Authors: Shmuel Yosef Agnon

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Israeli short-story writer and novelist

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Agunot, 1909 (novella; English translation, 1970)

“Vehaya he’akov lemishor,” 1912

Me’az ume’ata, 1931

Sipure ahavim, 1931

Sefer hama’asim, 1932, 1941, 1951

Beshuva vanachat, 1935

Elu ve’elu, 1941

Shevu’at emunim, 1943 (Betrothed, 1966)

Ido ve’Enam, 1950 (Edo and Enam, 1966)

Samukh venir’e, 1951

Ad hena, 1952

Al kapot hamanul, 1953

Ha’esh veha’etsim, 1962

Two Tales, 1966 (includes Betrothed and Edo and Enam)

Twenty-one Stories, 1970

Selected Stories of S. Y. Agnon, 1970

Ir umelo’a, 1973

Lifnim min hachomah, 1975

Pitche dvarim, 1977

A Dwelling Place of My People: Sixteen Stories of the Chassidim, 1983

A Book That Was Lost, and Other Stories, 1995

Long Fiction:

Hakhnasat kala, 1931 (The Bridal Canopy, 1937)

Bi-levav yamim: Sipur agadah, 1935 (In the Heart of the Seas: A Story of a Journey to the Land of Israel, 1947)

Sipur pashut, 1935 (A Simple Story, 1985)

Oreach nata lalun, 1939, 1950 (A Guest for the Night, 1968)

T’mol shilsom, 1945 (Only Yesterday, 2000)

Shirah, 1971 (Shira, 1989)

Bachanuto shel Mar Lublin, 1974

Nonfiction:

Sefer, sofer, vesipur, 1938, 1978

Yamim nora’im, 1938 (Days of Awe, 1948)

Atem re’item, 1959 (Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law, 1994)

Sifrehem shel tsadikim, 1961

Meatsmi el atsmi, 1976

Korot batenu, 1979

Miscellaneous:

Kol sippurav shel Shmuel Yosef Agnon, 1931-1952 (11 volumes)

Kol sippurav shel Shmuel Yosef Agnon, 1953-1962 (8 volumes)

Biography

Shmuel Yosef Agnon (AHG-nahn), corecipient of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature, is considered the leading modern writer in Hebrew. Taken as a whole, his works are sometimes called “the modern Jewish epic.” Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes on July 17, 1888, in Buczacz, a small town in eastern Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His middle-class Jewish parents came from a scholarly Orthodox tradition that Agnon seemed destined to continue. As a child, he was steeped in Jewish folklore and religious teachings, studying in Hebrew school, taking private Talmud lessons, and reading independently in Hasidic literature. His imagination embraced the cozy world of the eastern European shtetl that would become the main subject of his early fiction and a symbolic focus throughout his work.{$I[AN]9810001116}{$I[A]Agnon, Shmuel Yosef}{$S[A]Czaczkes, Shmuel Yosef;Agnon, Shmuel Yosef}{$I[geo]UKRAINE;Agnon, Shmuel Yosef}{$I[geo]ISRAEL;Agnon, Shmuel Yosef}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Agnon, Shmuel Yosef}{$I[tim]1888;Agnon, Shmuel Yosef}

Shmuel Yosef Agnon

(©The Nobel Foundation)

In 1907, after making his start as a writer in Hebrew and Yiddish (the everyday language of the shtetl), Agnon emigrated to Palestine. He had been active in Zionist circles, and, in his fiction, to “go up to” the land of Israel is the ambition of every pious Jew. In Palestine, he continued to work for Zionist organizations and to write short fiction (henceforth only in Hebrew), first in Jaffa, then in Jerusalem. The idealistic young man from Buczacz apparently found Palestine inspiring, but it was also racked by turbulence, violence, and disorientation. Jewish homeland or not, Palestine was the scene of a confused present that contrasted with the orderly past represented by the shtetl. As such, Palestine formed the other symbolic focus of Agnon’s imagination.

Agnon’s change of surnames marks his suspension between these two places and all they symbolized. His pen surname is derived from his novella Agunot. Agunot is the plural of aguna, a Hebrew word for a woman whose husband has left her without granting a divorce; thus she exists in a marital limbo, neither taken nor available. Metaphorically, her state of suspension suggests any divided spiritual state which one can neither change nor escape. Like an aguna, Agnon was suspended between the two worlds–one dying and the other waiting to be born–represented by the shtetl culture and Palestine. Agnon’s literary mission was to depict, to contrast, and ultimately to bridge those two worlds, using his personal dilemma as a mirror of modern Jewish history.

In 1913, Agnon went to study in Germany, where he was stranded by the outbreak of World War I. Agnon ended up staying in Germany from 1913 to 1924. There he read widely in contemporary European literature, mingled with leading Jewish intellectuals (such as theologian Martin Buber), and gained a patron, Salman Schocken, who became his publisher. He continued to write short fiction that resembled folk tales; he also wrote a number of Kafkaesque stories. He met Esther Marx, whom he married in 1919; they had a daughter, Emuna, born in 1921, and a son, Hemdat, born in 1922. When their Homburg home burned in 1924, destroying Agnon’s valuable collection of books and manuscripts plus an unfinished novel, Agnon and his family moved to Jerusalem.

In the following decade, Agnon produced his long comic masterpiece The Bridal Canopy and a novella in a similar vein, In the Heart of the Seas. Set in the small towns and villages of Galicia around 1820, The Bridal Canopy tells the picaresque story of a pious but poverty-ridden Hasid, Reb Yudel Nathanson, who is on a quest to raise dowries and find husbands for his three ripe daughters. Various commentators, including the Nobel Prize Committee, have referred to The Bridal Canopy as a Jewish version of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605), complete with a Sancho Panza in Nuta, Reb Yudel’s wagon driver. Besides Cervantes, Agnon’s narrative technique here characterized by verbal play, joking, gossip, folklore, scriptural exegesis, rabbinical argument, and short stories embedded within the larger story also recalls such early masters as François Rabelais and Laurence Sterne. One could hardly find a more entertaining celebration of the old shtetl culture.

Even as Agnon was writing this celebratory work, he was forcibly reminded of the shtetl culture’s demise. In 1929, Agnon toured Galicia, and out of his disillusioned return to his hometown came, years later, the novel A Guest for the Night. This bleak, autobiographical novel shows the destruction of the shtetl culture after World War I plus the destruction of one of Agnon’s symbolic focuses. Thereafter, his unhappiness expressed itself as growing alienation from a modern world severed from its spiritual roots, a feeling no doubt intensified by the Holocaust (which Agnon does not treat in his writings). This sense of spiritual impotence prevails in his later work, such as the novellas in Two Tales. In A Guest for the Night and later works, the shtetl culture lingers over Agnon’s work only as a ghost: an implied contrast and a symbol of longing.

Agnon’s talent as a writer was recognized early in Jewish circles and later honored repeatedly by the state of Israel. An official sign admonishing quiet, agnon is writing was posted in his Jerusalem neighborhood, and he was accorded a state funeral when he died of a heart attack in 1970. Agnon’s work also has universal appeal. He offers particular insight into the tortured turns of modern Jewish culture and history, but these turns have various types of significance for the rest of the world. For example, Agnon’s “modern Jewish epic” has close parallels with the depiction of Appalachian culture in the United States by such writers as novelist Harriette Arnow and poet Jim Wayne Miller. Agnon thus provides another installment of a great modern theme, the development from a traditional society (ordered, religious) to a modern society (confused, secular), and his images of spiritual loss have universal significance.

BibliographyAberbach, David. At the Handles of the Lock: Themes in the Fiction of S. J. Agnon. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. Sets out the major patterns in Agnon’s writing on a work-by-work basis and features discussion of his novels as well as his short fiction. Includes detailed notes and a list of references.Band, Arnold J. Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Covers Agnon’s literary development text by text and is very useful for the historical background to, and context of, Agnon’s work. Discusses Agnon’s life and his career as a writer and includes both primary and secondary bibliographies, informative appendixes, and a general index.Band, Arnold J. Studies in Modern Jewish Literature. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003. Anthology of Band’s essays written from the 1960’s to the early twenty-first century includes a section titled “Modern Hebrew Literature” that includes four essays devoted to discussion of Agnon’s work.Ben-Dov, Nitza. Agnon’s Art of Indirection: Uncovering Latent Content in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. New York: E. J. Brill, 1993. Discusses a number of themes in Agnon’s work; of particular interest is a chapter titled “The Web of Biblical Allusion.” Includes bibliography and index.Fisch, Harold. S. Y. Agnon. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975. Part of a series on literary greats, this work includes a useful chronology and a brief biography of Agnon’s life. An in-depth discussion of individual writings follows the biographical section. Supplemented by notes, primary and secondary bibliographies, and an index.Fleck, Jeffrey. Character and Context: Studies in the Fiction of Abramovitsh, Brenner, and Agnon. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1984. Places Agnon’s work alongside that of his contemporaries, especially in the first chapter, “Modern Hebrew Literature in Context.” Focuses on one of Agnon’s novels in another chapter, “Man and Dog in Only Yesterday.”Green, Sharon M. Not a Simple Story: Love and Politics in a Modern Hebrew Novel. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2001. Examines Agnon’s novel A Simple Story and argues that Agnon was a Jewish nationalist and secular modernist whose critical depictions of modern Jewish life were not meant to demean Jews; rather, the author’s intention was to demonstrate how the Jewish community could thrive by recapturing its sense of self-respect, heroism, and romantic love.Hochman, Baruch. “An Afternoon with Agnon.” The American Scholar 57 (Winter, 1988): 91-99. A biographical sketch and an account of a meeting with Agnon in Jerusalem; notes how his work elegizes the traditional East European Jewish world, which he saw disappearing through cultural erosion and then through the Holocaust; claims that loss in Agnon’s works is counterbalanced by miraculous transformations and restorations. A pervasive self-mockery similarly undercuts whatever the author idealizes.Hochman, Baruch. The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970. Presents a detailed interpretation of Agnon’s major works, placing them in the context of the time and place in which they were written. A primary bibliographical note aids readers in locating translations of the original works, and notes on all the chapters are supplied at the end of the book, as is an index.Negev, Eilat. Close Encounters with Twenty Israeli Writers. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003. Negev, a literary correspondent for the Israeli journal Yedioth Achronot, presents twenty profiles of prominent contemporary Israeli writers, including Agnon, based on her interviews with the writers and other research.Ozick, Cynthia. “Agnon’s Antagonisms.” Commentary 86 (December, 1988): 43-48. Ozick analyzes Agnon’s story “Edo and Enam,” discussing the relationship between translation and redemption and the oppositions of safety and obliteration, redemption and illusion, and exile and return.Patterson, David, and Glenda Abramson, eds. Tradition and Trauma: Studies in the Fiction of S. J. Agnon. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994. A collection of papers presented at a conference on the centenary of the birth of Agnon. A number of essays focus on such stories as “Forever,” “Pat Shlemah,” “Friendship,” and “The Doctor’s Divorce.”Shaked, Gershon. Shmuel Yosef Agnon: A Revolutionary Traditionalist. New York: New York University Press, 1989. Details Agnon’s progression as a writer, including biographical events that influenced his development and analysis of his novels. Includes index, notes, and select bibliography.Yudkin, Leon, ed. Agnon: Texts and Contexts in English Translation: A Multi-Disciplinary Curriculum, Bibliographies, and Selected Syllabi. New York: M. Wiener, 1988. A critical study of Agnon’s works and their English translations. Includes a bibliography.
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