SHIRA by S.Y. Agnon

SHIRA

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The last novel of Nobel laureate Agnon (1888-1970), first published in Hebrew in 1979: a magisterial and (as Robert Alter suggests in his unusually helpful Afterword) probably unfinishable story of a middle-aged man's unlikely awakening to love by the enigmatic title character. Professor Manfred Herbst, an autumnal-spirited ‚migr‚ to Palesitne with the first wave of German refugees in the 1930's, is an exemplary bourgeois whose life is furnished with Henrietta, his affectionate if slightly faded wife; Zahara and Tamara, his teen-aged daughters; and one book and a procession of scholarly articles on the burial customs of the Byzantine poor. His writing has earned him a post as lecturer at the fledgling Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the respect of even his fellow ‚migr‚s who have been promoted ahead of him. But Herbst's comfortable view of life is threatened from the moment he sees Shira, the strong-willed nurse attending the birth of his unexpected third child. His initial diffidence about approaching her does not prevent him from sinking into obsession, not so much with Shira (who never comes off, or seems intended to, as a psychologically realistic character), as with what she represents: a ruthless, corrosive passion, and a revolted fascination with the body reminiscient of the Dionysiac power that unmanned Thomas Mann's hero in Death in Venice. As Herbst struggles to comprehend his baffled response to Shira, his attempts to maintain his professional and temperamental defenses against a world collapsing without and within sharpen to a conflict that Agnon's death left unresolved. Despite Agnon's typically elaborate ironies and his abrupt shifts between realism, fantasy, and self-deprecating commentary: a harrowingly detailed and almost unbearably rich amount of an ordinary man's confrontation with the shocks and mysteries of love.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1989
ISBN: 0815604254
Publisher: Schocken