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Comments by Bob Corbett
The two tales in this volume were first published in 1943 and 1950. Each is deeply involved with mysterious and mystical happenings far beyond my own background, so I just had to take them as given, as long stories, novelettes if you will, and to read them on their own grounds. I wasn’t very impressed with this first read of S.Y. Agnon’s work. The first story was at least intelligible, but the second just didn’t really make sense at all.
Since Agnon won the Nobel Prize in 1965 I going to assume that he has more to offer than what these two novelettes suggest, so I plan to read a second work of his, the celebrated novel, “The Bridal Canopy,” to see if I can’t find grounds to be a bit more kind to his writing. Nonetheless, I do offer a few comments on the two stories in this volume.
Alas, I wasn’t fully ready or quipped for the first tale. The story opens somewhere in Austria, and we meet the key couple, Jacob Reichnitz and Susan Ehrlich. They are children, playmates. He is a very nice and bright young man from a fairly poor family. She is the daughter of a rich and powerful, but very kind and nice older man. The children are inseparable, and the old man helps the boy with his education, at least through high school
In college Jacob goes away and seldom sees Susan or her father. After graduation he goes off to Jaffa. It is just after the First World War and the movement of Jews in Europe going back to their ancestral homeland is seriously beginning. Jacob joins this movement, and even though his field had been science, he teaches German and Latin at a secondary school. He is a good teacher, well loved by his students, especially 6 young women who spend a great deal of time with him, so much so that Jacob and his 6 inseparables become known as the 7 Planets.
Jacob follows his love of science outside his teaching and becomes a well-known contributor the botany of sea plants, publishing in important scientific journals. He begins to emerge as a leading authority on sea plants of his region.
In only his third year in Jaffa huge changes come. First Susan is travelling with her father in Egypt, and also being Jews as Jacob is, they decide to visit the Holy Land and especially to come see him. For reasons we are never told, Jacob is very cool toward Susan, but quite friendly with her father as in his earlier days. Eventually Susan confronts him, reminding him that as young children they pledged to one day marry, was he no longer interested. For some reason, perhaps feeling a debt toward her father and his childhood promise, he allows that he still shares this plan with her, and things begin to move in the direction of their future marriage, and perhaps even her father also settling there in Jaffa.
Until this point in the story it was fairly interesting, gentle, a bit puzzling in his quick acceptance of his engagement, but nothing too unusual. However, I didn’t really know where it was going. In a rush, in the last 20-25 pages it all changes, and things get very strange.
First Susan comes down with a sleeping sickness and it appears will die. Jacob, on the other hand has fantastic news, his articles in the various scientific journals have brought him fame and a university in the U.S. offers this young high school teacher a full professorship. (I’m amazed that I am amazed at all this, my own career that ended me up at Webster College’s philosophy department when I was just 25 isn’t much more bizarre.)
Susan’s condition worsens and the date for Jacob’s leaving is nearing, when one evening, one at a time the 6 young woman arrive at Jacob’s small apartment, seemingly by coincidence. They decide to walk on the beach. All of them being in love with him and all knowing that Susan is dying, out of the blue one of them announces that Jacob should not go to America alone, but one of them would marry him and go with him, and they would compete in a race along the sands of the beach to see who becomes his wife.
None of them, including Jacob, seem to find this is even slightly odd, and the race begins almost immediately. Suddenly, out of nowhere, comes the (dying) Susan, and, not surprisingly now, she wins the race, and presumably Jacob, but we just don’t know; the story ends with the race.
Several critics have claimed that this is an example of what they have called (without attribution of the source) as an important example of “Feminist Kabala.” Given that “feminist” itself is a relatively new term, this view of Agnon’s story must be fairly recent, but I could find no original source for this claim, just the name of this allegation given, with no details that indicate what in the Kabala makes this a feminist example.
I remain fairly mystified as to what it the world was going on.
Nonetheless, with the exception of those last few pages, the story was quite interesting, if indeed, often puzzling in his behavior and motivation, and Susan’s strange condition. But it is definitely worth reading.
The second offering in this volume was quite unsatisfyingly written, and I think that is being rather kind. The story, to the extent there is a coherent one, is something like this: The narrator visits his friends, the Griefenbachs, just before they are leaving their home in Palestine to go on a trip. They are very nervous about leaving their home just after the Great War, since people have been breaking into homes, even squatting in them and making them their own. So the narrator, who lives in town, agrees that he will visit the house now and again to check on its safety.
They also have a guest who rents a room, but is seldom there. He is a famous philologist and has written three important works, “Ninety-nine Words of the Edo Language,” then a grammar of Edo and finally he discovered “Enamite Hymns.” Edo and Enam are long forgotten languages.
Shortly after this the narrator’s family takes a short trip, but he can’t go because of his work, so he goes to live in his friends’ home since his home in town is fairly secure. It’s at this point that the story, fairly interesting to this point, begins to go off into space.
The scholar, Dr. Ginath has discovered some sort of secret talisman, and even given a piece of it to the Griefenbachs. One day a rare book dealer from town shows up at the home when the narrator is there, and chances upon the house drawn by some mysterious force that he is sure is connected to the lost talisman that he had owned, but which thieves had stolen. When, in conversation with the host, and in learning that Dr. Ginath also lives there (at least now and again), he is convinced this is somehow connected with both his wife’s illness and the missing talisman.
From this point on the story becomes a bit unintelligible, and ranges to past times when his wife’s family lived in a remote area of Palestine where these languages originated, and that her illness is connected to this missing talisman and the actions of the mysterious (and never present) Dr. Ginath.
It wasn’t the improbability of the story that bothered me; it was the incoherence of it. It just didn’t make any sense, nor was there any sort of intelligible or convincing ending. I have to say, that even though I’ll admit to not knowing much at all about Jewish mystical lore, this just didn’t come across to me as being a well-written or convincing tale.Bob Corbett email@example.com
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