). The story, which is set in the period of the second aliyah,
the wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine between 1907 and 1913,
anticipated the emergence of Israel out of the Holocaust. 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. Noteworthy, Agnon never directly discussed
the Holocaust in his fiction, 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. In the story the narrator flees from enemies with his daughter to the city. In a courtyard fire burns her daughter's dress and she trembles from cold. The father has nothing to cover her and he asks clothing from his friend, Reb Alter, a religious leader. He 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."
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.
In 1962 the city of Jerusalem made him an honorary citizen, and 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)
During his career as a writer, Agnon collected a vast amount of
documents and materials of his town. Emunah Yaron compiled the book, a
collection of texts that alternated between ethnography and story,
after her father's death. It was
published under the title 'Ir umelo'ah (A
City and Its Fullness) in 1973. Surprisingly, in spite of containing one of Agnon's major novellas, Hamashal vehanimshal (The
Parable and Its Lesson), it
received only a handful of
critical notices. 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) 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 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); Agnon's Story: a Psychoanalytic Biography of S.Y. Agnon by Avner Falk (2018)