The Hebrew novelist and short-story writer S. Y. Agnon, winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize, died on this day in 1970. Many regard Agnon’s Only Yesterday (1945) as his best novel, one of the central works of modern Jewish culture, and essential reading for those who wish to understand the complexities of modern Israel. It begins as an exploration of the 1907-13 wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine, the novel’s hero a settler driven by Zionist idealism and economic opportunity:
Like all our brethren of the Second Aliya, the bearers of our Salvation, Isaac Kumer left his country and his homeland and his town and ascended to the Land of Israel to build from its destruction and to be rebuilt by it.
But the new Kumer, proving vulnerable to old confusions — some sexual, some intellectual — declines to the profession of house painter. And Agnon’s story moves further and further away from the traditionally told historical novel: much of the second half of Only Yesterday is dominated by Balak, a talking dog. For a joke, Kumer has painted “Crazy Dog” on Balak’s back, and he unknowingly wanders the Arab-Jewish-Christian neighborhoods as a pariah. At this moment he has come upon some young lovers “telling each other things that even the First Adam didn’t say to Eve in the Garden of Eden”:
When the dog sniffed the smell of human beings, he jumped for joy and came and stood among them. And in his joy, he raised his voice until he was heard from rock to rock. Those who were lovely and pleasant heard, and their vow that even death wouldn’t divide them was forgotten. A fellow’s fingers twined in a girl’s hand dropped away, and the fellow and the girl dropped away too and fled, for a rumor was already circulating that a mad dog was straying in the city. This one fled here and that one fled there and the rocks once again stood like rocks of the wilderness with no person and no love. And the dog too stood like a stone with no love and no person. But amazement spread over his face and a question twitched in his mouth and hung on his tongue, What is this, wherever human beings look at him, there is either stoning or fleeing….
Balak eventually becomes what he is perceived to be: he gets rabies, biting even the hand of the painter who made him.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.