Shmuel Yoseph Agnon

The Israeli author Shmuel Yoseph Agnon (1888-1970) is noted for his folkloric yet sophisticated novels. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966.

On July 17, 1888, S. Y. Agnon was born Shmuel Yoseph Czaczkes in the town of Buszacz, Eastern Galicia (then part of Austro-Hungary). His father was descended from a long line of Talmudic scholars. The young Shmuel's studies encompassed the whole gamut of Jewish writings: the Bible, Talmudic and Midrashic lore, medieval philosophical treatises, rabbinic writings, and Hasidic tales.

As a youth of 15, Shmuel began to publish his stories and poems in Hebrew and Yiddish. In 1908 he arrived in Palestine, where young halutzim (pioneers) were establishing the base for a Jewish state. There he assumed the name of Agnon, and his fame as an original and colorful novelist began to spread. Dwelling chiefly on Hasidic folklore and legend, his tales captured the spirit and flavor of a way of life deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.

From 1913 to 1924 Agnon lived in Germany, where he married Esther Marks. They later had a son and a daughter. While in Germany, he collaborated with Martin Buber on a book of Hasidic tales. In 1924 he returned to Palestine and settled in Jerusalem, a city to which he always remained deeply attached.

Agnon's works mirror Jewish life from the 18th century to the present. In The Bridal Canopy (1931) he unfolds a picaresque tale of a pious man, Reb Yudel Hasid, who travels throughout town and village to solicit dowries for his three marriageable daughters. This work is set in a world bygone, anchored in faith and governed by a benevolent providence. This seemingly simple, pietistic way of life is also reflected in a shorter novel, In the Heart of the Seas (1935), which tells of the journey of a group of Hasidim to the land of their ancestors in the early 19th century.

In A Simple Story (1935) and A Guest for the Night (1939) the reader is ushered into the 20th century with its new and threatening forces. A Guest for the Night is based on Agnon's journey to his birthplace in the mid-1930s. World War I has shattered the old faith and traditions and on the horizon looms the still greater menace of World War II. Yesteryear (1945) is based on Agnon's experiences in Palestine before World War I. The protagonist of the novel, Yitzhak Kumer, is a somewhat weak, naive, and simple pioneer in search of self-fulfillment but overwhelmed by problems. The work tells the deeply moving story of characters struggling to turn an age-old dream into reality.

In the last decades of his life, stirred by the atrocities of World War II, Agnon infused new currents and nuances into his writings. His stories became more symbolic and took on a Kafkaesque quality. In Betrothed, A Whole Loaf, and Edo and Enam, Agnon appears as a master of enigma. The settings of these later works are often phantasmagoric, and the plots are frequently parables of the vicissitudes of modern life. Through Midrashic and mystic allusions, Agnon provides the key for deciphering the hidden meanings of these later tales.

S. Y. Agnon died on Feb. 17, 1970, and was buried on the Mount of Olives with great honors.


Further Reading on Shmuel Yoseph Agnon

Two major works on Agnon are Arnold J. Band, Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S. Y. Agnon (1968), a biographical as well as critical study, and Baruch Hochman, The Fiction of S. Y. Agnon (1970), an evaluation of Agnon's works against historical and literary backgrounds.

Additional Biography Sources

Fisch, Harold, S. Y. Agnon, New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1975.

Shaked, Gershon, Shmuel Yosef Agnon: a revolutionary traditionalist, New York: New York University Press, 1989.