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.

The death of her mother leaves Blume no choice but to pack up her things and go to Szybusz where her well-to-do relatives live. Boruch Meir Hurvitz and his wife Tsirl own the most popular grocery store in Szybusz (‘it was the place one went to’), and when Blume arrives on their doorstep they do not turn her away. Neither do they unconditionally welcome her. Left to himself, Boruch Meir would probably have adopted Blume as his daughter without a second thought. Left to himself, Hirshl would undoubtedly have married her. But Tsirl is not the sort of person to leave anyone to himself, least of all her husband and her only child. Being a practical, money-minded woman, and happening to need a maid just at the moment when Blume turns up, Tsirl offers Blume the job in return for a home. When her son Hirshl falls in love with the new cousin-cum-servant, she steers him skilfully in the direction of Mina Ziemlich, a ‘modern girl’, and more importantly a rich one. Hirshl scarcely has time to draw breath before he finds himself married to Mina and nicely tucked up in a snug little Szybuszian house. Blume, getting the message, has long since moved off the scene, and, with that, effectively out of the story. She has not, however, moved out of poor Hirshl Hurvitz’s head.

‘I’ll just have to forget about Blume and start thinking about Mina.’ But thoughts of Blume prey on Hirshl’s mind: ‘the curve of her face that was full without being round and the wordless look of her blue, blue eyes that were neither happy nor sad’, the memory of her fragrance ‘which was like a freshly fallen apple’s’. The loss of Blume opens a fissure in Hirshl’s psyche: ‘he felt about her as one might feel about a twin who has suddenly been abducted.’ The more he desires Blume, the more he resents Mina. Mina stops eating. Hirshl stops sleeping. The doctor encourages long walks. The walks land him up outside Blume’s. Night after night he mooches about outside her window. Eventually, he goes mad, wandering off into the forest crowing like a cock and croaking like a frog, with one shoe balanced on his head.

Hirshl is put in the care of Dr Langsam, whose sanitorium in Lemberg has saved many from the treatments meted out by the Tzaddick of Olesk, a rabbi famed for his exorcisms. True to his name, Dr Langsam employs quieter therapeutic methods: ‘He simply talked with him to stimulate his mind.’ Walks in the garden, plenty of sleep and a calm daily routine, all help to restore Hirshl to his former self. But it is Dr Langsam’s daily talks, in which the old neurologist recalls in loving detail the small-town Jewish life of his own youth, which act most deeply to heal Hirshl’s mind: ‘And though the doctor’s voice was that of an old man, Hirshl was as entranced by the sweet, gruff sadness of it as he might have been by a lullaby, had he ever heard one when he was a child.’

With Hirshl’s discharge from Dr Langsam’s sanitorium, A Simple Story begins to draw to its close. The last thirty pages form a sort of coda, in which Hirshl is gradually rehabilitated into life in Szybusz. While Hirshl has been away, Mina has given birth to a baby boy, Meshulam. Hirshl comes to see that by loving his son he can make up for the childhood he himself did not have. But Meshulam is sickly and has to be taken into the country to stay with Mina’s parents. On his first night alone again with Mina, Hirshl discovers that he loves her. Now at last he can put Blume behind him. The novel ends with Mina and Hirshl standing by the cradle of their second son:

  ‘Mina,’ Hirshl asked her as they were standing by the baby’s cradle, ‘what are you thinking about?’

  ‘About his brother,’ said Mina.

  ‘It’s good that he’s with your parents.’

  ‘Yes,’ Mina said. ‘I think so too.’

  ‘But for a different reason than I do,’ said Hirshl.

  ‘Why, what reason is that?’

  ‘That love can’t be divided.’

  ‘I thought,’ said Mina, ‘that it’s in the nature of love to always have room for one more.’

  Hirshl looked down and said, ‘No, that’s not so. Love comes to us only when no one stands between it and us.’

God in heaven knew that he was thinking only of the baby.

What does Hirshl mean? Who is it that stands between whom? Was it Mina who stood between Hirshl and Blume, or Blume who stood between Hirshl and Mina? Was Tsirl the obstacle to Hirshl’s love for Blume or Mina the obstacle to Hirshl’s love for his mother? And what about Boruch Meir, when Hirshl was a child? The delphic ambiguities of this last conversation between Mina and Hirshl, and the disclaimer by which the narrator shrugs them all off, are typical of Agnon’s practice in A Simple Story. He is a master ironist who knows precisely how to layer his narrative with parallel aetiologies for the events which it describes. For example, the story gives several explanations for Hirshl’s madness. Tsirl and Boruch Meir believe it is hereditary. Ever since Tsirl’s great-great-grandfather provoked a rabbi’s curse, there has been madness in the family. Her grandfather took to wearing a chamberpot for a skullcap, and her brother reverted to the wild, living off berries in the forest. On the other hand, Hirshl’s inability to act on his love for Blume, his subservience to his mother, and the symptoms he develops as he begins to lose his mind, all lend weight to a psychodynamic interpretation of his instability. In this respect, the depiction of Hirshl’s insomnia is particularly convincing, and it makes one wonder whether Agnon himself did not perhaps suffer this terrible affliction. Hirshl would explain his madness as the natural result of his Kafkaesque imprisonment in the wrong set of circumstances. The novel supports him in this by representing the events which lead to his engagement as a series of hideously comic misunderstandings. Last, as a ground for going mad, and by no means least, there is Blume herself, maddeningly alluring and maddeningly proud, too proud to assert her right to Hirshl as Hirshl longs for her to do.

David Aberbach, who has written an intelligent and informative study of Agnon’s work, prefers the psychodynamic explanation. But then he would, since it supports his general contention. He comments on the schizoid aspects to Hirshl’s case, and points out the evidence for Hirshl’s repressed homosexuality. All this is interesting. But At the Handles of the Lock shows its origins as a PhD thesis, and proves again – if further proof were needed – that the thesis is a bad vehicle for literary cogitation. Aberbach’s eagerness to sustain an argument frequently leads him to overemphasise the psychological dimension to Agnon’s work, and occasionally leads him into straight misreading.

A Simple Story is a masterpiece of the shifting perspective, of shiftiness and wile. As well gather moonbeams in a jar as attempt to trap the meaning of such a work in a thesis. Its elusiveness has much to do with its mock innocence. From behind the persona of an unsophisticated, wide-eyed and open-minded narrator, Agnon multiplies the perspectives of his story without ever having to come into view. Moreover, the narrator is not the sort of chap we can credit with creative energy or inspiration, so that the story, and the world of Szybusz and its ways, seem simply to have been found, not made. And how simply.

These are arts which Christopher Burns has yet to master. There are others, however, of which he already has an impressive command. Snakewrist, a first novel of unusual promise, is far too concerned with getting across a message to sustain over its full length the illusion of being about things and people and places that exist outside its pages. The moral schema that shapes its plot and characters deprives them of any proper chance to be wayward or to perform the unexpected: with the result that, looked back upon, the novel seems rather flat and dry. But there are oases, passages of superb writing, where experience finds words with the rightness of fine poetry. These tend to be passages about nature, like the passage near the start of the novel, in which Toby Savage and his girlfriend Lucy make love in open country. Lucy suggests it. Toby objects. ‘I’d feel stupid,’ he says. ‘Let’s live,’ says Lucy. But she’s got the wrong guy.

He lifted his eyes a little, drawn by some disturbance at the edge of his vision. Momentarily confused, he watched the grass all around them begin to boil and glisten with black and gossamer. It seethed, welling up from within itself in a puzzling, spreading frenzy. Startled, almost scared, he lifted himself up on his arms. ‘Lucy?’

She twisted her head.

All around them hundreds, thousands of ants had erupted to the surface of the field, the females winged for flight, the males clutching them with their tiny black bodies bent for mating. As Toby and Lucy watched, the ants rose, locked together and rising higher into the air. Wherever they turned the sky was full of them. They got up and began to dash them from their clothes. Toby felt the tiny bodies against his fingers as he brushed them away.

‘It’s marvellous.’ Lucy was thrilled. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’

But Toby felt humiliated by the forces of nature and said nothing.

The description is splendid. The message banal. Lucy is OK because she finds nature moving and marvellous. Toby is not OK because he finds it humiliating. Neither of them is allowed the freedom to choose which of the two sides of this dichotomy they will opt for. The scheme of the novel could not accommodate it if Toby were to find the ants marvellous too. It has already been decided that Toby doesn’t know how to live.

What it means to live is represented in Snakewrist by Amazonian tribal culture, the last vestiges of which are fast being destroyed by Christianity and greed. The part of Christianity in the novel is played by Brother Peter, a worldly, unctuous priest, who argues for the conversion of the Indians on the grounds that it saves them from the property developers and speculators, whose mechanical diggers every day come closer, shovelling the last flower-beds of the Garden of Eden into the ditch. There is something sinister, even mildly insane about Brother Peter, and his characterisation is one of the strongest in the book. But Snakewrist is less about the calculated rapacity of money and religion, as about the inadvertent damage done by the idle intruder. By Dexter Parnaby, for example, a fourth-rate adventurer, who, aping the heroes of his boyhood, blunders and plunders his way into the rain forest, without knowing what he is doing or why. Or Sophie Parnaby, who goes off to look for traces of this brother she has idolised, and returns with a small Javarunu Indian boy, Jorge, whom she takes back to Bloomsbury to bring up in the Lord. And, worst of all, Toby Savage, the ambitious young librarian and archivist, who, to make his name as a biographer, tramples all over the sanctuaries of Javarunu taboo in search of Dexter Parnaby’s last diary, the one he wrote before crashing his light aircraft into the jungle.

The Javarunu find Toby so incredibly stupid, so pathetically incompetent for life, that they change his name from the Javarunu for ‘savage’ (which is, after all, his name) to ‘idiot’. What puts the lid on it for them is the discovery, via Jorge, that Toby has spent his life doing ‘nothing but collect millions of leaves folded over on each other, and coloured white as crab flesh, and covered with signs that were supposed to hold all the knowledge in the world’. The only book the Javarunu have ever seen was Dexter Parnaby’s last diary, good for nothing but to plug a hole in the wall.

The Javarunu do a lot for Toby. They nurse him back from the brink of death, they give him a woman and a home, they feed him succulent grubs and monkeys’ eyes, they put up with his unproductive presence among them. But Toby is too vain to be grateful, and too crass to appreciate the delicacy of his position. Eventually, he affronts Javarunu decorum so badly that they suppose him to be some kind of demon. They destroy him just at the moment when Toby thinks he has finally understood how to live. Our last look at Toby finds him ‘no longer recognisable’. ‘From head to foot he was covered in thousands of ants.’ Insect meets insect. Toby has come home.

Snakewrist is animated by Christopher Burns’s boundless contempt for his main character, Toby Savage. Into Toby he has poured every bad feature that a certain kind of Englishman – academic, bookish, middle-class – has to offer. Smug, snobbish, vain, lacking in a sense of humour, unable to see the joke about himself, ambitious, alienated from his body, mechanical about sex. There is absolutely nothing attractive about Toby, who goes through his Conradian paces without learning a thing. He is a liability for the book’s wider argument about the exploitation of the third world by the first, because he is altogether too appalling to be representative. Clearly it is not only the Javarunu who have scores to settle with this demon.

Through its scorn for Toby and Toby’s values (his preference for books over life), Snakewrist comes close to biting its own tail (or tale). In opposition to Toby’s sterile reality, Burns elaborates the myth of an uncorrupted society where man lives in harmony with nature, before mind gets separated from body or sex from the sacred, before the cross and the chequebook, before the library and librarians. He lavishes creative resources on trying to establish this vision. But if one chose to, one could see it as just another example of the exploitative Western attitudes towards Amazonian culture that Burns is so zealous to expose and ridicule. Burns seems to recognise that the more he writes the deeper into this contradiction he gets. Hence his hatred, above all else, for books, and his decision to make the book the symbol of civilisation’s evil.

Toby Savage’s greatest stupidity is to fail to see the life that is going on under his nose. There is a sense in which this is Christopher Burns’s mistake too. But it takes great creative maturity to go the easiest way, to accept the material that lies to hand. It was good to turn back to A Simple Story and to sit with it, like Blume Nacht alone in her cousin’s home, ‘her open book opening worlds’.