Reviewing recently published translations of fiction by S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970)—the only Hebrew writer to have won a Nobel Prize for literature—Adam Kirsch examines this pious yet modernist author’s oeuvre and its literary treatment of Zionism, Judaism, and Jewish history. To illustrate the novelist’s sometimes confounding use of parable, Kirsch interprets an episode from Only Yesterday, the work that “is considered [Agnon’s] masterpiece and has a claim to being the Great Israeli Novel.”
One day, in a fit of whimsy or cruelty, [the protagonist] paints the words “crazy dog” on the back of a stray Jerusalem mutt. This idle action condemns the dog to misery, since everyone who encounters him is convinced that he has rabies, and he is driven from place to place with curses and hails of rocks.
It is impossible not to read the story of the dog—who is eventually named Balak, which sounds like the Hebrew word for “dog” spelled backward—as a parable of Jewish history itself. Like the Jewish people, Balak is marked for a persecution that he can neither understand nor avert. His suffering leads him, like Job, to challenge Providence: “Balak complains to Heaven and shouts, arf arf, give me a place to rest, give me righteousness and justice. And when Balak’s shout is heard, they assault him with stones and sticks.” But during the course of the novel Agnon expands and complicates the allegory, with the result that it is no longer so clear; he even makes fun of the efforts of the characters in the book to figure out what Balak’s story means.
Like Kafka—a writer whom Agnon said he never read—Agnon presents us with a parable that turns out to be illegible, as if to show that, in a 20th-century novel, meaning itself must be made endlessly problematic. In this way, Only Yesterday, though an emphatically local story, makes a place for itself in the pantheon of international modernism.
Only Yesterday was published in Palestine in 1945, which means that it was being written at the time the Holocaust was taking place. If ever there was a moment when piety and solidarity might have seemed compelling literary values, this was it. Agnon, however, refuses both, in favor of a complex and unsettling chronicle of an often mythologized period in Israeli history. One might say that, for Agnon, Israel represented the reality and the future of Jewish life, and of his own adulthood. His writing about it is ambivalent and ironic, like adult life itself. Piety and nostalgia belong to the past—which is why Agnon’s writing never glows with a warmer love than when he is describing the [Polish] town he left as a teenager, Buczacz.