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The Founding Novelist Of Israeli Literature (Even Israelis Have Trouble Reading Him)

Nov 22, 2016

Agnon examined traditional Jewish life through a twentieth-century lens.

Agnon examined traditional Jewish life through a twentieth-century lens.

It has been half a century since Shmuel Yosef Agnon won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet he is one of those laureates for whom the prize has not translated into universal fame. Like Claude Simon (France) or Camilo José Cela (Spain), Agnon remains largely the possession of his original audience. In his case, however, defining that original audience is a difficult matter. Agnon wrote in Hebrew—he is the only Hebrew writer to win the Nobel—and he lived in Israel, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, where his house now stands as a museum. But although Israeli readers can read Agnon in the original, today even they may have a hard time with his books.

According to Jeffrey Saks—a rabbi and the editor of a new series of editions of Agnon’s work in English, published by Toby Press—this is because Agnon assumed that Hebrew speakers would always be familiar with Judaism: its “rituals, phrases [and] concepts,” as well as with the many strata of the three-thousand-year-old Hebrew literary tradition. But, Saks observes, “this may no longer be the case,” with the result that “Agnon and the other Hebrew classics get whittled away each year from school curricula and chain-store bookshelves.” Many Israelis, in other words, no longer have the religious background necessary to grasp all of Agnon’s meanings, while the highly religious are unlikely to read a writer who, for all his deep roots, is unmistakably ironic, unsettling, and thoroughly modern.

Another way of putting this is that Agnon’s identity, like Jewishness itself, maps uneasily against modern Israeli identity. It could hardly be otherwise, since Agnon, born in 1888, was fifty-nine when the Jewish State was established. By then, he had spent nearly half his life in Palestine, where he moved in 1908, but he was born in the very different world of Jewish Eastern Europe, and from 1912 to 1924 he lived in Germany, where he was exposed to the latest literary and intellectual currents. When he started writing in Hebrew, in the first decade of the twentieth century, it was not yet the daily language of a modern society but still mainly the preserve of Jewish sacred and intellectual tradition. And his writing mines that tradition in ways that, Hebrew readers agree, are nearly impossible to communicate in translation. Agnon’s prose recalls the style and the archetypes of the Bible, the Talmud, medieval commentators, and Hasidic folktales. His homeland is as much a language as it is a piece of territory.

When Agnon went to Stockholm to collect his Nobel, he emphasized the fact that his writerly identity was, above all, a Jewish identity. He described himself as a descendant of the Levites, the Israelite tribe that served in the ancient Temple service: “In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile.” Yet this same writer was deeply influenced by such European masters as Knut Hamsun and Gustave Flaubert, and his own work bears comparison with other modernist writers obsessed by place and ancestry, including James Joyce and William Faulkner.