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Candles over Troubled Water: Sefer Hama'asim and Agnon's Unfinished Business

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 6, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 3-24 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0012

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Every book is founded on some mistake,
And every method is constructed on one fundamental error; there is no
matter in which chaos does not reign,
And every clean robe scrubbed with soap and made pure, will become
blackened and impure for tomorrow.
Why all the toil? Why life, even, for that matter?
Say so, if you know.

Micha Josef Berdyczewski

The stories in Shmuel Yosef Agnon's Sefer Hama'asim are particularly enigmatic, and of them, it can be safely said that "Hanerot" (The Candles) is one of the most opaque and perplexing. The story's plot details the unfolding attempt of a characteristic Agnon protagonist to immerse in the sea just prior to the onset of the Sabbath—an attempt doomed to failure not because of any shortcoming on his part, but rather the result of a pre-ordained decree effective against him, one that he can neither understand nor resist. In this article, we will attempt to understand this decree and its roots in Agnon's biography as an emerging writer. Specifically, we will attempt to understand the story in light of Agnon's unrealized relationship with Micha Josef Berdyczewski, one of the most influential of the Hebrew-language thinkers and writers in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century and into its first two decades.

Sefer Hama'asim's Underlying Motive

Sefer Hama'asim, of which "Hanerot" is a part, was already a literary enigma when the first five stories of the collection were published together in the May 13, 1932 literary supplement of the newspaper Davar. One of the first to comment on them, apparently, was Berl Katznelson, Davar's editor, who said to the author, "While I know that most of my readers will be perplexed, since they never saw such a thing in Agnon, [even] I cannot boast by saying that I have plunged their depths." These words appear in the letter that Katznelson sent Agnon after publishing the stories, but are only a confirmation of the argument that occurred prior to publication of the stories, which Katznelson had described as "strange." Agnon had apparently insisted intently on publishing all five of the stories as a single unit, despite their inordinate length relative to other items featured in the supplement, and despite the editor's concerns, which, I believe, Agnon shared. Nevertheless, the insistent writer prevailed over the editor of Davar.

Katznelson's fears materialized rapidly. The best of the responses were incredulity, while the more severe reactions were expressed by a retraction of support by leading critics, both of the author and his works. For example, Dov Sadan, in an article entitled, "Embarrassment and Its Manifestations," wrote:

Some two years ago, S.Y. Agnon began publishing some of his short stories ("Sefer Hama'asim," in the Davar supplement, and "Pat Shleimah" in a special issue of Moznayim honoring Bialik's 50th birthday)... the stories are of a strange type...and it must be admitted that in terms of art, they are not the highest level of his work and his ability.

These harsh responses had no inhibitory effect on Agnon. Not only did he go on to publish additional stories in the series, but over the years, he republished the five original stories with additions, corrections, and editing changes. When the original stories were published as part of his book Elu va-elu (1941), he even added eight new stories to them in the format of the first five. In 1951, the stories "moved house," with the assimilation of five additional stories, bringing their number to twenty, and they were incorporated into the collection of his works entitled Samuch Venireh.

Why did Agnon insist on publishing the stories in Davar, despite Katznelson's reservations (polite and restrained though they were), and particularly after his concerns proved mild relative to the reception of the first stories by key critics in Jewish Palestine of the 1930s? And in light of the unsympathetic reception, why did Agnon continue to refine the stories obsessively, adding new works to the collection, even though, as he attested to his son Hemdat, he didn't even like "his modern stories?"

Baruch Kurzweil, in his article "Nituaḥ hasippur 'Pat...

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