Open Book

Nicholas Spice

  • A Simple Story by S.Y. Agnon, translated by Hillel Halkin
    246 pp, £13.10, March 1986, ISBN 0 8052 3999 5
  • At the Handles of the Lock: Themes in the Fiction of S.Y. Agnon by David Aberbach
    Oxford, 221 pp, £18.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 19 710040 6
  • Snakewrist by Christopher Burns
    Cape, 240 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 224 02351 9

Shmuel Yosef Czaczes, one of the finest writers of the 20th century, was born in 1888, in Buczacz, a small town in Galicia. Take out a large atlas and look up Buchach. You will find it in the Ukraine, about a hundred miles east of Ivano-Frankovsk (formerly Stanislav) and two hundred miles south-east of Lvov (formerly Lemberg). To the south-west lie the Carpathian mountains, and beyond them Transylvania. To the west and north, the eastern borders of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. To the north and east, the vast expanses of the Ukraine and of White Russia. At the back end of Eastern Europe, well this side of the Russia that tourists are allowed to visit, Galicia is now a forgotten zone, a part of old Europe whose existence we are not aware of and do not even know that we are not aware of. Perhaps it was always like that. In 1888, when Galicia still belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the citizens of cosmopolitan Vienna must have looked on it as the ultimate backwater. It is where A Simple Story is set, most of the novel taking place in Szybusz – Buczacz in disguise.

Such were the origins, appropriately, of a literary master now largely forgotten in the English-speaking world. Not that Czaczes stayed long in Buczacz. He left in 1907 and went to Palestine, where a year later he published his first story, signing it Agnon, which in Hebrew means ‘cut off’. In 1924 he adopted Agnon as his name, and, as S.Y. Agnon, came to be considered a patriarch of modern Hebrew literature. He died in 1970, four years after winning the Nobel Prize. In the wake of this success, between 1966 and 1970, Gollancz published five Agnon titles. Now, however, the only British publisher who still has a work by Agnon in print is the Sc(z)ottish Academic Press (Dwelling Place of My People).

Names were important to Agnon. In changing his own name to his literary pseudonym he signalled to the world how completely he identified himself with his work and how deep was his need to withdraw behind an alternative, impersonal persona. Perhaps there was irony and playfulness in the change too, as if through it he exercised his right to invent himself as well as to invent his characters. To them he also gave names which mean or suggest something. In A Simple Story this gives the narrative a lightly allegorical feel: Blume Nacht (flower of the night), Hirshl (little deer), Mina Ziemlich (almost, but not quite), Dr Langsam (Dr Slowly). In his excellent short essay on A Simple Story appended to this edition, Hillel Halkin points out that Szybusz echoes shibush, the Hebrew word for ‘muddle’ or ‘error’.

Agnon’s own name is rich in suggestion. To an English ear it seems to combine the words ‘agony’ and ‘anon’, with a hint of ‘agnostic’. It may also remind us of the Greek words for ‘lamb’, and for ‘holy’ or ‘wise’. The echoes are fortuitous, but they are not unapt. For, as David Aberbach shows, Agnon was preoccupied throughout his writing career with the private sufferings of passive personalities, which he portrayed with a judicious and detached agnosticism. Commenting on the Hebrew meaning of Agnon, Aberbach concludes: ‘The name, in a sense, defines the world which Agnon creates. It suggests the mood of his art, the pathos of incompleteness, of being unfulfilled.’ And, we might add, of being unknown.

A Simple Story starts with a death and ends with a birth. When Hirshl Hurvitz’s second son is born, Hirshl’s unhappiness seems finally to pass out of him, and with it the subject-matter for the story. That story is set in motion by the death of Blume Nacht’s mother. Blume’s own story begins there too, although its end falls far outside the scope of this novel.

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