December 10, 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of S.Y. Agnon’s 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature, the only such honor ever bestowed upon an Israeli writer. Major anniversaries often occasion a retrospective assessment. How, then, has Agnon’s fiction fared since his Nobel honor?
To be sure, Agnon lives on in Israeli cultural and academic circles. All over the country this month, the Agnon Jubilee is being celebrated, with a major conference at Bar Ilan University, performances at the Cameri Theatre, lectures at Beit Agnon in Talpiot, and a special event at the Knesset dedicated to the role of Agnon’s fiction in the Israeli educational system. Still, for many secular Israelis, conversant in modern Hebrew but untutored in the many layers of the Jewish textual tradition to which Agnon so copiously alludes, Agnon’s writing remains elusive and obscure.
In a New York Times article published the day after Agnon received his prize, poet Yehuda Amichai commented on Agnon’s throwback allure: “Agnon’s Hebrew is not the modern, spoken Hebrew of Israel today…It is as if someone wrote in the style of the King James version of the Bible. Yet, he has a strange appeal to modern young people, of both existential and intellectual persuasions, and to old religious people.”
Agnon’s appeal indeed endures for that slice of the Orthodox community that remains open to the goals of literature but is also fully conversant in traditional sources. At the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, Agnon received a Hebrew scroll from Yeshiva University addressed to R. Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Shlit”a (an honorific Hebrew acronym usually reserved for rabbis): “The Nobel prize that crowns the majesty of your work in the realm of the temple of Hebrew literature is a prize for all of Israel in every place.” This praise for Agnon’s literary service in the “temple of Hebrew literature” must have pleased the writer, who referred in his Nobel acceptance speech to a dream in which he was “standing with [his] brother Levites in the Temple, singing with them the songs of David.” As for the scroll’s additional claim that Agnon had “opened wide horizons of new life to many Jews in America and awakened their hearts to see the light of Judaism and the genius of its literature”—not so much. Nowadays few American Jews, Orthodox or secular, read his books.
All of this might have been predicted. From the very outset of his career, Agnon (1888-1970) was an oddball modernist, a “revolutionary traditionalist,” in the words of Professor Gershon Shaked, pious but skeptical, cosmopolitan but with deep roots in the traditional Beit Midrash. Born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in the Galician town of Buczacz, he immigrated to Palestine in 1907 and settled in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Jaffa, where he achieved literary acclaim but remained decidedly out of step both with the ethos of the Second Aliyah and with Old Yishuv in Jerusalem. The pen-name Agnon derives from “Agunot,” the first story the young writer published in Palestine, a richly allusive tale about mismatched marriage, misunderstood art, and a failed experiment of settling the land of Israel. That the Zionist Agnon chose to name himself after a story of failed settlement in Zion is a key to the kinds of irony, ambivalence, and Kafkaesque alienation that pervade his fiction.
Agnon’s “Agunot,” which ends with its characters departing Jerusalem for the diaspora, augured Agnon’s own future. In 1912, Agnon himself left Palestine for Germany where he lived until 1924, until finally resettling with his wife and children back in Jerusalem. In life as well as art, exile provided fertile soil for the young writer. It was in Germany that Agnon met his lifelong patron and publisher, Salmen Schocken. And it was in writing about exile that Agnon made his distinctive literary mark.
According to the Nobel committee, Agnon’s greatest achievement was his sprawling novel, Oreach Nata Lalun, 1939 (A Guest for the Night), which tells of a writer’s visit to Buczacz, the war-ravaged city of his childhood. The central symbolic image of this novel is the key to the old Beit Midrash, which the narrator loses early on in the novel:
I went to the Beit Midrash and stood before the locked door. Many thoughts passed through my mind in a short time, and this is one of them: The Beit Midrash still exists, but I am standing outside, because I have lost the key and cannot get in. What shall a man do to get in?
In many of his works, including A Guest for the Night, Agnon plays and builds on the double-meaning of the Hebrew word “sofer,” connoting both ritual scribe and prose writer. In large measure, Agnon’s writing aims to construct a new Hebrew textual study house, built on the old, model of the Beit Midrash. At the same time, it remains forever locked away from that sacred locale and mode.
At the end of A Guest for the Night, when at last, he finds his way back to Jerusalem, Agnon’s narrator/sofer finally finds the missing key. What is he to do with this old key now that he finds himself so far away?
I went into my house, put away the key in the box, locked the box on the outside, and hung the key over my heart. I know that no one is enthusiastic about the key for our old Beit Midrash, but I said myself: One day our old Beit Midrash is destined to be established in the Land of Israel; better, then, for the key to be in my possession.
Support the New York Jewish Week
Our nonprofit newsroom depends on readers like you. Make a donation now to support independent Jewish journalism in New York.
This riddling passage, in which the narrator claims at once to lock away the key in a box and hang it over his heart, is itself a key to the paradox of this novel and to Agnon’s fiction as a whole, a corpus that sets the world of the Beit Midrash close to his heart, but that at the same time registers ongoing modernist estrangement.
The experience of Agnon’s sofer-narrator, locked out of the Beit Midrash, also serves as an apt metaphor for the experience of many nowadays who may feel locked out, at least at first, from the study-house of his fiction. But in the same way the passage above imagines a latter-day re-establishment of the Beit Midrash in Israel, a number of recent efforts have been undertaken in Israel to open up Agnon’s writing to contemporary audiences. Over the past number of years, the education committee of the Israeli Knesset, in conjunction with Schocken Books, has been producing new editions of Agnon’s works with explanatory introductions, notes, and questions geared specifically for Israeli school children. On the English-language front, the Jerusalem-based Web-Yeshiva regularly offers courses in English on Agnon’s fiction, taught by Jeffrey Saks, a rabbi and editor of an important new series of Agnon translations. The series, published by The Toby Press, a division of Koren Publishers, includes revised and all-new English translations aimed at bringing Agnon’s Nobel Prize winning work to a wider Jewish and general audience. As Saks notes, “In our editions, the presence of annotation and commentary helps unlock some of the hidden treasure buried between the lines of his prose — but it's important to remember that even those judges in Stockholm, reading in translation, and presumably oblivious to the canon of Jewish writing below the surface of his fiction, recognized Agnon as a master modernist.” If the Swedes could find their way into the study house, surely the dedicated Jewish reader can, especially with a few explanatory notes and comments to help open the door.
Wendy Zierler is Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR, New York.