By SY Agnon (Trans: Hillel Halkin)
The Toby Press, £9.99
‘Overhead, in the room above me, lived a soldier who had lost a leg in the war and now had a prosthesis. He and it were still learning to walk together and to figure out what sort of leg it was.” With Agnon, the style is the vision. In this, his last novel, published in Hebrew in 1952, he takes as his subject a Galician Jew who, like him, is called Shmuel Yosef. Again like him, he has come from Palestine to Berlin at the start of the second decade of the 20th century, to find himself stranded there by the war, unable to get back to his beloved Haifa, moving from Berlin to Leipzig and back, forced to live in ever cheaper and more uncomfortable lodgings, yet never losing his independence of mind and his amused yet humane outlook on life.
This is the urban world of Grosz, with chauvinistic Germans (and Jews) living in increasingly reduced circumstances, and traumatised and wounded war veterans trying to eke out a living and obliterate the reality of their situation from their minds. But it is also a world where Eastern and German Jews argue endlessly about books and God, the rights and wrongs of Zionism, and the meaning of life.
Abruptly, the war comes to an end and the narrator is able to return home to Palestine and build a house, partly so he would never have to rent a room in someone else’s flat again, and partly to shelter the extensive Jewish library which a friend’s widow has bequeathed to him: “And because so many things befell me and I lived to tell about them all, I have called this book ‘To This Day’ in the language of thanksgiving for the past and prayer for the future. As it says in the Sabbath morning service: To this day have thy mercies availed us and thy kindness not failed us, O Lord our God. And mayest thou never abandon us ever.”
But as Hillel Halkin points out in a brilliant and profound introduction — which is also the best introduction to Agnon’s work as a whole that I have ever read — we read this author “straight” at our peril. Agnon himself, though he settled in Palestine from Galicia in 1908 and then moved to Berlin in 1912, did not leave immediately after the war. He stayed on till 1924. Europe offered him something that Palestine did not and could not.
His innocent and ever optimistic narrator, Halkin suggests, has something in him of the hero of Voltaire’s great satire on mindless optimism, Candide, a work he is shown reading at one point. And there is enough in the book to suggest that we need to set against the narrator’s naive and unquestioning Zionism the views of other characters, who argue that it is the destiny of Jews to wander for ever in countries not their own, living temporarily in rooms that do not belong to them, and that to imagine we can build a paradise on earth is a terrible mistake.
This seemingly lightweight book speaks to us today as powerfully as it did when first published and we owe a debt of gratitude to Halkin and to the Toby Press for now making all this great writer’s novels available in English.