A Final Roar from the Lion's Den


By S. Y. Agnon
Translated by Hillel Halkin
250 pages. The Toby Press. $24.95.

I have written about Agnon here before. Then, I was writing of Agnon’s masterful work, A Simple Story. A Simple Story is classic, conventional, not to say unoriginal, Agnon. Like the original short story that gave Agnon his surname, Agunot (women whose husbands have abandoned them), A Simple Story deals with a milieu both foreign and expected: that of the Eastern European shtetl from which Agnon original came.

Much of Agnon’s fiction focuses on the life of the shtetl and the Jews who live and die in its embrace. Another major theme, for Agnon, is life in Palestine and then, after 1948, Israel. Agnon’s magnum opus, Timol Shilshom, for example, deals mainly with the plight of the Jew in Palestine, complete with vivid, colorful descriptions (some with a literal dog's-eye view) of pre-war Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

These are the two categories of Agnon stories, then: the shtetl and the yishuv, Eastern Europe and Palestine.

At least that is what I thought before I picked up Agnon’s last, almost certainly least-appreciated novel, both in Israel and abroad, To This Day. Recently translated by Hillel Halkin, the book was written in 1951. It is set in Germany during the waning years of the First World War. While its main character and narrator is Jewish, he is not religious (slightly unusual for Agnon), and a number of the novel’s central characters are not Jewish at all.

The plot of the novel, without giving anything away, concerns the narrator—whose name happens to be Shmuel Yosef—and his attempt to find a room to rent in the city of Berlin. At least, that's the formal plot. There is so much going on, both above and below the surface of this wonderfully written, ably translated, and constantly surprising book, that any real summary doesn’t stand a chance of doing it justice.

The story, like all of Agnon’s work, must be read on a number of levels.

First of all, the novel is at least somewhat autobiographical. Agnon, like his narrator, moved from Eastern Europe to Palestine before the First World War, only to return to Europe right before the onset of the Great War (great timing, there) and settle in Germany. Also, both novelist and narrator began as Orthodox Jews, and abandoned their Orthodoxy on—or somewhat before—their European sojourns. Finally, the narrator of the novel, again like Agnon, eventually returns to Israel, and, it is assumed, reverts to the Orthodoxy of his youth.

But the story can also be seen as a portrait of life in general. That is, the life of a European nation at war, and, more particularly, the life of the remnants of a nation (to indulge in an Agnonism) living within that nation, German Jewry. Or, to be more precise, Jews living in Germany, as the slim novel contains portraits of not just German but also Russian and Austrian Jews, living in the Fatherland.

And dying for it. The patriotism of German Jews is not only mentioned, it is analyzed and overanalyzed, not only by the narrator but also by a number of other characters in the novel. Numerous Jewish soldiers are sent off to war, many perishing in battle. The narrator himself gives generously to numerous charities, including one with the ominous goal of “impress[ing] on the previously unaware population… freed by us from the yoke of Czardom, that it has the good fortune to be… under the protection of Germany, which has its best interests at heart.”

And this inexorably leads us to a third, although by no means the only other, level on which this book must be read. For Agnon is writing this novel of World War I German-Jewish life in 1951, just a few short years after the Holocaust. His narrator’s increasingly cynical voice must be read with this in mind. Therefore, we can have a sentence like this one, which would read almost like a bad joke if it wasn’t so heartfelt and disturbing: “Nowadays, the only difference between a Jew and a German was that some Jews went to temple and most Germans didn’t like Jews.”

All of this was both surprising and profoundly illuminating for me. I’ve long been a believer in the preeminence of the work of Agnon. But in To This Day, Agnon’s mastery is driven to intense new heights. Here, he steps out of the comfort zone of life dominated by Jews, and delves, as it were, into the heart of the lion’s den (“The Lion’s Den” is a café in the novel where the narrator meets his shiksa goddess). Agnon struggles in this book with some of the fundamentally divergent pulls of the Jew in general, and the Jewish writer in particular. The Jew’s often tumultuous relationship to the outside world and to tradition and the writer’s struggle to maintain a sense of identity and yet still become and remain a part of the larger world, are dealt with magnificently in this slim volume.

It is not a surprise, given the book’s often provocative content, and its perhaps too tender publication date (not many Israelis, I'm sure, were looking for a book extolling, even ironically, the virtues of Germany’s Great War a mere six years after Auschwitz), that To This Day remains the least successful of Agnon’s novels. But these are the very reasons why Agnon’s last novel is among his most important. Agnon is often at his best when he is at his most difficult and elusive, and while this is often not an easy book, it is also a minor masterpiece.