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Only Yesterday Hardcover – March 27, 2000
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From Publishers Weekly
Israeli Nobel Prize-winner Agnon (1887-1970) is a founding father, like Theodor Herzl. While Herzl founded Zionism, Agnon (A Simple Story; Shira) forged the language of modern Hebrew literature. In this immense novel, first published in 1945 and now translated into English for the first time, Agnon paints the panorama of the second Aliya, or immigration, of Jews to Palestine, which occurred between the turn of the century and WWI. Isaac Kumer is a young, fervent but feckless young Zionist in the Austrian province of Galicia, whose disappointed father gives him the money to emigrate to Israel. Once Isaac reaches the Land, he becomes a housepainter. As Agnon explains, at first "his brush leads him and he doesn't lead his brush"--and the same can be said of this book's plot, which goes off on various whimsical tangents. In Jaffa, Isaac tastes his first experience of love with Sonya, a modern woman, but in Jerusalem he meets Shifra, the daughter of a strict religionist, and he is torn between the two. Sonya is an especially fascinating figure; she resembles the "modern" women in Dostoyevski's novels, whose liberation is bound up with an existential hypersensitivity that impedes any clear course of action. Impulsively, Isaac one day paints "Crazy Dog" on the back of a friendly stray. The scruffy canine then wanders around Jerusalem, causing the population to panic. This fantastical subplot "dogs" Isaac's stay in Jerusalem and is interwoven with his fate and that of Shifra's father. Agnon's novel has a folkloric quality analogous to the bold simplifications of Chagall, locating the archaic residue lurking just below the surface disenchantment of modernity. A useful introduction by Harshav informs readers about the historical background to the story and Agnon's place in 20th-century literature.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
Never before available in English, a masterpiece of the picaresque by the Nobel laureate who is arguably the greatest novelist in modern Hebrew. Fifty-five years after this epic tales initial publication, Harshav provides an eloquent translation, successfully capturing Agnons carefully nuanced and bitter humor. A nonentity, a schlemiel named Isaac Kumer, arrives in Palestine as one of the dreamy-eyed pioneers of the Second Aliyah, the wave of Jewish immigrants who, impelled by Zionist rhetoric, came to the barren precincts of the Holy Land late in the first decade of the 20th century. Isaac, like his fellows, wants to work the land, to walk behind a plow making a desert blossom, but the hapless, feckless young Galician ends up as an itinerant sign painter instead. Over the course of the novel he drifts between women, ideologies, and influences, a sort of filial figure ``adopted'' by an entire range of Zionists, would-be socialists, and rabbis Orthodox and un-, not to mention the extraordinary Sonya, who introduces him to love and loss. Then Kumer, a holy fool of sorts, engages in a single act of childish horseplay, painting the words crazy dog on the side of a mongrel stray, that sets in motion the forces of his own destruction and simultaneously gives the work a daring, unpredictable second narrative focus. Agnon tells the story in a wildly shifting kaleidoscope of plotlines, syntaxes, tenses, and voices, with scathing satirical barbs that spare almost no one, including the author himself, leaping from third person to first-person plural to include his entire generation in Isaac's failings and foibles. Harshav's special achievement: she conveys brilliantly all of Agnon's impetuous leaps, poetic digressions, and wry satire (an achievement all the more admirable because she matches it in her translation of Amos Oz's essays on Agnon, p. 362). One of the finest novels of this century. -- Copyright ©2000, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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On the surface this is a tale of one man's passage to the Land of Israel from his home village in Austro-Hungarian Galicia. The pre-WWI Ottoman Palestine he arrives in is a world far removed from his naïve imaginings. Our `hero' - Isaac Kumer - is a young and impoverished Zionist of the Second Aliyah. This was the period of renewed zeal amongst the (mainly Russian) Jews of the pogrom and persecution-beset old country, and although relatively small in number, the wide-ranging influence of its pioneers on subsequent generations in the founding of the State of Israel is beyond compare. Agnon charmingly weaves into his plot many historic (and also the future historic) figures alongside the fictional cast of many. Initially finding his feet in the bustling port town of Jaffa, Isaac eventually makes the trip up to Jerusalem. At either end of this journey Agnon lavishly portrays the fascinating world of these two very different towns - the former being coastal, politicised, and predominantly secular, the latter being of the interior, traditional and overwhelmingly orthodox. If nothing else, this book serves as a wonderfully valuable portrayal of a world now gone. The co-mingling of European Jews and their indigenous brethren, the urban and the rural, the liberal and the conservative, at a time when the very soul of the future Jewish state was in gestation, is fascinating to behold.
After many early setbacks in his attempts to find the work on the land that he had dreamed of [One disappointment of `Only Yesterday' was the nearly complete absence of the Arabs of the country. An exception to this is in reference to those farmers preferring to employ the cheaper Arab labour to that of the Jewish immigrant. They're referred to in other places, but so scantily that I can only conclude that they did not figure largely in the day to day life at that time of either Agnon himself, or those contemporaries of the period that he is portraying.] - Isaac stumbles on another way to earn a living as a painter.
As his early years in the land are told - sometimes the narrator is from Isaac's point of view, sometimes detached from Isaac as an omnipotent observer, and sometimes in the lives of others altogether - the novel starts to develop simultaneously on several levels. As well as the tale of Isaac's days, the reader is aware of the question of being a stranger in a strange land. In Jaffa Isaac is a Galician among the Russians. In the fields he is a Jew among the Arabs. In Jerusalem he is a `modern', or a Zionist, among the Hasidim. And so on. Questions of identity and purpose are constantly in Isaac's mind as he is also caught between the only two women he has ever known outside of his family - one in Jaffa and the other in Jerusalem.
Agnon has a great sense of humour and mischief as well, as we discover mid-story when he introduces an almost magical or Kafkaesque element in the guise of a stray dog. Balak, the dog, suffers the misfortune to be the butt of Isaac's tomfoolery in a moment of boredom. The repercussions of the joke are so consequential to the story that I can't say more. Suffice to say, in every chapter when Balak takes the lead, the reader is treated to an alternate view of the universe from a lonesome dog's perspective.
Agnon's writing is soaring and beautiful in as many places depicting the mundane and the ugly of everyday life as it is the wondrous and mystical. The imagery of his tale is powerful and will stay with me for a long time to come. An unforgettable story.
A description of the artwork on the cover: "Pinwheel Vendor" by Reuven Rubin (1923). It is taken from a catalogue for a Rubin exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art entitled "Dreamland". I include it as it is of some interest considering the publisher's choice and that it seems to express with great subtlety something of the story itself:
An Arab of Sudanese descent sits facing the sea while a Jewish pioneer stands beside him. The Sudanese man's pose, his elevated chin and the fixed gaze focused on a faraway point on the horizon create the sense of a character operating within the dimensions of "inexhaustible time" - time which is not measured in the units of "here and now" but by means of an hourglass in which the sand grains do not run out. The Sudanese man has so much time that he does not even bother to blow at his pinwheels. Sooner or later, the wind will come. If not sooner, then later. And if not later, then after later. The pioneer at his side stands barefoot like the natives and carries a hoe - a symbol of Zionist activism - on his shoulder, his back turned to the sea. The Sudanese man looks as if he could keep crouching on his heels for a long time. He is in no hurry, and patience is the trait ensuring his survival. He operates in another temporal sphere. By contrast, the "New Jew" - bearded and wearing a European hat - is full of movement and impetuosity. He has no time, and must begin his task.
First there is the problem of translation. Agnon's Hebrew was deeply layered and rich, mining much of the long tradition of Hebrew literature in every age. Of course, a translation does not covey this. But this translation gives a sense of the faux simplicity of Agnon's Hebrew prose. Beneath the deadpan delivery is a multi-layered work that taps into a three-thousand year history of Hebrew prose writing.
Second, Agnon has produced a work that is an invaluable document about the early days of the New Yishuv in Palestine. Rich in local color and detail, Agnon is not afraid to take the reader on carefully crafted detours into the lives of the odd characters of the early Zionist movement, men and women who would resurrect a language and create a state.
Finally, Only Yesterday belongs in the pantheon of large social novels that while exemplifying a certain time and place, capture human universals. The problems of human life, the pains, joys, loves, losses, are the ultimate subject of this book. Taken together, all these elements make for a masterful read.
It is however precisely Agnon's intellectual playfulness and irony which would seem to stand as barriers before the reader's direct identification and sympathy with the characters.
I in any case prefer some of Agnon's stories to this larger and more ambitious work.