Page 77 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 27

Basic HTML Version

L
e f t w ic h
— B
ashevis
S
inger
in
Y
iddish
L
iterature
71
is what there really is in them. Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and
biographer, to whom we owe the existence of Kafka’s works
which Kafka had wanted destroyed, has told us that in much
that is written about Kafka there are “many absurdities and con­
tradictions.” In 1939, shortly before the Hitler war, I submitted
to a leading London publisher Brod’s biography of Kafka, which
has since appeared in English. He returned it—the publisher
himself, not a reader—because “ the chances of such a book would
be very slight. A biography of a little known literary figure is
difficult enough to sell in any event, but when in addition one
has to take into account the existing prejudice against translation
and the cost of the translation, it seems to me that the chances
are even more remote.” We know now that in respect of this book
the publisher was talking nonsense. The literary market has been
swept along with the tide of the now fashionable Kafka cult.
And how much piffle has been written about Agnon since he
received the Nobel Prize! He has been claimed for the Existen­
tialists, and told that he is a writer who knows what it means
to be lost in a lost world, alienated in a society without roots
—this Agnon who is so completly at home in ordinary, simple
Jewish religious life and in the Land of Israel. He is lumped
together with Kafka, presented as another “ alienated lost soul.”
It is the new modern obsession to go looking for and finding
sick souls, alienated and remote from the living world. Kafka was
not remote. He was a regular visitor in the Prague literary cafe
Arco, frequented by Werfel, Brod, and German and Czech
writers. He responded to Brod’s efforts to interest him in Zion­
ism. He joined Brod in learning Hebrew. He studied Jewish
history. He was interested in Yiddish. Together with “his life’s
companion,” Brod’s name for Dora Diamant, whom I knew,
he was picking up a good deal of knowledge of Yiddish folk
ways, of Goldfaden and other Yiddish playwrights, championing
a Yiddish theatre group that had come to play in Prague. It
was at one of its performances that he addressed the audience:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you how very much more
Yiddish you understand than you think you do.” I have seen
an essay on “Agnon’s Use of Symbols” by Rabbi Theodore
Steinberg, recalling a lecture by Bashevis Singer. “A member of
the audience asked if a certain symbol in one of his novels
conveyed a particular meaning. Singer was reported to have
replied: ‘Maybe. I ’m not sure of the meaning of that symbol
myself.’ ” How much oversymbolism has been read into Chagall?
“Agnon sounds something like Chagall looks,” one recent critic
told us. “Like dreams we have not dreamt, but will.” Someone
was writing in
The Times
a few days ago about the way a label
is often pinned to a writer which has no connection with his
intentions. He also suggested that “ critical standards change