Dog Spelled Backwards

Only Yesterday

by S.Y. Agnon, Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav
Princeton University Press, 652 pp., $35.00

Some cultivated Israelis I know have a problem. No doubt all Israelis have problems, private and public—among the latter being the country’s relations with its neighbors, the religious and ethnic divisions within it, and the despoliation of land and water resources which has accompanied its extraordinary economic growth over the last two or three decades. In comparison with these, the problem I have in mind is bound to appear trivial; however, in various intricate and not so subterranean ways it is connected with the larger issues just mentioned.

The problem is this. Many Israelis are convinced that the revived Hebrew language has produced in S.Y. Agnon a novelist whose work bears comparison with that of any of the acknowledged masters of twentieth-century fiction. (Thomas Mann, say, or Borges, or—to name the one with whom Agnon has been most insistently compared—Kafka.) However, very few people outside Israel appear to share this view; or at any rate very few who are not teachers in university departments of Hebrew and Jewish studies. Few readers of Mann, Borges, and Kafka—as I have established by the nonscientific process of asking around—have heard of Agnon; and even among those Jewish readers who have heard of him, and who might be thought to make up his natural “constituency,” it seems that relatively few, again, have read any of his fiction. To ask such people about contemporary Israeli novelists like Amos Oz or Aharon Appelfeld is one thing; to ask them about Agnon quite another. It is true that international recognition of a striking kind was conferred on him in 1966, when he shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with the German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs. But he was not the first nor will he be the last writer from a “minor” linguistic group to be awarded this honor, to receive a great deal of publicity for a few weeks thereafter, and then to be forgotten in the rest of the world. (Of course, the same fate, though usually over a longer period, has befallen laureates from “major” languages too.)

Israelis are wounded that a novelist who means so much to them has no effective existence outside their own country: certainly not in the English-speaking world. Collections of his stories and some of his novels were published in English translation before he won the Nobel Prize; others appeared subsequently; none of them seems to have found a significant readership for him. The anthologies of devotional, liturgical, and folkloristic writings which he edited and compiled are a separate case; translations of these have, I suspect, acquired a fairly steady barmitzvah-present kind of sale in the United States and elsewhere. But it is precisely not as a reassuringly pious and traditional figure that his Israeli admirers see him, or wish us to see him, or as he (at any rate in some of his guises) saw himself. Quite the contrary. It is Agnon the modernist, the subversive, the provoker of disquiet and alarm, that …

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