The Genius of S. Y. Agnon
THE FLOURISHING OF a diversified secular literature in Hebrew during the last two hundred years is in its way as remarkable as any blossoming of garden spots on neglected desert soil in Israel. The pioneer farmers had at least the sand to start with, while the new Hebrew literature, from its inception during the Enlightenment until after the First World War, had no land, no secular literary tradition, not even a body of Hebrew-speaking readers, in which it could take root. And the society of Palestine and Israel, in constant transition during the last four decades, has scarcely given the Hebrew writer more solid ground on which to stand.
Quite understandably, readers of modern Hebrew literature are inclined to be defensive about it. In the rare cases when someone of real interest has appeared on the Hebrew literary scene, critics have pounced on any connections they could make with major European writers: comparison was a way of saying that one of the local products had arrived. Thus Mendele Mocher Seforim, whose vivid satirical portrayal of East European Jewry made him, toward the end of the last century, the first important Hebrew novelist, was tagged the Hebrew Cervantes-simply because he had committed the indiscretion of modeling one minor novel after Don Quixote. Y. H. Brenner, an intent, introspective writer (and translator of Crime and Punishment) whose stories during the early years of this century repeatedly contemplated the alternatives of madness and suicide, was inevitably labeled the Hebrew Dostoevsky. (At about the same time in Yiddish literature, Sholom Aleichem was having his place fixed as the Jewish Mark Twain.) Shmuel Yosef Agnon has dominated Hebrew fiction now for more than half a century, and consequently he has been a favorite subject for these international comparisons. The diversity and complexity of his work has caused his name to be linked with more than one European writer.
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