The Toby Press S.Y. Agnon Library Edited by Jeffrey Saks
S.Y. Agnon (1888–1970), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, is the one modern master among writers of Hebrew fiction. Jeffrey Saks has undertaken a heroic task in assembling the Agnon Library, using existing translations, which generally have been revised, and commissioning English versions of previously untranslated books. It is not quite a complete works because some books could not be included for reasons of copyright or on other grounds. The most unfortunate omission is Agnon’s modernist masterpiece, Only Yesterday (1945), a wrenching and richly inventive novel about a naive young Zionist’s failed attempt to take root in the land, which unfolds in Jaffa and Jerusalem in the early years of the twentieth century.
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (his original family name was Czaczkes) was born in Buczacz, a town of about 15,000, over half of whom were Jews, that at one time belonged to Poland, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the late eighteenth century until the end of World War I, and is now in western Ukraine. In an Orthodox home, under the supervision of his learned father, he was given a thorough education in the classic Jewish texts, from the Bible with its medieval Hebrew exegetes to the Talmud, and he would draw on this background extensively throughout his career. But his family also engaged a German tutor for him, and he read Goethe, Schiller, and other German writers with his mother. The adolescent Agnon was drawn to Zionism, a movement then less than ten years old, and in 1908, when he was nineteen, he immigrated to Palestine.
Like most of the young Zionists of that era, he proceeded to abandon the religious practice of his childhood. The Hebrew stories he began to publish in Palestine quickly attracted attention, the first being Agunot (“Abandoned Women”), a story of unhappy lovers written as if it were a folktale, from which he took his rather somber new name.
In 1913, for reasons that remain obscure, he moved to Germany. Whether or not he intended a long stay, he was caught there by World War I, and he did not return to Palestine until 1924, married and with two children. He settled permanently in Jerusalem and returned to Orthodox observance. He appears to have used his German years to immerse himself in European culture while continuing to write Hebrew fiction. He also did some teaching at Franz Rosenzweig’s Frankfurt Lehrhaus, collaborated with Martin Buber in collecting Hasidic tales, and began a lifelong friendship with Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism.
Agnon is in some respects an anomalous modernist. Early on, he had an affinity for European gothic writers, and gothic motifs such as the Dance of Death, ghostly brides, and revenants occur in many of his stories. He might, one conjectures, have been drawn to Thomas Mann’s…
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