Agnon is a commanding figure, as gifted and eloquent as his admirers claim. Or so I would judge from what I know of his work in English. One has to enter the face-saving proviso much earlier in his case than one normally would with a novelist encountered only in translation, partly because he writes with the intensity and idiomatic richness of a poet, partly on account of his quasi-religious attitude towards Hebrew. No doubt the two factors overlap, since to write authentic poetry is by definition to reverence the language you happen to use. When Paul Valéry celebrates the “Honneur des Hommes, Saint LANGAGE,” one can reasonably assume that he is thinking in the first place of French, not of some hypothetical lingua franca. Still, it does make a big difference that Agnon’s “saint langage” should be one which until fairly recently was regarded by the bulk of those who understood it as quite literally lashon hakodesh, the holy tongue. He is a highly civilized man, incapable of boorish flag-wagging chauvinism, but he has plainly inherited a sense of sacred obligation about the use of Hebrew. To an unusual degree, the medium is the message, and presumably the most a translation can do is give the reader some idea of how much he is missing.
A related difficulty, for a Western audience, is that few of us are likely to know much about the religious background against which Agnon works. The Bible, at any rate, is familiar—well, kind of. Rumors of Hasidism may have percolated down through a paperback or two. But what about the boundless sea of the Talmud, the Cabbalists, the medieval poets, the commentators, the commentaries on the commentators? Agnon doesn’t just draw on this tradition: it is his natural element, the air he breathes. A puzzling individual reference can of course always be cleared up in an editorial footnote; what is much harder to grasp is the internal coherence of his world as a whole. Taken out of their living context, for instance, his supernatural motifs are liable to seem merely bizarre, if not repellent, and the customs he describes merely picturesque. He is well aware of the problem himself. In one of the stories in this volume there is a character who protests against turning “the ways of our fathers into—folklore,” who has come to find the very sound of the word “folklore” detestable. Unfortunately, however, a folklorist, an outside observer, is exactly what the foreign reader of Agnon often feels.
IT SAYS A GREAT DEAL for Agnon’s mastery that in spite of these formidable obstacles so much of his poetry should come across. In the first of his Two Tales, “Betrothed,” one is held from the very start by the slight story-teller’s lilt and the serene authority of the narrative flow. The setting is Jaffa in the days before the First World War, sunlit spacious days “many times longer than ours.” Jacob Rechnitz is a young schoolteacher from …