When reading Agnon one must put aside any traditional ideas of novel, plot line, story telling, or literary construction. One must also have a good understanding of Talmud, Bible, Jewish folklore, history, and customs. In other words, Agnon is not easy to ready. But, he is well worth the effort and this last novel of his is a must read in the Jewish canon.
To This Day was first published in Hebrew in 1951 and only recently translated into English by long time Agnon translator, Hillel Halkin. The last of Agnon’s six novels to be translated must be read to fully appreciate the entire body of work of one of the greatest of Jewish writers. A slim book, but filled with metaphor, humor, and human drama, it tells the story of Shmuel Yosef, stranded in Germany during the first World War. He suffers the deprivations of war time like his fellow Jews and German citizens, and wanders about the streets of Berlin in search of a proper apartment that will fit his particular needs as a writer.
What may seem a humorous and sometimes frustrating journey to find the perfect apartment is in reality a metaphor for the homeless Jew seeking a place to call his own in a world that is not all that welcoming and often times hostile. Agnon writes a “Talmudic novel,” in that there is a central point around which are told many stories and fables that circle round and round and may or may not come back to the original point of the story. Sometimes one is left wondering if the incident described really happened in the story or if it is a device to elaborate one of his many familiar themes of exile, faith, and God’s providence. The book can be read quickly, but it will not be quickly forgotten.
These self revelatory remarks sum up the true essence of the writings of Agnon, whether in his short stories or novels. His writings are reminiscent of a literary Chagall. They portray a life in a world that no longer exists but yet exists in a dream-like state, neither real nor imaginary, but somewhere in between.
Agnon’s name is an illusion as well, being born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in 1888 in the Eastern Galician town of Buczacz, which at the time was part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. He was educated in the world of Hasidic traditions by his father and private tutors, learning the Talmud and its Aggadic stories that were to have a strong influence in his writings. Young Shmuel was also influenced by his mother’s family, which was steeped in the learnings of the Mitnagdim, as well as German stories and fables his mother taught him. Later, as a young man living in Germany, he would read widely in German and French literature. While he would disavow that these later readings had influence upon his work, it is often said that his writings bear some resemblance to modern German literature. Agnon himself would say that his writings were most influenced by Sacred Scriptures, Torah, as well as the Mishnah and Talmud.
He renamed himself Agnon around 1908 as his writing became more prolific, and took his surname from the Hebrew word agunah. Agunah means a woman who is not free to marry because her husband has refused her a divorce by either leaving or abandoning her. Much has been made of why Agnon chose this particular name for himself and one wonders if it is not an allusion to the desertion of Israel by God. The metaphor as portrayed in the Torah pertains to when Israel has strayed and God laments Her waywardness. In His lament, God turns His face from Israel, leaving her abandoned and belonging to no one.
Agnon mourned and yearned for a world of Eastern European Jewry that was disappearing, first by the assimilation of German Jews into a secular culture, and finally, by the approaching and final horror of the Holocaust. In 1907 Agnon left Buczacz for Israel in the Second Aliyah, and while he loved Eretz Israel, he was not prepared for the pioneer life of the early settlers. In 1913 he went to Germany and lived there until 1924, becoming an ardent Zionist, and formed important and lifelong friendships with the publisher Salman Schocken and Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher. During this period he married Esther Marx, who was born into a prominent German- Jewish family of intellectuals and Zionists. Together they had two children, a son and a daughter.
In 1924 Agnon’s library of Hebrew books and many of his writings were destroyed in a mysterious fire. Once again Agnon, with his family, returned to Israel (then Palestine) where he remained until his death in 1970. During his years of wandering from Buczacz to Israel to Germany, and back to Israel, Agnon had given up the Orthodox lifestyle of his early years and immersed himself in a Jewish secular culture. After the devastating loss of his library and return to Israel, he took up traditional religious practices again. In an interview Agnon gave he said that the loss of his library was God’s punishment for leaving Israel and settling in Germany.
While many of his writings were destroyed we have left hundreds of short stories and his masterpiece novel, Only Yesterday. Like Agnon’s life they tell stories of wandering, loss, and mourning for a world that no longer exists. The simple stories of his writing hide deeper, more c o m p l e x themes of the nature of man’s existence and the relationship of himself to the greater Being of creation. They are often autobiographical musings reflecting Agnon’s personal search for connection to God and man in a world that is often cruel, strange, and miraculous. The Nobel Prize was awarded for the richness and intellectual depth of Agnon’s writing, as well as the recognition that he had been a leader in bringing Israeli literature the maturity and recognition it deserved.