Page 45 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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S
tam pfer
— A
gnon
: L
yricist
of
M
odern
F
iction
25
an overgrown boy or solitary adult, one who often has a spiritual
or learned way of life, a botanist in
Betrothed,
a writer in "The
Orchestra,” an Orthodox recluse in
The Bridal Canopy,
a his-
torian in “Forevermore.” Even when married, as in
Edo and
Enam,
the hero is temporarily single, his family away, for now a
bachelor again. The solitary is typically ripe for a change. In
Betrothed
an appointment to an American university is immi-
nent. In
The Bridal Canopy
his daughters must be provided for
their weddings. In “The Orchestra” the High Holidays are upon
him, with a day of judgment. The action of the story is the gesture
of engagement. That is the
ipse
of an Agnon story, the brush
of a solitary man with reality, sometimes happening with glori-
ous success, as in
The Bridal Canopy,
sometimes with the sealing
of the solitary into his separate world, as in “Forevermore,” where
the scholar permanently incarcerates himself in a leper’s colony,
to continue his solitary dedication to research. Generally, it comes
with a poignant ambivalence, sometimes so bewildering and many-
faceted we are unsure what precisely has happened, as in
Be-
trothed;
but some elemental virginity has been snuffed out, some
flower of natural innocence snatched off the bough. At the end
of an Agnon story occurs not the catharsis of tragedy, but the
catharsis of contact.
This understanding relates Agnon’s work more closely to the
bent of modern fiction. His religious position and personal his-
tory tend to give him the aura of what a pupil of Samuel might
have produced, shifted from Shiloh to the twentieth century,
and from prophecy to fiction, his tales a collection more to be
marveled at than understood. Among older writers, the associa-
tion of his work with Kafka is suggestive, but not illuminating.
Agnon is very old, and has pointed out that he be^an publish-
ing before Kafka’s work could have reached him. Their elusive
similarity does seem related to the Midrashic-hassidic folk tales,
which prevaded southeast Europe. Kafka certainly has no formal
Jewish training, but his informal Prague associations could
well account for it. If the two men show a common ancestor, he
would be, oddly enough, Reb Nahman of Bratslav. Yet identify-
ing a man’s family tree tells us little about what he does.
Over the last century, however, avant-garde fiction has en-
gaged in an enormous strategic withdrawal from the well-con-
structed nineteenth century novel, the work of Henry James,
Flaubert, and Tolstoy, into naturalism, stream-of-consciousness,
neo-Gothic, absurdity, pop fiction, and what not. Agnon’s own
indifference to the well-made city, the even flow of time, com-
prehensible cause and effect, the context of events in history, all
argue for an individualism in keeping with the modern spirit.
But his lyrical mode of organizing seems particularly suggestive.
The critical term, “absurdity,” tends to confuse as much as to