“My daughter, from my earliest memory I recall each and every person who ever did me a favor,” declares the narrator of a posthumous S.Y. Agnon story, “and as I remember each person I remember his name.” This line, from a the recently translated work by the Nobel laureate, generates a pause on the part of readers, who only at the end of the tale realize they have been eavesdropping on the reminiscences of the aged storyteller to none other than his own daughter. Without falling into the trap of confusing Agnon the man with the narrator he created and employed in his long literary career, I nevertheless thought of these and similar lines of fiction upon learning of the death last week of Emuna Agnon Yaron, the author’s daughter and long-time literary executor.
Emuna, as she was universally known, who died just shy of her ninety-fourth birthday, was born in Germany during her father’s extended sojourn there. Following the 1924 fire that destroyed their home (along with her father’s library and various unfinished manuscripts) the family arrived in Jerusalem, ultimately settling in the rustic suburban neighborhood of Talpiot, where Beit Agnon still stands as a museum and visitor center memorializing the man and his achievements.
In that house Emuna, and her younger brother Hemdat, met the Who’s Who of pre-State Jewish society – from Rav Kook, whose interest in Agnon was part of his larger vision for Jewish cultural revival, to “Uncle” Bialik, ever with a candy in his pocket, and more interest in the children than their adult handlers. Already in her twenties, Emuna was drafted in the work of proofreading and serving as sounding-board in the crafting of Agnon’s writing. The author was an inveterate reviser and polisher of his prose. “My father would read from the drafts aloud, putting different emphases on each word and sentence, all the while fixing, erasing, and adding,” she recalled in her memoir. “He would explain each revision. Generally, he would eliminate fancy words or flourished phrases if they didn’t add anything to the text, or he would change the sentence structure to improve its rhythm. Sometimes he would ask which version I preferred, this way or that, and I would rejoice if he accepted my opinion.”
However, it was later in life that she took on her behind-the-scenes role as one of the most important figures in twentieth century Hebrew letters. Before Agnon’s death in 1970, he appointed Emuna his literary executor, and began sharing his vision for both finishing uncompleted projects and collecting and anthologizing stories that had not yet appeared in book form. Most pressing to the octogenarian author, who had been slowed by a stroke in his final year, was crafting an ending for the long novel which had vexed him for decades. Shira is set in and around the Hebrew University of the 1930s, and while chapters had been serialized on-and-off since 1948, he struggled to bring it to a close. When the novel appeared a year after his death it caused a sensation, as Israel’s academic and literary elite debated its interpretation, and gossiped about which actual figures Agnon had in mind behind each fictional character.
But Shira was controversial for another reason – literary scholars, Baruch Kurzweil chief among them, criticized Emuna for undertaking the work on her own; preferring to see Agnon’s unfinished legacy placed in the hands of ivory tower academics. While Emuna was aided by a close circle of experts, she weathered the critique, and forged on, ultimately publishing fourteen posthumous volumes – novels, short stories, correspondences, and anthologies of rabbinic literature and hasidic tales. In short, she was responsible for bringing more of her father’s writing to the public than he himself succeeded in doing. Having begun her career as a teacher, and having published a number of her own short stories in a register distinctly influenced by her father’s voice (stories for which he reportedly expressed paternal approval), for thirty years she gave herself over to preserving his legacy and stewarding the national treasure that is Agnon’s writing, declaring it her “wonderful inheritance.”
With her piercing blue eyes she bore a striking resemblance to Agnon, especially as she settled into old age. When I first met her a few years ago she was curious about what Agnon’s writing means for me, an American-born Orthodox rabbi, with accented and occasionally imperfect Hebrew (she could be pedantic about correcting grammar, the common admixture of English phrases into Hebrew, or worst of all, using Gregorian dates in place of the Jewish calendar).
At that first meeting, when I told her that I had just finished reading Agnon’s A Guest for the Night, she admitted that it was her favorite of her father’s books (the Nobel committee agreed, calling it “perhaps his greatest achievement”). She pressed me on what I got out of that book, with its frustrated homecoming, and its realization that we really “can’t go home again.” I pointed to precisely that which she herself had indicated – Agnon’s greatest theme in this novel and, in differing ways, throughout his body of writing: The idea that modern people, modern Jews, are alienated from their spiritual home. While we can’t go home again, that doesn’t mean we can’t move forward through conceiving of a new home – although doing so comes with the great danger of being caught in the disconnect between the old and the new, between what was and what might be.
That Agnon could stand at this intersection, that he was able to author his stories and novels specifically while standing there, is the defining characteristic of his achievement as Hebrew literature’s greatest writer. And yet, Agnon’s friend Gershom Scholem observed that “the reader of Agnon cannot escape the feeling that more and more of the master’s work was produced as a kind of desperate incantation, an appeal to those who would come after him.” Scholem viewed Agnon as “someone who stands at the crossroads [of Jewish history and tradition in flux] and can see in both directions.”
“Now children, listen to me: I’ll tell you something of my youth…,” says the author-narrator as he memorializes his hometown Buczacz upon learning of its destruction at the hands of the Nazis in a short story entitled “The Sign.” It is endearing to think of Agnon’s “incantation” being addressed, even in part, to “those who come after” in the person of his own daughter; it softens the edge of the ironic bite we are so used to experiencing in his stories. That Emuna herself took up the incantation by increasing her father’s literary yield by over 100%, to the benefit of future generations by saving his many posthumous writings from oblivion, puts all readers concerned with these themes greatly in Emuna’s debt.