November 8th, 2003


Shmuel Yossef Agnon (commonly called S.Y. Agnon, and ש"י עגנון in Hebrew) wrote absolutely marvelous prose. Some of his stories are part of the standard literature program for junior high schools, and I, too, had been made to read a few: בדמי ימיה, והיה העקוב למישור, תהילה, האדונית והרוכל, הרופא וגרושתו.

I remember most of my fellow pupils having great difficulty understanding his unique prose, because of the rather Biblical style and vocabulary of his Hebrew (although he is surprisingly readable despite that) . They had trouble figuring out what he was talking about. I handled the prose rather well, and did not find it too hard, probably thanks to my having read a lot in my childhood, including some old-school translations which sounded rather Biblical themselves.

But I didn't much care for Agnon at the time. His language -- his cunning choice of words, his composition, his constant allusion to various layers of Jewish thought, from scripture to then-contemporary customs -- went right by me. I did not appreciate the sheer beauty of his craft.

Last year, in Prof. Perry's course, I was required to read Agnon's פנים אחרות, a short story which Perry used to demonstrate some of his theories of analogies disguised as metonymies. Reading it was discovering Agnon. My current appreciation for and fascination with language simply did not exist at 14, and my sound chamber for language was still rough. I resolved to begin reading Agnon's massive oeuvre, but of course found no time to do so yet.

Last week, Prof. Sternberg assigned Agnon's בדמי ימיה as one of the books we shall discuss in his remarkable Introduction to Theory of the Novel (although it's not a novel), and I've just finished reading it. The sharp reader will notice that this is one of the Agnon stories I had read back in junior high. I actually remembered the basic plot, but had no recollection of the lyrical beauty of the text. Rereading it was actually reading it for the first time with appropriate capacity for the story. If you can1, read Agnon!

...and immediately I think of my younger siblings, who can't enjoy Agnon today (they have far weaker Hebrew than I had at 14, and little interest in improving it, alas), and who probably never will. This saddens me.

1Hmm. Agnon in English? Scary thought. But Google suggests that several books (only a few) were translated into English. So I guess you Anglophones might try them, but I can't guarantee the magic in English.
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Burnt Books and Brothers

From Agnon's Nobel banquet speech:
I was five years old when I wrote my first song. It was out of longing for my father that I wrote it. It happened that my father, of blessed memory, went away on business. I was overcome with longing for him and I made a song. After that I made many songs, but nothing has remained of them all. My father's house, where I left a roomful of writings, was burned down in the First World War and all I had left there was burned with it. The young artisans, tailors, and shoemakers, who used to sing my songs at their work, were killed in the First World War and of those who were not killed in the war, some were buried alive with their sisters in the pits they dug for themselves by order of the enemy, and most were burned in the crematories of Auschwitz with their sisters, who had adorned our town with their beauty and sung my songs with their sweet voices.

The fate of the singers who, like my songs, went up in flame was also the fate of the books which I later wrote. All of them went up in flame to Heaven in a fire which broke out one night at my home in Bad Homburg as I lay ill in a hospital. Among the books that were burned was a large novel of some seven hundred pages, the first part of which the publisher had announced he was about to bring out. Together with this novel, called Eternal Life, was burned everything I had written since the day I had gone into exile from the Land of Israel, including a book I had written with Martin Buber as well as four thousand Hebrew books, most of which had come down to me from my forebears and some of which I had bought with money set aside for my daily bread.
What calamity. I hear the pain through those written words.
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Greek Geeks

I've been discussing the grammatical concept of verb aspect with ukelele. Discussing Classical Greek grammar with her is always fun. One of the reasons is her saying things like:
Like, if for some reason I were in a bar, and the personified concept of Aspect happened to be hitting on me, I'd totally go home with it.
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