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124 SHOFAR Shira, by S. Y. Agnon, translated by Zeva Shapiro, afterword by Robert Alter . New York: Schocken Books, 1989. 585 pp. $24.95. Not many statements are as banal or nearly robbed of meaning as those which connect love with pain, lust with sorrow. "There are no happy loves," laments with touching charm the well-known French chansonnier George Brassens. However, banality may be phrased in faded, ragged rhetoric, but it is not necessarily void of truth. The Song of Songs is no less the Love of Loves, is no less the Pain of Pains. "By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but I found him not; I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loves; I sought him but I found him not" (Song of Songs, II, 1-2). Time cannot diminish the power of interlaced love and pain in that verse. Shira is a novel about the pain of love, about the destructive power of forbidden love, about the agony, humiliation, and deterioration with which love curses its chastised, doomed carrier. Once the novel's protagonist, Manfred Herbst, a middle-aged, happily married history professor in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, falls in love with the nurse Shira, the whole course of his previous life, which was serene, peaceful, and satisfactory, declines into humiliating degradation and ultimate personal and familial collapse. Like a hero in a Greek tragedy, once Herbst binds himself by his enslaving love to Shira, he painfully, but stillĀ· soberly, treads towards an inevitable destruction. No wonder, therefore, that Herbst's attempt to compose a tragedy is stressed in the novel: he ironically labors to put together his own book of death. And the difficulty which Herbst encounters on portraying the slave figure in his tragedy is neither random nor surprising: it is no easy task to draw your own portrait, notably when it manifests the essence ofyour very weaknesses. None of the loves in Agnon's works is a happy one; none is divorced from agony, frustration, downfall. Shira, in its intricate artistry, in its sweeping power, in its huge magnitude, is the very zenith of Agnon's love stories in which love, pain, frustration, and destruction amalgamate in one bleak equation. Some of Agnon's love stories are dominated by la belle dame sans merci, a traditional fatal figure of a woman who simultaneously encourages and rejects her lover, traps him in his uncontrollable attraction to her, and leads him to his downfall.! There is no belle dame sans merci like Shira. Indeed, she invades Manfred Herbst's life by his own choice. However, 1Agnon was notably influenced by the embodiment of that fatal figure in August Strindberg's and Knut Hamsun's works. See also: Yair Mazor, The Triple Cord: Agnon, Hamsun, Strindberg: lWlere Hebrew and Scandinavian Literature Meet (Tel Aviv: Papyrus, Tel Aviv University, 1987). VoLume 9, No.1 FaLL 1990 125 once she trespasses into his life, she oppresses his feelings, she steals his peace of mind, she catches him in her snare, and eventually she dooms him no less than he dooms himself. Herbst is not a tragic hero; he is not Oedipus Rex or King Lear. Herbst is an ordinary man whose encounter with Shira channeled his life towards a tragic orbit. Herbst's decline is metaphorically manifested not only by his attempts to compose a tragedy but also by his field of study, the history of Byzantium. The historical connotations of moral crumbling and physical degradation which, are associated with the last days of Byzantium (modern Istanbul)-Herbst's academic interest-are one more mirror which reflects his own fate. In a symbolic daydream near the beginning of the novel, an "Istambulian" beggar embraces Shira, and they both shrink and eventually disappear in Shira's left sandal. The Istambulian beggar relates to Herbst, the beggar of love whose area of scholarly investigation is ancient Istambul; Shira's embracing relates to Herbst's lust for Shira ; the shrinking symbolically stands for decline; the sandal is a component of the erotic shoe motif (one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 124-126
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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