Page 40 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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J
e w i s h
B
o o k
A
n n u a l
20
His handling of history likewise seems personal and subjec-
tive. By history we mean the clash and play of social forces, the
way events follow one another. So in Proust, temperaments
blossom before our eyes like ferns in a high-speed movie. History
so obsessed Tolstoy, his stories at times go underground alto-
gether. Agnon occasionally refers to historic periods, but to an-
cient legends and epic suggestions, the tides of a human spirit,
not the pressure of social forces. The present seems often to hang
suspended, heavy with inertia, its tranquillity almost tangible.
Susan, in
Betrothed,
suffers sleeping sickness; yet perhaps her
sickness is merely one of utter torpor, waiting for her betrothed
to consummate their marriage. In action, as in setting, subjec-
tive and objective seem to blur. We have a sense of being teased,
that the action reduces itself to a state of soul. This cannot be
asserted dogmatically. Agnon only occasionally smacks of Hiero-
nimus Bosch. And yet the story characteristically folds inward,
into the narrator or hero, not as what actually happens. The
events themselves do not force themselves irresistibly upon us.
When a character meanders about, we are less interested in the
scenery than in his condition of meandering. It is not entirely
clear at the end of
Betrothed
if the heroine is alive or dead, the
hero committed in betrothal or a spinster widower. Only one
thing is clear, that he is no longer isolated in endless twilight.
Agnon has a more insistent pace in his chronicles, the tales of
a pious brotherhood, sailing off for the Holy Land, of a pious
father, who sets off in horse and wagon to marry off his many
daughters. In his more secular and contemporary tales, events
happen in a slower, more inexorable development, gradually
unfolding before the reader. An event rather chances on one
page, another there, then a mood picture, a casual brush of
action; ten years go by, and we are ready for another event.
Agnon’s most soaring vision is for medieval history. Events roll
by as a wayward tapestry, an event, a mood, a moment of change,
and the story is done. It seems clear from his pace that Agnon
is essentially a lyric writer. Plots per se interest him little. He
does not follow a protagonist and antagonist through suspense
to a decisive encounter. Often it is unclear at the end precisely
what has happened, or to whom. His works tend to reduce
themselves to tapestries of short stories, like
The Bridal Canopy.
He does not unfold any learned system, as did Dante or Spenser.
He rather lyrically unfolds a temperament with a delicately
casual touch, then shifts it in a fresh direction. His surrealism
is occasional, because he is not after even grotesque and surreal-
istic action, but the shifts of a person’s spirit, however rendered.
Agnon’s minor characters tend not to be discreet, three-dimen-
sional figures, but personified impulses and gestures. They are
not allegorical, though certain professions bear a heavy allegorical