By S.Y.Agnon

ISBN 13: 978-0-691-18100-4

Princeton  £20.

reviewed by Alan Dent


            Shmuel Yosef Agnon was born in Ukraine in 1881 and died in Jerusalem in 1970. He was joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature with Nelly Sachs in 1966. He is regarded as one of the masters of modern Hebrew fiction. Only Yesterday, which might be thought of as his greatest work, was written in the 1930s and published in 1945. Agnon lived for some time in Germany and was influenced by German literature. He settled in Israel. 

            Only Yesterday is a six-hundred page-novel written in a naïve, biblical, parable-like style which tells the story of Isaac Kumer who leaves Galicia for the Land of Israel. He is part of the second Aliyah (ascent) which took place from 1904-1914. His native Galicia was within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled from 1848 to 1916 by Emperor Franz Joseph I who in 1867 granted full, equal rights to Jews. Despite the election on three occasions of an antisemitic mayor, the Jews of the Empire flourished during this period and made a contribution to culture in many spheres beyond their numerical size.  

            At the start of the book, then, the question arises: why would Isaac want to leave? “ A blessed dwelling place was his image of the whole Land of Israel and its inhabitants blessed by God” Agnon writes on the first page. He calls Isaac “ a man of imagination”. By this he doesn’t mean the sophisticated imagination of the artist, but rather the fantasies of a simple mind. Isaac is a simple man. “The days of his youth departed in his yearning for the Land of Israel.” His friends have married, started enterprises, are getting on with their lives; but Isaac is stalled. He sells Shekels for Zionism. His father thinks he is foolish and disdains his longing for Israel: “..he’ll see with his own eyes that whole business of the Land of Israel is a fiction the Zionists made up.” 

            The novel begins, therefore, in doubt about Isaac’s conception of Israel and about the wisdom of his wish to live there. Agnon suggests there is an element of fantasy about the Zionist conception. Later, he will refer to Franz Joseph and the equal rights Jews enjoyed and observe that in spite of this young people were attracted to what they thought of as their land.  

            The novel is divided into four books. They tell, slowly, and with much digression, the story of Issac’s life in Israel, but also, from the second book, the story of the dog Balak, who can think, reason and whose adventures parallel those of the protagonist. This flight away from the essential realism of Isaac’s story into something more surrealistic is difficult to interpret. Only at the very end of the book does the relation between the two become clear. Balak is a discontented dog and Isaac is a man whose life doesn’t go easily. Israel turns out to be much less than he anticipated. He faces economic struggles and finally works as a painter. His emotional-erotic life doesn’t proceed easily either. Sonya flirts with him, he falls for her but she dismisses him capriciously. At length he finds a wife Shifra. Their wedding is attended by few guests. They are a loving, happy couple. But Isaac’s path has been stony.  

            There is a rich array of characters who fade in and out. Agnons’s technique is not to explore his character’s psychology. The narration works in the biblical fashion: “It wasn’t long before his name became known in the city, and on every single issue, the rabbis asked Reb Fayesh’s opinion. Envy entered the heart of his colleagues. They began worrying that power would pass into his hands….” It is a form of narration consonant with received truth. What lurks behind every verse of the Bible, after all, is that it is truth beyond challenge. Traditionally, novels have been much more about provisionality and doubt. How to explain Emma Bovary’s tragedy? Why is Almayer such a fool ? Who is responsible for the death of Joseph K? What dooms April Wheeler? Agnon’s naïve narration carries an absolute perspective. While the novel does embrace doubt – the whole notion that the ascent to Israel is the best course of action for a Jew is subjected to scepticism – the narratorial voice is that of a prophet. Over six hundred pages, this gets somewhat wearisome. In addition, the slow pace of the story, buried as it is in a welter of detail and the emergence of characters whose psychology is only faintly painted in, means the book loses momentum after about four hundred pages. It picks up once more as Isaac’s fate moves towards its finality, but at points the apparently innocent, word-of-god narration jars.  

            That Israel is not the fantasy land Isaac imagines it to be in his adolescence, that his life there is a struggle, doesn’t undermine a potentially Zionist interpretation of the book. It could be argued that Agnon challenges the fantasy the better to defend the reality; that the struggle is worthwhile. Although, the circumstances of Isaac’s death could put that in question. What is noticeable, however, is that references to the Arab population are passing. The novel doesn’t touch on the matter of what kind of relations will prevail between the Jewish settlers and the indigenous population. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Agnon said: “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.” 

            What is curious here is the formulation “Israel was exiled from its land”. Across the globe, for millennia, there have been conquest and displacement. If Agnon’s conception were applied to North America, for example, wouldn’t it belong to the Red Skins? Wouldn’t Australia belong to the Aborigines? The genocide of the native Americans was appalling, but we can’t pretend it didn’t happen. Agnon’s position seems to be that this particular part of the world belongs to the Jews despite all historical events. This might be called the diaspora mentality and perhaps it explains partly the fantasised view of Israel Isaac entertains when the novel opens. 

            The virtual absence of the Arab population from the novel might suggest their presence wasn’t considered important. At the time of Isaac’s settlement in Israel, the Jewish population must have been small. It’s peculiar that the novel seems to treat the larger, indigenous population as if it doesn’t exist. This connects to the form of narration, which is characteristic of received, immutable wisdom; somewhat hard to take in an age in which science has proved itself. It’s hard not to feel there’s an assumed truth behind the novel: finally, Isaac was right to go to Israel because, indefeasibly, the land belongs to the Jews. The problem with this is that novels, like science, should be a search for truth and that excludes assumed truths which precede the writing.  

            The novel appeared before the modern State of Israel was established. Agnon was lauded and honoured in modern Israel. This novel doesn’t seem to have disturbed the leaders of the Israeli State, a State guilty of atrocious violence and breaches of international law. 

 There is an inherent quirk in the human brain revealed in the famous of experiments of Stanley Milgram and others: grant some advantage, power or superiority to one group over another and in no time they will begin to abuse and humiliate them. Only tell the blue-eyed children in a school class they are superior to the brown or green eyed, and they will denigrate and do harm to their erstwhile friends. What might explain this?  

Without falling into the trap of evolutionary psychology reductionism, it may be that in the conditions in which our biological ancestors evolved, any perceived advantage could have been the difference between survival and disappearance. Maybe natural selection wired in an exorbitant response to any perceived advantage to grant greater survival capacity. Perhaps if we are given some advantage over others, it triggers a cascade of neurons which results in a sense of entitlement and the right to do others damage if we think we need to. Of course, this must be surrounded by caveats: it’s always possible, for example, to think through our reactions, to employ moral discrimination to resist our worst impulses. Yet if there is some validity to the speculation, then might not a belief that a deity has given you a piece of the earth for your exclusive use in perpetuity, be a very potent trigger? Might seeing yourself as part of a Chosen People set in train that neurological reaction which provides the illusion of entitlement?  

It’s hard not to conclude that illusion lurks behind this novel. Isaac is a character it’s impossible not to like. He’s simple, modest, honest, grateful. Yet the Israel to which he moved has become a monstrous tyranny, an apartheid State, a travesty of democracy and a vicious abuser of the Palestinians whose land it shares. It’s worth asking what Isaac Kumer would have made of that.