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Agnon - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
November 8th, 2003
12:03 pm


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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.

Current Mood: quiet

(9 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:November 8th, 2003 02:27 am (UTC)

I agree, those who can, should.

But there is one thing. He was born as Shmuel Yosef Tshatshkis. As he had such tremendous success with the story "עגונות" he had started using the name Agnon. I'm not certain it ever was his real name.

As for the rest, I do agree about reading it with proper reference - I don't agree it's age dependant. I fell in love with his writing at 16, with "תהילה", leading me to the rest of his works.
There are people who have a problem with biblical hebrew, those who can't even read the bible without help, who've never read Shalom Aleichem or Mendeleii Mocher-Sfarim. Some of them are 40, and never will.
Date:November 8th, 2003 03:25 am (UTC)
I know several people who discovered Agnon at "old age" (such as my brother who is now 33 and fell inlove with Agnon at recent years).

His language is rich and beautiful. Oh, how I mourn my ornate and figurative Hebrew of days past. I can quite date the stages of losing it in favour of a modern cruder language: the time I was with a friend at a coffee place at nineteen realizing the people at the table next to us are making fun of our language, my first job after the army with a girl who kept making rude jokes who I bagged her to stop till finally joining her after months of holding back.

I used to have such a wonderful rich language which I have now substituted with a lean, non figurative one. Even at my writings I seldom use it these days.
[User Picture]
Date:November 8th, 2003 03:49 am (UTC)

Presumably he was translated

...since he's the only Hebrew writer to win a Noble Prize for Literature (though he shared it with someone, can't remeber who). I just don't see the Nobel prize committee learning Hebrew.
[User Picture]
Date:November 8th, 2003 02:22 pm (UTC)
I first met Agnon when we studied "האדונית והרוכל" last year, and I truly loved it and appreciated his language and style. I know exactly what are you talking about, Asaf - most of the people in my class neither understood the story nor cared too much about it. We read a couple more of his works this year, and when I'll go to the library next, I will borrow one of his books. He's truly charming.

Sometimes when I'm in a special mood, I write in an ornate language. It just comes out like that; But when reading it later it usually looks stupid, and I then change it.

Yesterday at work, a 10 y/o girl laughed at me for using the word "משליכים" (instead of "זורקים"). It was quite annoying.
[User Picture]
Date:November 9th, 2003 12:46 am (UTC)

Agnon is my favorite Hebrew author

I absolutely love his work.
Although in high-school I preferred the science subjects, and didn't like poetry and such, I really enjoyed all the pieces of Agnon in our curriculum.
Although his language is not common, I loved it.
...and I have one volume of his work near my bed (along with other book pile...)
I'll read more of Agnon, no doubt there.
It's a pure joy.

Remember I told you about this trip I had about a year ago in Talpiyot, Jerusalem? This trip had the theme of "Tmol Shilshom" by Agnon, which tells the whole story about all the houses he lived in, and how they all burnt down or fell apart.

Thank you ijon for this entry.
You made me remember...
[User Picture]
Date:November 12th, 2003 11:25 am (UTC)
Sorry for intervention. I love Agnon very much (at least the books I read - such as תמול שלשום), I enjoy every his row, despite the fact I am not native Hebrew speaker. Of couse, he is readble. :) I just think his language is rather Talmudic (can I say Mishnaic?) than Biblical, and his style has nothing to do with the Bible. Correct me if I am wrong (I guess you study literature).
[User Picture]
Date:November 13th, 2003 03:14 am (UTC)
Oh, I would say his style certainly has a lot to do with the Bible. I did not mean to imply that his vocabulary is purely Biblical -- it certainly isn't, nor that his primary inspiration is strictly the Bible (in fact, a critic [Kurzweil? I forget] once said of Agnon's stories: "I can read an Agnon story and tell you which Talmud page he was reading on the day he wrote it.").

The most obvious Biblical feel in Agnon's prose is the syntax. It was impossible to miss in בדמי ימיה for instance, which is what I've read most recently and so remember best. The constant use of the Biblical past form (ואלך, ויאמר, ואראה, etc.) is the most obvious element, but plenty of Biblical structural parallelisms (תקבולות) are easy to spot as well.

Please don't apologize for 'intervening' -- this journal is public for several reasons, a primary one being inviting conversation with strangers, and possibly getting to know them. You're quite welcome here.
[User Picture]
Date:November 16th, 2003 02:19 pm (UTC)

רואה אני כי לא קראתי את ה' עגנון כל צרכי


(: טוב, אני רצה מיד להשיג את "בדמי ימיה"!
Date:December 8th, 2003 03:18 pm (UTC)


אני קורא עכשיו את בדמי ימיה, ומרגיש מידה של אכזבה מהפרוזה בהשואה למה שזכרתי מ"פנים אחרות".
הייתה בפנים אחרות איזו זרימה מתגלגלת וחלקה שמאוד חסרה לי בבדמי ימיה.
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