The last of Agnon’s six novels to be translated from Hebrew into English, this 1951 work describes the travails of a young Jew in Berlin during the Great War. Agnon (1888–1970) won the Nobel in 1966.
The novel is partly autobiographical. The narrator has the same first name as the author (Shmuel Yosef) and an identical migratory background: from Galicia to Palestine to Berlin and back to Palestine. Shmuel is constantly on the move, from one boarding house to another; he can never find the right combination of landlady, room and furnishings. His search duplicates in miniature the search of Jews for a homeland. Simultaneously the war has thrown Shmuel off his game. He has been unable to work on his book, a history of clothing, since the war began. Instead he carries out an assignment to assess the library of the late Dr. Levi, as requested by the scholar’s widow. This involves a train ride to a town outside of Leipzig. The trip proves futile; the house is locked and the widow is in the hospital. But Shmuel runs into an old friend, a former actress now operating a nursing home for war victims. One of her patients has been transformed into a golem, a zombie, by battlefield horrors. He attaches himself to Shmuel and thus is reunited with his mother, Shmuel’s Berlin landlady, who had dreamt of this homecoming. Dreams, legends and anecdotes make up much of the story, which is buoyed by mordant humor and absurdist touches: Shmuel will return to Leipzig to transport the enormous hat of a visiting Christian professor, an “authority” on ancient Israel who knows no Hebrew. The contentiousness of German and Eastern European Jews is another theme, but it’s the war that looms over everything, a character in its own right.
In Halkin’s beautifully fluid translation (he has also supplied a perceptive introduction), we see Agnon’s piquant illustration of a disorientation that feels quite contemporary.