To This Day
In this, Agnon’s final novel, the eminent Hebrew author overlays the comical story of a young Galician writer who has been living in Palestine with the horrors and deprivations of World War I Germany.
Our narrator has emigrated to Germany from Palestine. Since Germany is at war, he is required to report to the draft board and to remain in Germany. Most of the first half of this slim volume is dedicated to Shmuel Yosef’s travels outside of Berlin and his meetings with various other characters, including a young woman who has opened a nursing home for wounded soldiers and his cousin, Malka. The balance of the book follows Shmuel from room to room, none of which are livable for more than a brief period of time, in a Berlin increasingly wracked by shortages of every conceivable type and which is rapidly losing its young men.
The larger story, of course, is about Germany’s attitude toward Jews and Zionism, and the narrator’s own sense of disconnect from what he has witnessed and his own orthodox roots. As the translator, Hillel Halkin, comments in his significant introduction, it cannot be overlooked that Agnon was writing this novel in 1951 and there was little possibility he could have insulated his narrative from the impact of such a cataclysmic event as the Holocaust.
This is a difficult and often confusing book, and we don’t always understand why Agnon is introducing offshoot stories or side plots. If one spends the time to read and absorb, though, Agnon does have an abiding effect on the reader’s thought processes. Inevitably, there is a bit of the satirical Voltaire in Agnon, and our narrator is something of a Dr. Pangloss who appears to see no means as antithetical to a desired end.