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 …