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Agnon's Last Word

- Abstract

ANYONE for whom novels have mattered must surely at times be troubled by the sort of doubt Mary McCarthy raised some years ago in one of her most intelligent, and disquieting, essays, “The Fact in Fiction.” In a century of scarcely imaginable historical outrages, what, after all, is one to do with a literary form so sturdily commonsensical, concerned as it traditionally has been with the realistic rendering of ordinary experience, the potential of revelation in trivia, the gossipy side of human intercourse, the petty frustrations, sordidness, or sheer banality of local scenes and personal relations? Mary McCarthy states this dilemma of the contemporary novelist with painful sharpness: “If he writes about his province, he feels its inverisimilitude; if he tries, on the other hand, to write about people who make lampshades of human skin, like the infamous Ilse Koch, he feels still more the inverisimilitude of what he is asserting.”

The work of S.Y. Agnon provides an especially instructive instance of the difficulties of the novelistic imagination in engaging modern historical reality because there is such a peculiar and baffling duality in Agnon’s relation to the 20th century. Stylistically, of course, he made a point of seceding from his own age, insisting on a meticulously classical Hebrew, even, for example, in the speech of a kibbutznik or the dialogue of a very contemporary lover and his mistress-a language that goes back many centuries to the formative texts of rabbinic tradition. Both early and late in his career, he sometimes chose to write about what was, literally, his province (Galicia) before its familiar forms of Jewish life were obliterated by the onslaught of modern history. Turn-of-the-century Buczacz remained a favorite setting for his short- er fiction, in his declining years occasionally inviting something like pious reminiscence, and his first big novel, The Bridal Canopy, takes us all the way back to a Galicia of the 18th century. Yet Agnon could not, I think, have written at all without in some way using his work to sound the abysses of modern history, for modern history constituted a ruthlessly uncompromising challenge to the validity of the language, values, and traditions from which he shaped his fiction.

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