By SY Agnon (trans: Hillel Halkin)
The Toby Press, £14.99
The last novel written by SY Agnon, doyen of Israeli literature and Nobel laureate, is finally available in English
SY Agnon was one of that extraordinary group of Jewish writers born in Galicia in the late 19th century, along with Bruno Schulz and Joseph Roth. He later moved to Palestine, where he lived for most of his life. His novels and many short stories tend to fall into two groups: those about traditional Jewish life in his native Galicia and those set in his adopted Palestine, from the early Zionist settlers to post-war Israel.
One of the greatest of Hebrew writers, Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. He died four years later.
But Agnon was also one of the many Jewish writers from East Europe who were drawn to Berlin. He spent 12 years in Germany, during and after the First World War, before returning to Palestine. His post-war novel, To This Day, his last — now finally translated into English (by Hillel Halkin, himself an accomplished writer) — is set in Berlin during the Great War and casts an interesting new light on Agnon. Suddenly we see him also as a contemporary of Brecht and Grosz, vividly evoking a landscape of seedy boarding rooms and mutilated soldiers. Few novels so forcefully bring home the desperate condition of wartime Berlin.
There is another twist: reading Agnon’s novel is like looking at a familiar painting by Beckmann or Grosz, but with a whole cast of Jewish characters painted into the foreground. Agnon conveys wartime Berlin by adding old Jewish scholars with their libraries and a younger generation of writers, actresses and Luftmenshen. In doing so, he has produced a novel full of insights about Jewish dilemmas, and about home and belonging, during this period.
To This Day is narrated by a Jewish writer from Galicia called Shmuel Yosef (we never learn his surname), who has come to Berlin from Palestine. He is staying in a shabby boarding house in Berlin and receives a letter from the widow of Dr Levi, a scholar, who doesn’t know what to do with her husband’s old Jewish books.
He sets out to visit her and, after many chance encounters, returns to Berlin, where he spends the rest of the novel looking for somewhere to live.
The book has a strangely bitter-sweet tone. It is by turns funny, thoughtful, quirky and desperately poignant. We meet a number of characters, some substantial, some not, and a few sentences (or pages) later discover that their son is missing or dead, killed in the war. The worst stories of all are from Agnon’s native Galicia, where Ukrainians and Russians have done their worst. But all are told in a light, almost naive style, which twists and turns from old-fashioned story-telling to playful modernism. It is brilliantly held together by the narrator’s search for a home and for a collection of old books — which increasingly come to stand for the future of Jewish culture and identity.
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer