Magazine article The Spectator

Minding One's Peace and Qs

Magazine article The Spectator

Minding One's Peace and Qs

Article excerpt

ONLY YESTERDAY

by S. Y. Agnon

Princeton University Press, L22, pp. 674

THE SILENCE OF HEAVEN:

AGNON'S FEAR OF GOD

by Amos Oz

Princeton University Press, L18.95, pp. 208

Early Zionists were an odd assortment of idealists, revolutionaries and misfits. Among them was S. Y. Agnon. His real surname was Czaczkes (in its Polish spelling) and he came from one of those small towns in Galicia which Russia and Austro-Hungary kicked about between them. Emigrating to Ottoman Palestine in 1908, he soon left for Germany, only to return and make his home in Jerusalem. During the Nazi period, he was at work on Only Yesterday, generally taken to be his masterpiece, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1966, and is now translated for the first time into English. So at a time when Jews from a background like his were facing mass-murder, he was examining the impulses and accidents which had brought him to safety.

The result is an immense ragbag of a book, full of insight and poetry, tending to surrealism, not to say mythology, mannered and even precious in style, discursive, and all told with a cleverness that opens up a number of possible meanings. Critics have the opportunity to argue till kingdom come about symbols and references etc. You don't have to be Jewish to understand each detail and flourish - the large glossary III should be even larger - but it helps.

By all accounts, Agnon seems to have bI been rather an unworldly intellectual, acerbic because shy. The desired goal in life, as he often repeats in this novel, is tranquillity, and happy is the man who achieves such II a state. Things being what they are, the opposite arises, namely a Quarrel, with a capital letter. To be a Zionist meant to build the land of Israel, and to rebuild the Jewish self. In practice, this involved many a Quarrel and little or no tranquillity.

Superficially, Agnon tells a story much like his own, in which a somewhat childish young man from Galicia by the name of Isaac Kumer becomes a Zionist at the turn of the century, abandons his poor but religious family and arrives in Palestine for picaresque adventures. Perhaps a little in the style of Gogol's Dead Souls, up pops one character after another, farm workers, artists, officials, inn-keepers, businessmen, preachers, even a taxidermist, to illustrate that Zionism is not what Isaac thinks it is. He aspires to woo the secular Sonya, but she has no interest in him. Instead he turns to Shifra, the religious daughter of Reb Fayesh, a rabbi of standing in Jerusalem. …

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