Shai Agnon: A Mystery Wrapped Up in an Enigma

Truth is sometimes indistinguishable from fiction.

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The connection between autobiography and fiction or myth is also evident in the many quasi-autobiographical details found in his writing. The town in which he was born, Buczacz, located in eastern Galicia, appears in many of his stories under the anagrammatic name Szybusz. The fictionalized name, which literally means "error" in Hebrew, comes to represent the mythical shtetl landscape that serves as the backdrop for many of the stories taking place in the Diaspora. There are also traces in his fiction of other countries and towns in which he lived. After leaving Poland he immigrated to Palestine, and then returned to Europe six years later to live in Germany. Following the destruction of his house in Homburg by fire, he returned to Palestine in 1924. These different places appear in his fiction, along with many historical Zionist and socialist figures, and people he met in his travels.

The traditional education he received as a child in the heder (a traditional Jewish school) is apparent in his work, as is his parents' rich and diverse Jewish background. While his father's family was connected to famous Hasidim, his mother came from a family of Mitnagdim, whose rationalism opposed the emotive mysticism of the Hasidim.  Agnon's writing reflects a unique synthesis of these two disparate worldviews.

A Unique Synthesis

In addition to the many Jewish worlds he occupied, Agnon's writing also reflects a unique synthesis of Jewish tradition and German philosophy and literature, as he was also schooled in German as a child.  However, his deployment of allusions from world literature, frequently play with the original meaning of the traditional texts producing an almost bitter irony that subverts Jewish tradition from within.

What makes Agnon's writing treasured and unique is simultaneously what makes reading his stories so challenging for the modern reader. While he is well known and admired in Israel, he is virtually unknown to those outside the circle of Hebrew literature. One reason for this is the difficulty of translating his work. Whereas many aspects of social critique and psychological realism come through in translation, the allusivity of the text, which is embedded with wordplays, acrostics and anagrams, is sometimes obscured when the Hebrew text is translated.

Agnon's language also poses a challenge to the modern Israeli Hebrew reader, who typically does not share Agnon's encyclopedic knowledge of traditional literature. The language he employs is sometimes referred to as "Agnonit" instead of "Ivrit" (Hebrew), due to the foreignness and uniqueness of his idiom.

Agnon's writing has exerted a great influence on contemporary authors such as A. B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld and Yehuda Amichai's prose. And his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in literature spoke not only to the universality of his writing, but also announced the entrance of Hebrew literature onto the world stage.

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Beverly Bailis is a Revson Fellow and doctoral candidate in modern Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary where she specializes in Hebrew and Yiddish modernism.