Apr 182014

Sometimes I translate other things. Among my various pet projects is a translation of the rarely-seen original edition of S.Y. Agnon’s first major work, “Agunot” (“moored women”), published in 1908 in the journal Ha-Omer, the year the nineteen-year-old author made his first, fruitful-if-failed, attempt at aliyah. Since I’m not doing anything with it, I may as well use it for an experiment in serialized translation. Agnon was something of the George Lucas of Hebrew letters; as the preeminent Hebrew writer, his works saw many printings, and he was often unable to resist the temptation to tweak stories and novels when new editions came out, sometimes in minor ways, sometimes in major ones. What I have translated here is the original “Agunot” – the version you’ll find in the collected Hebrew works of Agnon is different, and the widely available English translation is drawn from that later version. I won’t argue whether this version is superior or inferior, I present it merely for the sake of curiosity and posterity. If the Agnon estate wants to sue me for my audacity, let them. This site is not ad-supported, I actually lose money by maintaining it, and I don’t even have the money to live in the misery to which I am accustomed. They might get a nargilah and some kitchenware.

Anyway. Don’t let the title fool you; the story is only about agunot in a loosely metaphorical sense; its main concern seems to be, as literary scholar Dan Miron would have it, is the “quest for romantic-erotic self-fulfillment, the artist’s quest for creativity and beauty, and the quest for faith,” and more specifically the quixotic nature of that quest in the face of a stagnating Judaism (Agnon is no Zionist demagogue, though; his somewhat enigmatic calls for progress are invariably tinged, even at the outset of his career, with an affection and nostalgia for a world and lifestyle he seems almost presciently aware are on the verge of vanishing completely).

For those of you new to Agnon, his entire life, both literary and personal, was a series of overlapping guises he assumed when he saw fit, and for all the hundreds of thousands of pages devoted to unraveling him, nobody seems to be able to say with complete certainty what his feelings were towards anything. At the Nobel ceremony where he’d won the prize for Literature, the multilingual Agnon introduced himself to the committee in Hebrew, saying he regarded himself as someone born in Jerusalem, and presenting himself as a sort of of shtetl diamond-in-the-rough, weaned on Hasidic fables and exposed only to Jewish traditional writings, producing complex modernist literature via the same process chimpanzees and typewriters might produce “Hamlet”(he was, of course, bourgeois, educated and from a bustling cosmopolitan town in Galicia). My former Hebrew professor is fond of telling an anecdote in which one of the young buck Israeli writers, I think Amos Oz, went to visit the aged Agnon, a literary hero, in his book-lined study in Talpiyot; Oz (or whoever) pointed out the German volumes of Kafka lining the wall, and Agnon, with straight face, said, “Those must be Estherlein’s [Agnon’s wife].” At any rate, in “Agunot” Agnon assumes the guise of a maggid, the roving storytellers who wandered Hasidic Eastern Europe imparting tales of musar, traditional Jewish ethics, in a highly distinct and recognizable style shot through with scriptural quotations and pious oaths. “Agunot” is introduced as such a tale, but it quickly reveals itself to be something else entirely.

So without further ado, I present the first chapter for download. I will post the remaining five as I see fit.

As the writings say: “A thread of grace goes forth and is pulled through the deeds of Israel, and the Holy One Blessed Be He himself in all his glory sits and weaves from it tapestries upon tapestries — a precious tallit spun wholly of grace and lovingkindness, for the congregation of Israel to wrap herself in during that time of the joy and the delight of the Commandments, and so it is that she glows with the radiance of her beauty even on the Sabbaths and Holy Days in Exile, as she did in her youth in her Father’s house, in the kingly sanctuary and kingly city. And at that time, when He may-He-be-blessed sees that she has not wasted away G-d forbid and not been corrupted even in the lands of her enemies, he nods to her, as it were, with his head and lauds her: ‘Ah, you are fair, my beloved, ah, you are fair.’ And this is the secret of the grandeur and the might and the transcendence and lovers’ ardor that every man and every woman and every child of Israel then feels.

But yet there is a sort of obstruction, G-d forbid, that draws nigh and cuts off a thread within the tapestry, and the tallit is damaged and evil spirits whirl about and penetrate within and rip through it tears upon tears, and immediately a feeling of great shame seizes everyone, ‘and they knew they were naked’…their Sabbaths cease, their Holy Days are horror, ash in place of exaltation, and the congregation of Israel wanders lost in her grief and wails: ‘They struck me, they hurt me, they tore my shawl away from me.’ Her love has slipped away and she seeks him, sighing, “if you should find my love, what should you tell him? That I am sick with love…” And this sickness of love brings her nothing but a black bile and sours her towards all creation like a wanton woman, G-d forbid…until from on high a spirit cleaves to us, that we might repent and set out to perform good deeds that bring pride upon their doers, and once again stretch out that same thread of grace and lovingkindness before the Omnipresent.”

And this very thing the author means to invoke in the tale that follows: a tale grand and dreadful from the Holy Land, of one stupendously wealthy man, the honorable dignitary Reb Achiezer, who gave his heart that he might rise up from the Exile towards the Holy City Jerusalem, may it be rebuilt and strengthened, to decree there great decrees within the community, to restore the dignity of his people that they might honorably earn their living, to magnify Torah and exalt it throughout Israel, and to prepare ever so slightly the anteroom of our ruins, until we should merit that it once again be as a grand hall, when the Holy One Blessed Be He returns his Presence to Zion speedily and in our days.

Download chapter one here (PDF).

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