Agnon and Joyce on the cruelty of community

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I had a wretched reading experience on my trip to Israel last fall. I was trying to get into S.Y. Agnon, who was born in Poland in 1888 and moved to Palestine and won the Nobel Prize for Literature as an Israeli, and I’d brought along his 1935 novel A Simple Story. As the title says, it’s a simple story, set in a small market town in Galicia. A freshly-orphaned girl, Blume, moves in with rich cousins and falls in love with the son, Hirshl. The family intervenes. They have a good match in mind for him, to a materialistic young woman. Hirshl pines after Blume. Even after he’s plighted. He loses his mind, for love, stalks Blume from afar. “His world had shrunk so that almost nothing was left of it but the street on which Blume lived.” This stuff is the best part of the book, the lovesickness. Hirshl goes into the woods and turns into a rooster. He is at last treated by a doctor in the city of Lemberg.

But the last 50 pages of the book are devoted to Hirshl’s acceptance of his lot, and his learning to love his wife. “Love comes to us only when no one stands between it and us,” Hirshl says on the penultimate page. The community has triumphed and the author is also pleased. On the last page, Agnon writes that he can tell nothing of what became of poor Blume. I threw the book across the room in East Jerusalem.

One of my favorite stories is about the same theme, and I reread it the other night (partly because I’d been hanging with Desmond Travers): A Painful Case, by James Joyce. Agnon and Joyce were rough contemporaries, though A Painful Case was written 20 years before Agnon wrote his novel, and published in the book Dubliners. 

In A Painful Case, a lonely bank cashier named James Duffy whose life is secretly devoted to ideas meets a woman named Emily Sinico who is married to a boat captain who is often at sea. They become close friends and meet often. They share books and music. She falls in love with him, she signals that her marriage is not an impediment, she makes a helpless pass at him. In a paroxysm of rectitude Duffy breaks off the relationship and frames a famous, abstemious lesson: “Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.” Four years later, still lonely, in a bar, Duffy reads in a newspaper of her suicide at 43, throwing herself in front of a train. 

The last 1000 words of the story are so majestic you should just go read them yourself. Duffy at first lacerates Emily Sinico for her depravity and thanks god that he did not join his life to hers. What a fitting ending she had, he moralizes. But as he walks home through the dark streets, he realizes the full measure of the tragedy. And though at first he tries to rationalize the outcome, saying things would never have worked out, how could they have lived openly with one another, he comes to a crushing conclusion:

“Why had he withheld life from her? Why had he sentenced her to death? He felt his moral nature falling to pieces.” 

The back of my copy of Dubliners says that Joyce wrote the book as “the moral history of his community.” And that’s the book’s achievement; he had left Ireland years before and could reflect on that community’s makeup.

Agnon never left the Jewish community. Because of anti-Semitism, Zionism– yes it would be cruel to be reductive about this, he stayed in the Jewish community– and the work is interesting, provincial and unchallenging. Of course James Joyce is James Joyce, but Isaac Singer or Bernard Malamud would have known how to handle this material, and so I’d conclude with a thought Desmond Travers had– the majesty of the Jewish achievement as a minority in the west.

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