Page 43 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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23
S
tam p fer
— A
gnon
: L
yricist
of
M
odern
F
ict ion
tures of Huckleberry Finn,
where Huck is no more unpredictable
than Nigger Jim, Jim and the other characters have a social
location or a starkly delineated choice. Only Huck can settle
wherever he chooses. At the end, when he elects out, all society
hangs in judgment before him, its framework as well as the
book’s principal character, who can choose anything, settle any-
where. This openness of possibility distinguishes Hamlet from
all other characters in
Hamlet,
Adam in
Paradise Lost,
Prince
Mishkin in
The Idiot.
In the more lyric plots of Agnon, the monodrama element
changes key. We neither suffer the choking closeness of much of
Wolfe and Miller, nor contemplate vistas like the Mississippi
Valley. Our setting is rather a man’s spirit. Figures blob up, im-
pulses, fantasies. We do not grasp “all-of־him,” encountering
“the-real-world,” but more lyrically flow with him through ex-
perience. We never feel short-changed by Agnon’s highly stylized
minor characters; we were never after rounded, distinct char-
acters to begin with. Their profession has a characteristic ges-
ture, and the gesture registers. How much more does anyone
know of his neighbors than their characteristic gesture?
Agnon then writes in a lyrical style; but this is not essentially
mystical or magical. The temptation is there to read him in
this way. Agnon is not only a pious, but a learned Jew, steeped
in Midrash and Kabbalah. During his extended stay in Germany,
he studied mysticism. Stories like “The Orchestra” end when
mystical oneness seems attained. His easy wealth of fable suggests
some level of reality not vouchsafed all of us. Nevertheless, this
critical stance is doubtfully valid. Too many of his tales have
a straightforward human meaning, for us comfortably to take
the rest as mystical explorations. Furthermore, a clutter of spe-
cialized meanings has too little universality for his reverberating
power. Agnon does at times narrate mystical experiences; but
they remain narratives, to be grasped as experiences, not alle-
gories with a more esoteric import. They are rich in catharses,
not in nuggets of learnedness. Objects, professions, buildings,
interiors sometimes reveal traditional meanings worth exploring.
So Klee handled objects in his paintings, so delicately evocative
and suggestive; we nevertheless come to Klee’s paintings for their
joyous wonder, not as windows to another world. It is a grace
note to know a whole loaf is required for the Sabbath blessing;
we thoroughly enjoy “A Whole Loaf” without it.
This, then, is the Agnon story movement. Characteristically, he
begins depicting the state of soul of the hero. Thus, “The Or-
chestra” begins:
I was kept busy all year. Each day, from early morning
until midnight, I would sit at my table and write, sometimes