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Agnon and Appelfeld

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 103, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 469-474 | 10.1353/jqr.2013.0040

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The place of Agnon, the man and the author, in the writing career of Aharon Appelfeld is still a conundrum for serious students of Appelfeld’s writing. It has recently been documented in an article by Dan Laor (I too have dealt with this phenomenon tangentially several years ago in an article subtitled: “The Paradox of the Missing Intertext” [Mikan 5 (2005): 9–15]). At the end of his article, after analyzing six instances where Appelfeld refers to Agnon, Laor sums up this relationship as one of hashra’ah (inspiration) rather than hashpa‘ah (influence), two terms that are explained in note 26: “Hashra’ah is like the opening of a door or gate, that awakens and liberates a fragment of dimayon (imagination) in the author, while hashpa‘ah (influence) relates to the materials that are absorbed within the work of art and color its character and style.” Unwittingly, perhaps, Laor follows a critical tradition in Israeli literature that tends to divorce Appelfeld’s writing from the mainstream. The literary achievement of Aharon Appelfeld, however, is so prominent that one cannot write the history of Israeli literature without it, though there is a tendency in some quarters to do so. I would argue that severing Appelfeld from the overwhelming literary presence of Agnon contributes to this distortion.

We can find this severing starkly summarized in an interview Yigal Schwartz conducted with Appelfeld in 1991 (Kol ha-‘ir). At one point Schwartz tells Appelfeld: “This reminds me that you once told me that from Agnon you learned everything and nothing. (Ha-kol. Ve-lo kelum. Everything. And Nothing.) In saying “everything” did you mean the permission to look back toward the lost Jewish existence?” To this Appelfeld answered: “In this matter Agnon was truly a great guide, but I couldn’t follow in his footsteps. He came with great childhood knowledge, he came with much information, he came directly from the Jewish street. I didn’t come from this; I had to build this.” Ha-kol. Ve-lo kelum, this seemingly paradoxical statement, everything and nothing, calls for investigation and it is to the diffusing of this paradox that I dedicate this essay. I will argue that the term lo kelum could not apply to the entire corpus of Agnon’s writing, or even to what was available in 1953, but only to those stories set in a specific setting employing the style of the pious Jewish tale with its rabbinically inflected Hebrew.

A proper understanding of these passages presented by Laor, and even more so the complicated recent (2009) quasi autobiographic novel of Appelfeld’s, Ha-ish she-lo pasak lishon (The man who would never stop sleeping), published after Laor’s article and in which Agnon’s writings also appear, requires three premises:

1.   All of the documents written by Appelfeld over the years are an integral part of his literary oeuvre, and should therefore be analyzed with the same scrupulousness as all his fictions. We have, to my knowledge, no evidence from any other source, including Agnon. Most of Appelfeld’s statements about Agnon are from the latter part of the twentieth century, over thirty years after his first encounters with Agnon’s prose, though there is one newspaper response piece from 1963, the year after Appelfeld published his first book ‘Ashan (Smoke).

2.   Throughout his writing career Appelfeld has been a self-aware, contemplative writer, always meditating upon the special phenomena of his own personal experience and his writing. The introductory chapter of Sipur ḥayim (The story of a life), with its meditation on the difference between zikaron (memory) and dimayon (imagination), is symptomatic. In it he can say: “Memory and imagination dwell at times in one basket.” The retrieval or manipulation of memory is an obsession and a formative stratagem. It is also a heroic act involving much pain.

3.   Reference to Agnon in Appelfeld’s writing should be read in its context since it is invariably associated with Appelfeld’s acceptance of his European past and rejection of the social demands for assimilation into the Sabra culture of the Yishuv or the State of Israel. By Sabra culture I refer to something very specific as...

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