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To This Day Hardcover – April 1, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
First published in 1952, this subtly woven, comic tale by Nobel Prize–winner Agnon is set in Germany during World War I. A young scholar writing a book on the history of clothing has strayed from his Austrian, Orthodox Jewish roots, ending up in Berlin at the outbreak of war, searching for a quiet place to stay, but compelled to move restlessly from one room to another. A letter by the ailing widow of the renowned Dr. Levy prompts him to set out for Grimma, in the hope of becoming the executor for the doctor's vast Jewish library; however, he is waylaid in Leipzig by a former actress friend, Brigitta Schimmermann, now a fashionable wife who runs an important nursing hospital. Eventually abandoning his mission, he heads back to Berlin where he moves among boarding houses, befriending the various proprietors and their daughters, meeting war-damaged friends at nightclubs and observing in his detached manner the desperation and decadence of a society on the brink. Translator Halkin offers a masterly introduction to this deeply moralistic work that portrays the Jew in diaspora with neither country nor room, seeking God's plan in what might only be happenstance. (Apr.)
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From The New Yorker
Published in 1952 and now translated into English for the first time, Agnons final novel presents an eccentric tour through First World War Berlin. The narrator, a Galician-born Jew from Palestine, is stranded in Germany, passing his days in search of a place to spend the night amid a severe housing shortage. As he moves through a series of apartments, convinced that there is "a grand conspiracy of rooms" against him, the narrative introduces, drops, and periodically reëncounters characters, among them a famous stage actress running a hospital for invalid soldiers; a young man under her care, too traumatized to speak; and a landlady who fills the bathtub with vegetables and dirty linen. All have stories of their own, leading the novel away from any central thread. Still, Agnons young exile, whose thoughts "jumbled everything while forgetting nothing," gives voice to an idiosyncratic allegory of spiritual homelessness.
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Agnon published six novels in addition to many short stories. “To This Day” is the shortest of his novels, comprising just 158 pages in this beautiful English translation by Hillel Halkin of Agnon’s original Hebrew. The story is, on a literal level, a humorous tale of a young man with scholarly and literary ambitions who goes from Palestine to Berlin with the hope to be able to buy the large library of a deceased scholar. It is the time of World War I. He is trapped in Germany and is unable to return home. He encounters many problems, which are hilarious to the reader. There is a shortage of housing. He wanders from one rented room to another. Each room has a flaw which compels him to try to find a better one.
While the novel can and should be read as a humorous tale, it should also be mined for its deeper meaning, which is explained in an informative fifteen-page Introduction, which if read gives not only deeper insights, but also increases the delight in reading the tale. Underlying motives include commentary on exile both today and in ancient Israel, the good and the bad about Zionism, Orthodoxy in religion, divine providence, human egoism and fallibility.
I say this to indicate that there can be no comparison between a reading in Hebrew of Agnon's work and one in English. Still this book is translated by one of the most well- known and finest of translators from Hebrew to English, Hillel Halkin. It reads beautifully, and while knowing I missed much by not reading the Hebrew text I found the English translation totally absorbing.
I might add that Halkin provides a long preface to the work. This preface adds much but I would have preferred seeing it as an 'Afterword'. I would also have preferred that there be some kind of glossary to deal with certain concepts , realities in the text that the contemporary reader might not have knowledge of.
All this said I deeply enjoyed the reading. Agnon is not a fast - forward. He is a one step ahead , half - a- step back, and two- steps around writer. We go somewhere but we are not sure where, and we get there very slowly. The wandering narrator of this work ,who lost in World War I Germany after having lived for a number of years in Jaffa, knows no rest. He goes from rented room to rented room, meeting characters who illuminate the Jewish and human situation, not only of their time but of all time. There are a number of striking characters in the work, whose stories we come to know and whose meetings with the narrator reveal more of a 'picture' we know will not be complete, but will be blurred at the edges and irresolute- as is characteristic of Agnon. What is happening to the narrator and main character will continually be elaborated by parable, by story, by hints, and ironies. i.e. Anyone who knows Agnon's other work will feel perfectly at home in this one- when of course one central theme of Agnon is the theme of never quite feeling at home.
One special joy of this work for me is entering a fictional universe in which the Jewish element is not external and programmatic but inherent and characteristic. In this sense I feel at home in the work of Agnon as I feel in the home of another great writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
This book for me was a great joy to read. I believe it should be for others also.