Inter-Generational Portraits: Agnon, Shaked, Gender and Narrative

Article excerpt

This paper approaches the critical oeuvre of Gershon Shaked, with particular reference to his writing on Agnon's fiction, in light of the complexity of Jewish responses to the Enlightenment. The ironic tensions that shape Agnon's fiction and Shaked's criticism can be read in light of the conflicting identifications that shaped Jewish responses to anti-Semitic themes in European culture. Agnon's novella, Shevu'at emunim, and Shaked's essay on it, exemplify the value of literary response in exposing the conflicting trends that subtend culture and ideology.


I want to begin by acknowledging a deep personal debt of gratitude to Gershon Shaked for his warm support of my own work on Agnon.

Gershon Shaked's readerly passion enabled him to draw out the social and historical implications of literary works in a manner that continues to enrich our reading. In the cultural politics of modern Jewish identities, literature allows us to focus on individual expression amid rising nationalisms and other forms of collective identity; precisely here I hope to use Gershon's work to explore further the intersection of gender and generation in narrative structure.

Agnon's fiction and Gershon Shaked's critical work each exemplify the complex responses to Enlightenment of Jewish writers who encountered new cultural opportunities and forms of exclusion, new modes of expression, and persistent forms of marginalization. In his early book on Agnon, Omanut hasippur shel Agnon (1973), Gershon explores the double reading--the tension between two levels of plot that are at odds with each other--in Agnon's fiction. (1) That sense of a central and unresolved tension opened the way to the larger question of the writer's location on the map of modern Jewish writing.

In his English-language study of Agnon, subtitled A Revolutionary Traditionalist, Gershon examined the relations of texts to historical contexts, taking up six major novels of Agnon--Hakhnasat kala (The bridal canopy), Oreah nata lalun (A guest for the night), Sippur pashut (A simple story), Tmol shilshom (Only yesterday), and Behanuto shel mar Lublin (In Mr. Lublin's store)--in terms of the historical span that they cover. By approaching the novels collectively, virtually as a master-text, he demonstrates their historical sweep over four generations of Jewish history. At the same time as Shaked puts it in Panim aherot beyitzirato shel Shai Agnon, Agnon obliges his readers to reflect on Jewish history in the twentieth century from new points of view that reveal the weaknesses of ideological models. (2)

The brief preface to The Shadows Within, a collection devoted to modern Jewish writers, acknowledges the autobiographical dimensions of any critical enterprise. Shaked indicates the common resources of culture and biography that sustain the creative work of fiction and of criticism:

   Genuine criticism originates from the same sources and resources as
   authentic fiction. The difference is only the genre of
   communication.... I emphasize the subjectivity of criticism ... in
   order to make it clear to the reader that in my analyses of the
   texts and contexts of various Jewish writers--writers who wrote in
   at least three languages and on three continents--I am trying to
   understand my own, and my generation's, identity as it is influenced
   by the major issues of our Jewish and human existence. The texts to
   which I refer are the texts of my intellectual biography; the
   continents where these writers have lived and written are the
   locations of my own physical wanderings; and the sources of the
   issues I evoke are of my own emotional life as depicted and
   delineated by some of the best Jewish writers of the last
   century. (3)

This is a generous acknowledgement on the critic's part and I propose to use it to examine aspects of his creative work. (It finds a responsive echo in the subject of one of his last books, Zehut [Identity; 2006], a collection of essays focusing primarily on German-Jewish and American-Jewish writers. …