Page 39 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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19
S
tam p fer
— A
g no n
: L
yricist
of
M
odern
F
iction
This extreme individualism veils his work from the western
reader. In several basic dimensions of western fiction, Agnon has
little interest. We are accustomed to exploring a world in our
story, to noting a city, a nation, a countryside, how an area moves,
from its plumbing arrangements to its techniques for landing
a job, Balzac’s Paris, Tolstoy’s Moscow, Melville’s expanse of
ocean. Agnon’s world is never localized and made substantial
in this way. The reader visits an odd corner of Jerusalem, the
seashore in Jaffa, a hotel in Berlin, and that is all. His elusive
individualism lies not merely in locale, but also in his degree of
realism. The narrated events glide along, sometimes realistically,
sometimes brushing surrealism, sometimes wholly surrealistic;
but it is too easy and occasional in tone to be wholly one or
the other. In “The Orchestra,” the narrator takes a realistic walk
to have a festival bath in his old nurse’s home. But when he
finally goes in, “The bath water leaped and rose at my approach” ;
and he goes away, frightened. In what sense did the water leap
and rise? Surrealistically? Yet we are back in a realistic walk
again. The gesture is too slight to be intended to create a “spooky”
atmosphere. Something else is rather intended.
And if Agnon’s individualism is not intended as surrealism,
still less is it Gothic. Gothic writers like Isak Dineson shape a
landscape of murky cathedrals, haunted mansions, and wind-
ing alleys, an atmosphere of high, eerie excitement. There the
craftsman emphatically shapes his tale, one you feel build and
tighten to its climax. Agnon is more elusive, his landscape thin-
ner, more familiar, not densely cluttered. Events blob up, but
they are wayward. The hero meets a rabbi, strolls along the
sea, visits a hotel, has a cup of tea. Did it happen? Was it a sur-
realistic gesture? We cannot always be sure.
The Proscenium Arch of Agnon
Agnon’s proscenium arch has a way of going haywire over
his stage. His tales do not maintain a recognizable equilibrium
of subjective and objective, of a setting and the sensitivity of the
man inhabiting it. His landscapes seem realistic and physical,
yet also psychic. They are too uncannily sympathetic or hostile
to the characters inside them. They stir to one another’s breath-
ing. In
Betrothed,
has Susan really won the final race, or only
in Jacob’s spirit? Even Jacob’s seashore walks, his seaweed, his
boat trips, are his spirit as well as the Jaffa landscape. Yet this
psychic tension is too familiar, too casual and naturalistic to
establish a “World of Art” in contrast to the “Workaday World.”
Agnon seems rather after something else, more personal.