Commentary Magazine


To This Day: An Afterword

Apart from his name, Shmuel Yosef Agnon is hardly better known in English today than he was before winning the Nobel Prize in 1966. Although most of his work was translated after that date, it has had a limited audience, much of which, one suspects, may have wondered what the Nobel was about. Can this author really be the great Hebrew writer and foremost 20th-century novelist and storyteller that he is said to be?

Why has Agnon’s reputation in English fared so poorly?

The main culprit is translation. Most English renderings of Agnon have failed miserably. It is possible to translate him well, but not by going about it wrongly.

Many great writers are difficult to translate. But the challenge posed by Agnon is special. It is not syntactical, for his sentences are simple and demand no fancy footwork on the translator’s part. It is not lexical, as there is nothing unusually rich about his language. And it is not musical, because his prose is never poetic.

The problem is stylistic in the broadest sense. Agnon’s Hebrew is unique. In diction, in choice of idiom and vocabulary, even in morphology and grammar, there is nothing comparable to it. It is, one might say, a distinct dialect, an imagined language such as might have developed had the history of modern Hebrew been different.

This “dialect” has numerous archaic features that do not exist in Israeli speech and writing. It is based on the Hebrew of rabbinic literature, whose many periods and genres (the Mishnaic, the talmudic, the medieval, the post-medieval; the midrashic story, the legal discussion, the textual commentary, the hasidic tale) Agnon brilliantly synthesized in a style all his own. Moreover, he perfected and wrote in this style in the early to mid-20th century, when the vernacular spoken and written in Israel was taking another direction by which he stubbornly refused to be influenced. His prose creates an alternative linguistic world; it is a declaration of allegiance to Jewish tradition and an implied critique, not only of modern, secular Hebrew, but of the modern, secular culture that this Hebrew represents.

How, though, is the English translator to convey such a “dialect”? A minor detail illustrates the problem. In the opening paragraph of To This Day, the narrator relates: “Every morning a chambermaid brought me a cup of coffee and two or three slices of bread.” Now, coffee in modern Hebrew is kaféy, like French café and German Kaffee. Agnon’s narrator, however, uses the Yiddish and Polish word kava, which also served in Eastern-European rabbinic Hebrew. It signals to the Hebrew reader at the outset that this lonely young man living in a boarding house in wartime Berlin is nostalgic for the Galician shtetl in which he was born and raised.

But what is the translator to do with kava? True, English has its own archaic words for “coffee”: the 17th century alone offers us “kahve,” “kauhi,” “kahu,” “cauphe,” and “capha.” Yet to have the narrator say, “Every morning a chambermaid brought me a cup of kahve and two or three slices of bread,” would be absurd. Far from communicating his nostalgia, it would turn him into a ludicrous linguistic antiquarian.

Such peculiarities of vocabulary, idiom, phrasing, and grammatical inflection occur numerous times on every page by Agnon. There can be no straightforward English equivalent of his rabbinically-based Hebrew for the simple reason that there is no straightforward English equivalent of rabbinic Hebrew itself. Any attempt to invent such an English can only lead to “kahve translation.”

And yet while none of Agnon’s English translators has actually given us “kahve” for kava, kahve translation is what we have gotten from most of them. Instead of cutting their unavoidable losses by recognizing that Agnon’s style cannot be imitated directly, and is best conveyed in an idiomatic English marked by the intonations and back-and-forth rhythms of rabbinic discourse, they have chased the literalist chimera of an Agnonesque English and left us with an Agnon who is unreadable.
This has been a misfortune for Hebrew literature, for Jewish culture, and for the world of letters at large. One hopes that the seven chapters of To This Day preceding this Afterword demonstrate that there is a readable Agnon, too, one who richly deserved the honor bestowed on him in Stockholm.

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Yet even a readable Agnon is not easy to read. Or, rather, he is deceptively easy and therefore easy to misread. Agnon must be read extremely closely, because he is a master of the misleading feint, the false trail, the veiled hint, and the hidden clue. It is often when he appears to be least consequential that he is most so, and vice-versa. In taking our eyes off him for a moment we risk being duped by his sleight of hand.

Once again, a small example makes the point. In Chapter Six of To This Day there is a scene in which the “golem,” Hans Trotzmüller, the shell-shocked son of the narrator’s landlady, insists on taking the narrator’s bags to his boarding house from the Berlin train station at which they have arrived with a detachment of wounded soldiers under the supervision of a nurse named Bernhardina. As the narrator tells it:

“If you’ll write down your address,” Bernhardina said to me, “I’ll have your bags delivered.”

I pulled myself together, took pencil and paper, and wrote the name of the boarding house with its street and number. Bernhardina read what I wrote, glanced at the soldiers, pointed to one of them, and said: “Take this gentleman’s bags and bring them to his residence.” The soldier took the piece of paper, read the address aloud, and reached for my bags.

It was then that a strange thing happened. The golem, who had been passive until now, snatched my bags from the soldier and blurted, “Me, me, me!” This was as worrisome as it was odd, because who knew what a golem might do with my bags or where he might bring them.

This sudden flurry of activity on the part of the aphasic and amnesiac Hans indeed seems mysterious. Only in the following chapter, in which Hans is restored to his family, is it revealed to be part of the fulfillment of his mother’s dream, in which the narrator, now made homeless, sees the uneven hand of Providence. This, in any case, is his own wry explanation at the chapter’s end:

I believe it was Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav who said that God in His goodness conducts the world’s affairs more splendidly from day to day. My own affairs were an exception. From day to day, they were conducted more squalidly.

There is, however, another explanation of Hans’s behavior. The narrator has told us that “The soldier took the piece of paper, read the address aloud, and reached for my bags.” Could not Hans have heard this address and recognized it as his own through the fog of his amnesia? In that case, there is no mystery at all. But many readers will overlook this possibility, which Agnon conceals in a throwaway phrase even as he dangles it in front of us. Although the phrase could have been emphasized by being placed at the end of the sentence (e.g., “The soldier reached for my bags, then took the piece of paper and read the address aloud”), or at its beginning, it has been deliberately sandwiched inconspicuously in mid-sentence.

This is not trivial. Hans’s homecoming is one of several events in To This Day that suggest to the narrator, who has a religious sensibility, that a secret order prevails in this world. Yet the question of whether there actually is such an element of design, or merely the illusion of one produced by the need to find purpose where none exists, is a central issue in To This Day, in which the two points of view are played off against each other. A purely naturalistic explanation of Hans’s behavior does not make it any less startling that his mother’s dream should come true, but it does enable us to view such a development as sheer coincidence. There is nothing remarkable, after all, about a woman associating her missing son in a dream with a young male boarder who is lodging in this son’s room, nor about the son traveling with the boarder in one train, especially since both of them are coming from Brigitta Schimmermann’s convalescent nursing home.

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Brigitta Schimmermann’s role in To This Day is another example of how Agnon demands our total attention if we are to avoid being led astray. In her case, the wrong turn is the opposite of the one we are in danger of taking with Hans.

On the face of it, the narrator runs into Brigitta by pure coincidence while changing trains in Leipzig on his way to Grimma, where he is traveling in order to inspect the library of his deceased friend Dr. Levi. And indeed a coincidence is what it is, there having been no way for him to know that Brigitta would be in the train station.

Yet Agnon gives us reason to suspect that there is more to it than this, and that the real motive for the narrator’s trip may be less Levi’s books than the design of finding Brigitta, with whom he appears to have once been in love. Two brief passages point to this conclusion. One is the narrator’s exchange with a waitress in Leipzig in Chapter Four, which prompts him to visit Brigitta in the nearby town of Lunenfeld—and which informs the careful reader that he has known all along that this is where Brigitta’s nursing home is located, since it is not something the waitress tells him. Has his trip to Grimma, then, been only a pretext for a visit to Lunenfeld?

The likelihood of this is strengthened by the second, earlier passage—an account in Chapter Three of the narrator’s bizarre conversation in the hospital with Dr. Levi’s sick widow. Although he has told us that the widow has asked to consult with him about her deceased husband’s books, she herself is uncertain whether she has done so. Has her illness affected her memory? Perhaps. But it may also be that the narrator has imagined, if not her letter to him, then part of its contents, reading more into them than was there. Can he in effect have invited himself to Grimma because Lunenfeld and Brigitta are nearby?

And what, actually, are his feelings for Brigitta? If he is still in love with her, he never admits it to himself, just as he never admits that he is afraid of her. Yet what but fear can have made him, thrilled to meet her in the train station, forget to ask where the lunch to which she has invited him will take place, so that he is forced to forgo it?

Brigitta arouses ambivalent emotions in him. On the one hand, she is charming, beautiful, intelligent, witty, gracious, sexually attractive. On the other hand, she is calculating and manipulative, and her wartime German patriotism repels him. In addition, she is a Gentile and a married woman, which make her excitingly forbidden and dangerous. (Alas, no translator can do full justice to Agnon’s ominously naming Brigitta’s favorite restaurant “The Lion’s Den,” for the name in Hebrew, Me’on ha-Arayot, can also be punningly read to mean “The Place of Forbidden Sexual Relations.”)

The narrator does not reflect on such things. Sharply observant with regard to others, he is shallow when talking or thinking about himself. Even when it comes to his crucial decision to leave Palestine, to which he went to live as a young Zionist, all he can say is that “the notion got into” him, and when questioned about this by his cousin Malka, he answers evasively until he makes her change the subject. Unable to confront his guilt at having abandoned the Zionist cause, he is equally reluctant to face the reasons that led him to do so, among them, it would seem, a desire for sexual adventure that the provincial life of Palestine had no scope for.

It is in this context, too, that one must read the ironic episode of the goose liver that is given him by Malka. This, as the Israeli critic Nitza Ben-Dov has put it,

is clearly a dramatized expression of the narrator’s erotic distress. . . . [A]s a vegetarian he cannot sate himself by sinking his teeth into what most men would consider a treat; [but] he cannot rid himself of the burden of it, either, and he is condemned to carry it around with him until he is thoroughly befouled.

Given his blindness to himself, it is hardly surprising that the narrator is hostile to psychological introspection, which he derides twice in the novel—once in Chapter One, at whose end he pokes fun at the new school of Freudian analysis, and again in Chapter Five, in which he tells a long “shaggy dog story” to Brigitta as a way of fending off her questions while letting her know that he considers it pointless to probe oneself too deeply. More than anything, he fears his own unconscious mind, as is brought out by the dream with which the first half of To This Day ends.

The symbolism of this dream comes from a story with which the narrator is familiar: that of Jephthah in the biblical book of Judges, who goes to war and vows that if he is victorious he will sacrifice to God the first creature to run to him when he comes home. Jephthah thinks this will be one of his farmyard animals; to his dismay, however, it is his daughter.

Lying in the bathtub of the boarding house, to which he has been ignominiously banished, the narrator dreams that

a great war had broken out and I was called up to fight and took a solemn oath that if God brought me home safe and sound I would sacrifice to Him whatever came forth from my house to greet me. I returned home safe and sound and behold, coming forth to greet me was myself.

Jephthah’s worst nightmare is to encounter the child he is returning to; the narrator’s, the man he is fleeing from.

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The first seven chapters of To This Day have an internal unity of their own, so much so that at least one critic has proposed that Agnon should have ended his novel with Chapter Seven. Fortunately he did not, for To This Day in its entirety is a superbly achieved work even if its remaining eight chapters may seem to be, when read casually, diffuse and less sharply focused. Held together plot-wise by the narrator’s search for a place to live after being forced to leave the Trotz-müllers’s, which makes him wander from one rented room to another, they conclude with his return to Palestine, together with Dr. Levi’s library, at the war’s end. In this they have a large autobiographical component, since the Galician-born Agnon, like his protagonist, settled in Palestine as a young man, sailed back to Europe a few years later, passed the World War I years in Berlin, and eventually returned to Jerusalem, where he spent the rest of his life.

To This Day is thematically a novel about many things, but at its center is always the figure of the narrator, torn symbolically, as it were, between Brigitta Schimmermann and Dr. Levi’s books—that is, between the blood-claims of sexuality and war and their intellectual and spiritual sublimation, between the romantic glitter of European culture and the sober discipline of Jewish tradition, between the wander-life of the Diaspora and the home of Zion. And because this conflict takes place in a clever mind that is peculiarly opaque to itself, To This Day is also about self-delusion and self-awareness, the innocent wholeness of religious faith versus the tragic sense of a purposeless world.

But why, the frustrated reader may protest, does Agnon not come out and say all this openly? Why the concealment, the buried clues, the literary subterfuge? Why make things deliberately hard for us?

The answer is that Agnon is an author for whom reality, psychological, social, and metaphysical, is never what it seems to be—and unless we, his readers, are willing to engage in the laborious spadework of digging into it along with him, he cannot fully impart to us his sense of its complexity. There are other great writers of whom this can also be said, like Proust or Henry James, to mention two novelists who are unlike Agnon in other respects.

And to this must be added Agnon’s specific Jewish background and rabbinic outlook. For what is Torah, to the rabbinic mind, but God’s encoded message to man, in which every word and letter has not just one but multiple meanings that no amount of close reading can exhaust, so that the work of its decipherment is both endless and endlessly rewarding? Rather than complain about how difficult it is, the rabbinic mind rejoices that its supply of difficulties will never run out.

Agnon, who was raised as a religiously observant Jew, left the Orthodox fold during his first stay in Palestine and his wartime years in Germany, and then returned to it in Jerusalem, did not think that he was writing Torah. He knew the difference between an infinite Creator and a finite one. But within the limits of finiteness, he sought to pack as much meaning as he could—and, one might add, as much uncertainty—into every line of his fiction.

Reading Agnon can be frustrating, for once we grasp, as not everyone does, that he is never as simple as he pretends to be, we may begin to feel trapped in his maze. This has turned away impatient readers. Yet his fiction has no dead ends. Every trap has its exit, and it is possible to come to the last of them. The rewards of doing so are great, and though they are not endless, it can take more than one complete reading of a novel like To This Day to reap them all.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.