Agnon was widely read and was conversant with European novelists; for example, he exalted the virtues of Gustave Flaubert. His prose is crossed with references to Scandinavian, Russian, German, and French literature. The episodic, picaresque style of The Bridal Canopy has brought comparisons to Cervantes’s classic novel Don Quixote. Critics also frequently compare Agnon to Franz Kafka; both possessed the ability to create menacing psychic dreamscapes, and they share the qualities of irony and alienation, though Agnon insisted that he never read Kafka’s work.
Agnon and the Jewish Canon As Agnon claimed in accepting the Nobel Prize, his major source of literary influence was the canon of Jewish literature. The Torah (Jewish Bible), Talmud, Mishnah, and commentaries by Hebrew poets and philosophers such as Moses Maimonides all suffuse his writing. In his book Tradition and Trauma: Studies in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon, critic David Patterson wrote, ‘‘The first impressions of apparent simplicity soon give way to a realization of the overtones, references and allusions arising from the author’s complete familiarity with the whole vast corpus of Hebrew literature. The ancient vocabulary of Hebrew is pregnant with associations of all kinds, and the skillful juxtaposition of words and phrases can be made to yield a variety of nuances.’’ These nuances, found in every passage of Agnon’s stories, make his prose a formidable challenge for translators.
A Folk Modernist More than any other writer, Agnon advanced the idea of creating not only a new literature in Hebrew but a new culture synthesizing eastern European traditions and modern Israeli norms. While living in Germany, Agnon noted the sharp contrast between rural, traditional Jews emigrating from the shtetls and the more cosmopolitan, secular German Jews. As a writer, he could neither discard the religious tradition of Judaism nor shun the realities of modern secular life. He knew that for Jews to negotiate the twentieth century, both would be necessary. Sensing the alien aspects of European culture, he initiated a return to Jewish folk material, to the Hebrew language, and to the ancient sources. His deceptively simple, ironic prose reads as though it had been written long ago. While his stories often have the quality of folk literature, they also incorporate modern literary devices such as shifting viewpoints, nonlinear narratives, and the intermingling of fantasy and reality.
Agnon is widely regarded as the most accomplished author of fiction to have written in Hebrew. He is such a venerated figure in Israel that since 1985, his image has appeared on the fifty-shekel banknote. In 2002, when the National Yiddish Book Centre listed their one hundred greatest works of modern Jewish literature, three of Agnon’s novels occupied the fourth, fifth, and sixth places. In addition, his novels and stories appear frequently as compulsory reading in Israeli schools. Yet, outside Israel, very few readers have even heard of him.
The Problem of Translation The difficulty of getting across in English the full flavor and profundity of Agnon’s prose is certainly a major reason why he has not received the broad, lasting international appreciation given to other modernist giants, despite the Nobel Prize. Commentators have attributed much of the subtlety and complexity of his writing to the Hebrew language itself and its capacity to construct a web of associations. English-speaking literary scholars frequently debate whether translation can sufficiently convey the art of prose written in other languages. In Agnon’s case, that question has often taken center stage. Noted American author Cynthia Ozick observed, ‘‘For decades, Agnon scholars (and Agnon is a literary industry) have insisted that it is no use trying to get at Agnon in any language other than the original.’’ Indeed, his nuances and dense layers of allusion challenge even Hebrew readers.
Little Known in the West Many scholars of Jewish literature have tackled Agnon. Haim Be’er, who wrote a book on the author in 1992, said, ‘‘Agnon is the centre of our cultural discourse. His work is the most frequent subject of Hebrew literary research.’’ Little of his work was translated into English until late in his life. The illustrious American critic Edmund Wilson praised Agnon in 1956, calling publicly for him to be given the Nobel Prize, largely on the strength of The Day before Yesterday. The publication in English of Betrothed, & Edo and Enam: Two Tales in the summer of 1966 coincided with a wave of international critical acclaim for his earlier work that contributed to his winning the prize. Afterward, more of his works were translated; his short fiction was showcased in a volume titled A Book That Was Lost, and Other Stories (1995).
Responses to Literature
1. Using your library resources and the Internet, research the Zionist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a short essay, explain how its values are reflected in the fiction of S. Y. Agnon.
2. Read several of Agnon’s short stories and focus on the theme of community. How does Agnon convey what is special about the Jewish community? Why is the community in danger of disintegration?
3. Read the short story ‘‘Pisces’’ from A Book That Was Lost, and Other Stories. Discuss how Agnon’s use of magic realism, folklore, humor, and irony contribute to the story.
4. Agunot is the term applied to women who have been abandoned by their husbands and are left in a state of limbo since they cannot remarry. Based on the story ‘‘Agunot,’’ why do you think Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes took the pen name Agnon?
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