Page 101 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 46

Basic HTML Version

DAVID ABERBACH
Agnon and the Need for Tradition
M
o s t
o f
t h e
g r e a t
m o d e r n
E
u r o p e a n
w r i t e r s
re ta in a t least
the vestiges o f a relig ious b a ckg round , th o u g h relatively little
in th e ir works shows trad ition a l re lig ion to be viable. M ode rn
H eb rew l i te ra tu re , in comm on with this li te ra tu re , is largely a
secu lar dom a in , p a r t o f th e upheava l o f beliefs and values in
tw en tie th cen tu ry cu ltu re . T h e r e is one g re a t excep tion — Sam ­
uel Jo s e p h A gnon (1888-1970), who a lone am ong re cen t H e ­
brew w riters m a in ta ined the p e rso n a o f an O r th o d o x Jew in
his w ritings an d co n tinu ed to use H eb rew as a ‘holy to n g u e .’
N evertheless, H eb rew critics, themselves mostly secu lar in o u t ­
look, have persisten tly claimed th a t A gnon , too, writes from
ou ts ide the t r a d i t io n .1
T h e ques tion o f A g n o n ’s re la tion to his trad i t io n is a t the
h e a r t o f a m a jo r critical d eba te on Agnon . O n the one h and ,
in his heyday in th e 1930’s an d 1940’s, he was am ong the
avant-
garde,
an d persona lly he always gave the im p ression o f be ing
intellectually f ree an d u n o r th o d o x . O n the o th e r h an d , he was
a p rac tis ing Jew . In m any o f his stories he p re sen ts h im se lf
as an arch -conserva tive , qua in tly naive an d idealistic, a wise
spokesm an fo r Jew ish trad ition , look ing askance a t th e m o d e rn
w o r ld .2 Bu t in o th e r stories his creativity, with its d em an d s fo r
1. Recent studies o f Agnon which discuss his relation to the Jewish tradition
include: A.J. Band,
Nostalgia and Nightmare: a Study in the Fiction o f S.Y.
Agnon,
University o f California Press: Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1968; B.
Hochman,
The Fiction o f S.Y. Agnon,
Cornell University Press: Ithaca & Lon­
don, 1970; B. Kurzweil,
Masot al S.Y. Agnon
(Essays on Agnon), Schocken:
Jerusalem & Tel Aviv, 1970; D. Sadan,
Al
5.K.
Agnon
(Essays on Agnon),
Hakibbutz Hameuchad: Tel Aviv, 1973; D. Aberbach,
At the Handles of
the Lock: Themes in the Fiction o f S.J. Agnon,
The Littman Library and Oxford
University Press, 1984.
2. Band suggests that “Perhaps Agnon’s greatest achievement lies in his main­
taining the illusion that the narrator is a guileless believer simply spinning
93