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My Life As a Dog

ONLY YESTERDAY A Novel By S.Y. Agnon; Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav; Princeton University Press: 652 pp., $35

THE SILENCE OF HEAVEN; Agnon's Fear of God By Amos Oz, Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav; Princeton University Press: 304 pp., $29.95

May 07, 2000|ROBERT ALTER | Robert Alter is the author, most recently, of "Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture," which will be published in the fall

When S.Y. Agnon published "Only Yesterday" in 1945 at the age of 58, he had been writing fiction for almost four decades and had been regarded as the virtually undisputed Hebrew modern master for a quarter of a century. Hebrew critics and readers, however, were only beginning to develop a just sense of the radical nature of his enterprise as a writer. Taken in by the stylistic ventriloquism of tradition enacted in his prose and by the seeming piety of many of his subjects, they often clung to a notion of Agnon as a latter-day teller of pious tales, artfully channeling the voices of the early rabbis. In fact, a good deal of his writing from its earliest phases had been devoted to a probing psychological realism, with special attention given to the deflections and failures of male sexuality. And early in the 1930s, he began writing weirdly disjunctive surreal stories of an aggressively modernist caste.

By 1945, Agnon had published several volumes of short stories and novellas, and three novels: "The Bridal Canopy" (1931), a frame-story with multiple inset tales set in 18th century Galicia (the Eastern province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where he grew up); "A Simple Story" (1935), a Flaubert-esque representation of frustrated desire and social constraint in turn-of-the-century Jewish Galicia; and "A Guest for the Night" (1938), a symbol-fraught narrative meditation on the irrevocable dwindling of East European Jewish life in the wake of World War I.

None of this could have entirely prepared readers for the scathing vision of God and man, Zionism and Jewish history, desire and guilt, language and meaning of "Only Yesterday." Though Agnon would go on to write much of compelling interest during his remaining 25 years, this would be his masterpiece--a novel that deserves comparison with Kafka's "The Trial," Mann's "The Magic Mountain" and Hermann Broch's "The Sleepwalkers" as a deployment of the resources of fiction for plumbing those abysses of cultural and personal crisis that haunted so many imaginations in the modernist period. Its appearance in English now, delayed for half a century by the formidable difficulties of translating its Hebrew, makes available to American readers a work of powerful, and eccentric, originality.

Isaac Kumer, the novel's young protagonist, makes his way from his native Galicia to Palestine around 1907 (the period of Agnon's immigration). From the opening lines, the ironic narrator marks Isaac as an incorrigible naif coming to the Land of Israel "to build it from its destruction and to be rebuilt by it," imagining the country in the language of a Zionist idyll as "a blessed dwelling place . . . its inhabitants blessed by God . . . villages hidden in the shade of vineyards, the fields enveloped in grains" and much more of the same. In fact, what Isaac will encounter in the land is a blistering, implacable sun and physical wretchedness and squalor, bickering and rivalry among the Zionists in Jaffa and venomous fanaticism among the ultra-Orthodox of Jerusalem. In the end, he will build nothing and meet a personal fate of destruction, not construction.

This sketch of the plot may suggest its affiliation with a number of major 19th century novels and ultimately with "Don Quixote," which lies behind them. Isaac's youthful idealistic attachment to Zionism is not unlike the youthful Bonapartist idealism of Stendhal's Fabrice in "The Charterhouse of Parma," an idealism subjected to jolting revision by Fabrice's encounter with the reality of war at Waterloo. Several traits, however, set Agnon's novel apart from its 19th century antecedents. To begin with, its protagonist is passive, malleable, hopelessly incapable of asserting any sustained effort of will or self-reflection. Among the secular Zionists in Jaffa, Isaac sloughs off the regimen of Jewish observance in which he was raised. Among the Orthodox in Jerusalem, he gradually lapses back into Orthodoxy. In Jaffa, a worldly young woman named Sonya takes him by the hand and makes him her lover. In Jerusalem, a fortuitous encounter with a pious young woman named Shifra soon leads him to imagine himself as her tradition-sanctioned bridegroom, despite the hostility he arouses in the community around her.

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