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Great-Uncle

Shira

by S. Y. Agnon, translated by Zeva Shapiro
Schocken, 585 pp., $24.95

S. Y. Agnon is one of the fathers of modern Hebrew fiction. Born in Galicia in 1888, he went to live in Palestine in 1907. Between 1913 and 1924 he was in Germany. Then he returned to Palestine/Israel, where he died in 1970. His huge novel Shira was unfinished, but he wanted it to be published after his death. He had begun it in the 1940s, and several portions had appeared as work in progress. This is the first English translation, and it consists of four books, with two alternative final chapters: one seems to fit on to Book Three, the other on Book Four. “The text,” Robert Alter says in his afterword, “is unstable.”

That is just one problem about what must be one of the most problematic problem novels ever written. The translation is a problem too: it reads as though the original were untranslatable. Unless one knows Hebrew, it is impossible to say what exactly goes wrong: but nothing sounds quite natural, especially the conversations. Then there is the mode, shifting uneasily between main-stream bourgeois realism, folktale, and a dreamy amalgam of symbolism and surrealism—again with folktale elements as in a Chagall painting.

When Agnon won the Nobel prize for literature in 1966, Edmund Wilson struggled to appreciate him. It was his second attempt. He had tried a few years earlier, describing Agnon as “a man of unquestionable genius…[occupying] the undisputed position of foremost living Hebrew writer.” But he wondered nervously whether Agnon’s subject matter was not “obsolete,” and his method somewhat “pastiche.” To grow up in Galicia before the turn of the century is to belong to a premodern age, and Agnon’s allure—like Isaac Bashevis Singer’s—depends at least partly on his being a romantic Jewish heirloom.

Agnon’s friend Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, described Agnon’s arrival in Berlin in 1917: “The Russian Jews with whom I lived in Pension Struck were by nature and by character intellectuals, basically enlighteners and enlightened people. Agnon, however, had come from quite a distance, from a world of images in which the springs of imagination flowed profusely. His conversations often enough were altogether secular in nature, but he spoke in the style of his stories’ heroes, and there was something irresistibly magnetic about his rhetorical style of speaking…. German Jews were for him an inexhaustible object of critical astonishment, although he captivated a good many hearts among them…. Totally ignoring the abstract, he lived on an imaginative plane and expressed himself entirely though storytelling and in images, in his writings as well as in conversation. Every conversation with him quickly turned into one or more narratives, stories about great rabbis and simple Jews whose intonation he captured enchantingly.”

This is exactly what happens in Shira; on one level it is a campus novel, naturalistic and dense with local color, political background, and domestic detail. It is almost certainly an allegory too; but whatever its classification, it is encrusted with metaphors, jokes, puns, parables, mystifications, dreams, hallucinations, and stories, often indeed “about great rabbis and simple Jews,” but more often still the potted biographies of people on the streets of Jerusalem in the late 1930s, people whose lives might have begun in Berlin, or Vienna, or Galicia, or Iran, or Morocco. Some of these incrustations may seem irrelevant, but they all have Agnon’s laissez-aller; after several pages about a marginal female character, the high-profile narrator—himself the most knotty of all the novel’s problems—says:

I have devoted so much attention [to her], although she is not connected to the [main] story…. On the other hand, whatever surrounds the core may be essential, just as the whiteness around a letter sustains its shape.

There is no arguing with that, but it makes demands on the reader’s patience.

The main story is about Manfred and Henrietta Herbst, a German-Jewish couple in their early forties. Manfred teaches at the Hebrew University and is writing a book on the burial customs of the Byzantine poor. He suffers from writer’s block and other academic neuroses, and Agnon is amused by his endless accumulation and shuffling of notes from one box to another; by his joy, masquerading as frustration and rage, at any interruption; and by the little walks and cups of coffee taken to get the creative juices flowing. Manfred is selfish in the way that scholars are, but he is a good man, full of kind impulses, generous to his students, free from jealousy toward his colleagues, and devoted to Henrietta, although she is not very cooperative in bed. Apart from that, she is the perfect Jewish wife, selfless, solicitous, busily preparing serious meals, and urging her family to eat them and to avoid coffee and cigarettes. She is a hen, but not a joke, being intelligent, well-read, fair-minded, calm, and sensible, with a sense of humor and plenty of spirit when she chooses to deploy it.

The Herbsts’ two daughters illustrate different ways of being a young Israeli. Unselfish, responsible Zahara joins a kibbutz and starts a family with another dedicated kibbutznik. Tamara begins as a frivolous beach girl but becomes more serious when she joins an anti-British resistance group. Subsidiary roles are played by supercilious German professors and meek alumni of Eastern European yeshivas. There are a number of delectable, demure, and pious young girls, well-bred refugee princesses from Germany who have fallen on hard times and gladden Manfred’s heart whenever they cross his path. The chorus is made up of an underclass of Oriental Sephardis with luscious eyes and colorful costumes.

Jerusalem itself is almost a person: the narrator takes the city to task for its capricious transport system and unhelpful bureaucrats, and for the noisy bustle of its business district; and he cherishes its ravishing sunsets and exquisite nights, its antiquarian bookshops jammed full with the libraries of impecunious German refugees, not to speak of the ubiquitous cafés seducing Manfred with delicious coffee, indifferent cakes, and irresistible opportunities for meeting acquaintances and wasting time. The crowd of cosmopolitan immigrants and infallibly handsome young sabras quite overwhelms the narrator with a mixture of tourist and patriotic excitement: sometimes he sounds like an unsophisticated and overexcited travel writer. As for the Arabs and the British, they are nonpersons—murderers in the first case, loutish seducers of innocent Jewish girls in the second.

Zahara and Tamara are seventeen and nineteen years old when Henrietta becomes pregnant again. Manfred accompanies her to the hospital for her delivery. On the way out he falls into conversation with a nurse called Shira. She takes him home and to bed. He has never slept with anyone except his wife. He feels guilty, but goes on seeing her. He has got her under his skin, or, in the displeasing words of a poem that now sticks in his brain: “Flesh such as yours / Will not soon be forgotten.” After a while, Shira begins to rebuff his sexual advances. Then she disappears. The neighbors say she has moved away, the hospital says she has left her job. Manfred searches all over Jerusalem, but in vain. Years pass. The Herbsts’ baby daughter is succeeded by a baby son. By this stage, the reader is so familiar with the Herbst family routine that he could make the lunch or file the index cards. Book Three ends with the celebrations for the son’s circumcision. Then comes the first version of the final chapter: Herbst finds Shira in a leper colony, not as a nurse, but as a patient. She begs him to go away. He refuses and seals his commitment to her with a kiss on her infected lips. Saint Julian? There has never been any suggestion of religious stirrings in the liberal humanist Manfred, or that is his obsession with Shira was anything but sexual.

In the alternative ending Manfred only gets as far as guessing that Shira is in a leper colony from accounts by a young German who works there. His first reaction is to confess his infidelity to Henrietta. She takes it calmly, but their crucial conversation is interrupted by the sound of visitors arriving. They never actually appear, because at this point Agnon died. The second interruption—Agnon’s death—seems almost as deliberate as the arrival of the guests, a characteristic teasing device to create suspense and leave things open-ended for the reader to decide.

So what shall he decide? What does Shira mean? Shira herself is not at all captivating, and as different as can be from the refugee princesses, not to speak of the lady from an early Elizabeth Arden advertisement who impersonates her on the dust jacket. She is neither young nor pretty, but experienced, abrasive, and brutally dismissive of bourgeois proprieties and religion. She wears glasses and is covered in raised freckles which later turn out to be the first signs of her disease. Perhaps the strangest thing about her is that in her nurse’s uniform she appears off-puttingly mannish, but when she changes into masculine pants at home her erotic appeal becomes overwhelming. She is also something of a Scheherazade, entertaining Manfred (who thinks he hates that kind of thing) with tales of her amorous past. But she is opaque—a catalyst, not a character; and in any case she disappears halfway through the novel.

She is as hung about with symbols as a gypsy fortune teller is with beads. Leprosy, for a start, is the most symbolic of all diseases in literature, more loaded than even tuberculosis or syphilis. Shira’s room contains a reproduction of a skull painted by Böcklin, and she wishes for another of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson—a composition with a cadaver at its center. Instead, Manfred buys her a print of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. The antiquary who sells it to him also has a Breughelesque drawing of a leper with a bell. Manfred hallucinates that the bell is warning him away, and he rejects the drawing. But it goes on haunting him, and so does a curious dream: the first time he met Shira he was shocked to see her embracing a blind Turkish beggar in the hospital waiting room. Now he dreams of a single female shoe tripping around his room. Shira and the beggar climb into the shoe and disappear. Like Pushkin, Agnon thinks a lot about women’s feet.

Robert Alter believes that an answer to the riddle of Shira can be extracted from her name: in Hebrew shira means poetry. He doesn’t say anything about other names in the novel that mean something in German. Without the final “t” Weltfremdt—the name of a self-important professor—means “unworldly”; contrasted with Weltfremdt are the saintly Professor Neu and his saintly niece, Lisa Neu, one of the refugee princesses. Neu means new, of course. Taglicht is the name of a humble young East European scholar: Tamara points out that by adding one letter or another it can be made to mean either daylight or tallow candle. Though apparently unsuited to a life of danger, Taglicht joins the Haganah’s secret weapon training program. Perhaps he is turning from the Talmud scholar’s tallow candle to the daylight of Israel’s liberation. You need a Talmud scholar’s cryptographic patience to spot and interpret all the puns and allusions.

Herbst means autumn—the autumn of German Jewry, perhaps, but more likely “the inward dying of European Judaism,” a theme identified by Alter in one of Agnon’s earlier works. The Herbsts are Zionists of sorts, but barely Jews at all. They are assimilated Germans, steeped in German culture, their heads full of German Romantic poetry, which they quote all the time. In a sense Shira is their Erziehungsroman: it traces their development from being Germans to being Israelis. Henrietta is always a few steps ahead of Manfred, maybe because she has put down symbolic roots by enclosing a piece of wasteland to make a garden. She favors the Haganah, while Manfred supports the more pacific Brit Shalom movement, which would like to find an accommodation with the Arabs in a binational state.

According to Alter, Shira herself, with her symbolic bric-a-brac of love and death, is an allegory of poetry—the kind of poetry identified by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy. Herbst confirms this theory by coming across a first edition of the work in one of his favorite bookshops. Tragic poetry is rooted in dangerous primeval drives toward love and death. It is a force that destroys bourgeois and academic conventions. Under its impact the burial customs of the Byzantine poor begin to look irrelevant, and Herbst decides to abandon them and write a tragedy instead, about a pair of starcrossed lovers and a leper at the Byzantine court. The undertaking proves beyond him, and he is forced to meditate on the nature of tragedy. Was he writing “a tragedy, or merely a story with tragic events? Herbst…knew and recognized the distinction between tragic events and tragedy”; so he gives up.

But the real reason he can’t go on is that he “was intimidated by the word tragedy, afraid it would provoke the gods.” He is not ready to make the reckless leap he makes when he finds Shira again. It would be nice to see their final reunion as a Nietzsche-inspired Liebestod: but if Herbst is Tristan, Shira doesn’t look like Isolde. She has never seemed particularly passionate about Herbst, merely allowing him to love her while remaining cool herself. On the other hand, you can interpret her withdrawal and disappearance as a sacrifice; in that case though, her love would not be Nietzschean but Judeo-Christian. The central problem is not solved.

That leaves the narrator. He is much given to intervention:

My novel is becoming more and more complex. A woman, another woman, yet another woman. Like that preacher’s parable. As for the man whose actions I am recounting, he is lost in thought that doesn’t lead to action. I am eager to know what we will gain from this man and what more there is to tell. Having taken it upon myself to tell the story, I will shoulder the burden and continue.

The narrator is not someone in the novel: he is not a faculty member, not a a café proprietor, not a nurse, not a kibbutznik, not a beggar. The problem is whether he is Agnon, partly Agnon, or not Agnon at all. He is a protean gnome (or dybbuk?), by turns affectionate, ironic, jocular, playful, poetic, didactic, moralizing, cute, sage, sentimental, savage, and sane.

Toward the Arabs he is shockingly savage. The novel is set at a time when there had been instances of Arabs massacring Jewish settlers, and the narrator takes for granted that all Arabs are murderers without any rights of their own, except to be polite to Jews (which they were before they started massacring them). He keeps slipping in horror stories about Jews waylaid and killed, and returning to Henrietta’s difficulties with her garden: Henrietta and the narrator are indignant because the Arabs encourage their goats to squeeze through the fence and eat the plants. The thought never arises that before she enclosed the land the goats were free to graze there. Christians are described as “vicious,” “corrupt,” and “brutal” by nature, incapable of the moral delicacy that shapes Jewish behavior. On the other hand:

Zealots in the Land of Israel shriek that we ought to do unto Germany as it has done unto us—that, just as Germany has issued a ban on Jewish books, so should we ban all German books, without recognizing or realizing that whoever deprives himself of intellectual discourse jeopardizes his own soul.

In spite of the generally avuncular tone of the narrator, the voice of tolerance isn’t much heard, though. So it is particularly important to decide, if one can, whether the narrator’s voice is the author’s.

Shira is not a book for non-Jews. It deliberately denies them the sensibility required to construe and understand it. If they don’t mind that and don’t mind its untidy and defective condition (like one of those old manuscripts that Herbst is so fond of), then they can still enjoy Agnon exploiting his wonderful gift as a storyteller, especially his eel-like, eery dexterity at sliding from the cozy to the visionary, and from the idyllic to macabre. He may seem archaic and folksy compared to the two generations of Hebrew writers who have succeeded him, and whose work can be translated without sounding quaint or biblical or faux-naïf.

But his archaism may be his strength; his nostalgia for a magically authentic Jewish past or past Jewishness is probably shared by more Jews now than it was when he wrote. Cynthia Ozick invented a New York City administration employee called Ruth Puttermesser who in turn invented a great-uncle who taught her Hebrew at his knee. In fact the great-uncle had died years before she was born. But it was the best she could do, because “poor Puttermesser has found herself without a past.” Agnon’s Israelis are better off than Puttermesser, because he gives them a tremendous sense of their future. Still he can be their great-uncle, just as Isaac Bashevis Singer is great-uncle to the Jews of the diaspora.

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