Los Angeles Times
Only Yesterdayby S. Y. Agnon, Barbara Harshav, Barbara Harshav
Israeli Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon's famous masterpiece, his novel Only Yesterday, here appears in English translation for the first time. Published in 1945, the book tells a seemingly simple tale about a man who immigrates to Palestine with the Second Aliyathe several hundred idealists who returned between 1904 and 1914 to work the Hebrew soil as in Biblical times and revive Hebrew culture. Only Yesterday quickly became recognized as a monumental work of world literature, but not only for its vivid historical reconstruction of Israel's founding society. This epic novel also engages the reader in a fascinating network of meanings, contradictions, and paradoxes all leading to the question, what, if anything, controls human existence?
Seduced by Zionist slogans, young Isaac Kumer imagines the Land of Israel filled with the financial, social, and erotic opportunities that were denied him, the son of an impoverished shopkeeper, in Poland. Once there, he cannot find the agricultural work he anticipated. Instead Isaac happens upon house-painting jobs as he moves from secular, Zionist Jaffa, where the ideological fervor and sexual freedom are alien to him, to ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist Jerusalem. While some of his Zionist friends turn capitalist, becoming successful merchants, his own life remains adrift and impoverished in a land torn between idealism and practicality, a place that is at once homeland and diaspora. Eventually he marries a religious woman in Jerusalem, after his worldly girlfriend in Jaffa rejects him.
Led astray by circumstances, Isaac always ends up in the place opposite of where he wants to be, but why? The text soars to Surrealist-Kafkaesquedimensions when, in a playful mode, Isaac drips paint on a stray dog, writing "Crazy Dog" on his back. Causing panic wherever he roams, the dog takes over the story, until, after enduring persecution for so long without "understanding" why, he really does go mad and bites Isaac. The dog has been interpreted as everything from the embodiment of Exile to a daemonic force, and becomes an unforgettable character in a book about the death of God, the deception of discourse, the power of suppressed eroticism, and the destiny of a people depicted in all its darkness and promise.
Author Biography: S. Y. Agnon (1887-1970) was born Shmuel-Yoysef Tshatshkes in the Jewish town of Butshatsh in eastern Galicia, formerly a Polish region. In 1908 he went with the Second Aliya to Palestine, where he published several early masterpieces in Hebrew. In 1912-1924 he lived in Germany and was regularly supported by the publisher and Zionist Sh.-Z. Schocken. From 1924 Agnon lived mostly in Jerusalem. In 1966 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Among his works translated into English are A Simple Story, The Bridal Canopy, Days of Awe, In the Heart of the Seas, and Shira.
Los Angeles Times
A brilliant epic of a simple man's quest for the Promised Land . . . . This is a work so rich and allusive, so real and yet so strange, that despite its exalted place in the canon of one of the 20th century's major artists, it's not surprising that no one had undertaken until now the formidable challenge of translating it into English. . . . [In] a lively and accessible translation by Barbara Harshav. . . . [s]he uncannily captures the highly idiosyncratic voice and lilt, the full measure of provincialism and sophistication, of the master. . . . For this miracle of a translation, which brings Agnon's original Hebrew vividly to life, we can only be grateful.
"Ancient religious longing, modern political aspirations and personal dreams of liberation all intersect [here]. . . . Unlike many of the pioneers who went to make a new life in the Land of Israel, Agnon tried to take everything with him, which is why his writing is so packed, so intensely allusive. This is one of the glories of Agnon's prose. . . . [He is haunted by a] mixture of pride and shame at being an intellectual in a society that worshiped farmers, a writer in a culture founded on a dream of physical labor. . . . Of course all these paradoxes help make Agnon the great modernist that he is."--Jonathan Rosen, New York Times Book Review
"[This is] Agnon's gigantic achievement. . . . In place of Joyce's Dublin and Doeblin's Berlin, Agnon gives us a tale of two cities, secular Jaffa, the commercial and literary centre of the Yishuv, and sacred Jerusalem, parched by dust, poverty and drought, home to every stripe of simple faith and angry fanaticism. . ."--Morris Dickstein, Times Literary Supplement
"Agnon forged the language of modern Hebrew literature. . . . [His] novel has a folkloric quality analogous to the bold simplifications of Chagall, locating the archaic residue lurking just below the surface disenchantment of modernity."--Publishers Weekly
"Critics adore interpreting and decoding Agnon, whose literary and personal mythological universe has provided endless fodder for dissertations, books, and erudite essays. . . . Now, Princeton University Press has made Agnon's most celebrated work available for ordinary readers as well, with the first English translation of Agnon's sprawling, double-plotted, cryptically symbolic mega-novel."--Susan Miron, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"[A] scathing vision of God and man, Zionism and Jewish history, desire and guilt, language, and meaning . . . a novel that deserves comparison with Franz Kafka's The Trial . . . Its appearance in English now, delayed for half a century by the formidable difficulties of translating its Hebrew, makes available to American readers a work of powerful, and eccentric, originality."--Robert Alter, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"An immense ragbag of a book, full of insight and poetry, tending to surrealism, not to say mythology, mannered and even precious in style, discursive, and all told with a cleverness that opens up a number of possible meanings."--David Pryce-Jones, The Spectator
"Never before available in English, a masterpiece of the picaresque by the Nobel laureate who is arguably the greatest novelist in modern Hebrew. Fifty-five years after this epic tale's initial publication, Harshav provides an eloquent translation, successfully capturing Agnon's carefully nuanced and bitter humor. . . . One of the finest novels of this century."--Kirkus Reviews
"This is one of the central works of modern Jewish culture. . . . [It] is fascinating and engrossing and Barbara Harshav has handled the imposing task of translation with aplomb, creating an unfussy, clean equivalent to Agnon's idiosyncratic Hebrew style."--Alan Mintz, The Forward
"A brilliant epic of a simple man's quest for the Promised Land . . . . This is a work so rich and allusive, so real and yet so strange, that despite its exalted place in the canon of one of the 20th century's major artists, it's not surprising that no one had undertaken until now the formidable challenge of translating it into English. . . . [In] a lively and accessible translation by Barbara Harshav. . . . [s]he uncannily captures the highly idiosyncratic voice and lilt, the full measure of provincialism and sophistication, of the master. . . . For this miracle of a translation, which brings Agnon's original Hebrew vividly to life, we can only be grateful."--Tova Reich, Washington Post Bookworld
"There are flashes of steely observation . . . as well as delight, sadness, disgust, hauteur, pity, cruelty and a whole range of other such opposing yet confluent emotions and states of being . . . plainly a labor of love."--Dan Jacobson, The New York Review of Books
"The novel is crammed with bewitching characters and amazing episodes. Even in translation, its unique style is irresistible."--Gerald Kaufman, Sunday Telegraph
"Only Yesterday was first published in 1945, but it is just as timely today. . . Barbara Hershey's translation-the first ever in English-is thoroughly smooth and enjoyable. She succeeds in preserving Agnon's unique style, Voltaire-like witticism, and literary beauty."--Alexander Zvielli, The Jerusalem Post
- Princeton University Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.47(w) x 9.45(h) x 1.83(d)
Read an Excerpt
Like all our brethren of the Second Aliya, the bearers of our Salvation, Isaac Kumer left his country and his homeland and his city and ascended to the Land of Israel to build it from its destruction and to be rebuilt by it. From the day our comrade Isaac knew his mind, not a day went by that he didn't think about it. A blessed dwelling place was his image of the whole Land of Israel and its inhabitants blessed by God. Its villages hidden in the shade of vineyards and olive groves, the fields enveloped in grains and the orchard trees crowned with fruit, the valleys yielding flowers and the forest trees swaying; the whole firmament is sky blue and all the houses are filled with rejoicing. By day they plow and sow and plant and reap and gather and pick, threshing wheat and pressing wine, and at eventide they sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, his wife and his sons and daughters sitting with him, happy at their work and rejoicing in their sitting, and they reminisce about the days of yore Outside the Land, like people who in happy times recall days of woe, and enjoy the good twice over. A man of imagination was Isaac, what his heart desired, his imagination would conjure up for him.
The days of his youth departed in his yearning for the Land of Israel. Some of Isaac's friends had already taken wives and opened shops for themselves, and they're distinguished in the eyes of folks and are invited to all public events. When they enter the bank, the clerk sits them down on a chair; when they come to a government office, the dignitaries return their greetings. And others of Isaac's friends are at the university studying all manner of wisdom that sustains those who possess it and magnifies their honor. While Isaac shortens his life and spends his days and his years selling Shekels to vote for the Zionist organization and selling stamps of the Jewish National Fund. His father wished to extricate him from his folly and set him up in a shop so he would be occupied in trade and become a man, but as soon as he entered the shop, the whole shop turned into a branch of Zionism. Anyone who didn't know what to do with himself went there. There were those who came to talk and those who came to listen, and those who just came and stood leaning on their walking stick and chomping on their beard, and the customers were dwindling and dropping away to other shops.
Even though there is a Society of Zion in the city, the talkers were fond of that store, because at the Society, you have to pay monthly dues, while here you entered and didn't pay. At the Society, everyone who comes in is dubbed a Zionist, and not everybody wants to be known as a Zionist, while here you were entitled to split hairs about Zionism to your heart's content and nobody called you a Zionist. And why are they afraid to be counted among the Zionists? Because the Sages of the Generation did not yet grant their seal of approval to Zionism and were hostile to the Zionists who make Societies for the Land of Israel thus annulling the Salvation that has to come by a miracle. All those who fear their words or are in awe of them are afraid to be called Zionists, but obstreperous individuals permit themselves to split hairs about it. They gather in Simon Kumer's store and find people like themselves and fire each other up with words that are food for the soul.
Thus passed the days of Isaac's youth, days that should form the foundation of a man's future. He didn't notice that he was spending them idly, or he did notice and wasn't worried, because his dwelling Outside the Land wasn't worth anything in his eyes, for all of Isaac's desire was to be in the Land of Israel. He remained alone in the shop, sitting and counting the Zionist Shekels he sold and making calculations, such as, if every single Jew gives a penny every day to the Jewish National Fund, how many acres can you buy with that small change and how many families could be settled on them. If a customer comes in to ask for some merchandise, Isaac glances at him like someone who is sitting on a treasure trove and people come and bother him.
When Simon, Isaac's father, saw Isaac's activities, he was bitter and depressed and worried. He would stand in the door of his shop and wring his hands in grief, or would sit on the chair and lean his head back and blow out his lungs inside him. If you haven't seen Simon Kumer, the father of Isaac Kumer, sitting in front of his son you never saw a father's grief. Before his son Isaac was grown up, his wife was his helpmate, and when she passed away leaving behind her a house full of orphans, Simon expected his son would help him. And what does the son do? Is it not bad enough that he doesn't help him, but he also drives the customers away to other shops? Simon neither quarrels with his son nor consoles him, for he has learned that neither quarreling nor conciliatory words will do any good. A curse has descended on the world, sons do not heed their fathers and fathers do not rule their sons. And Simon has despaired of getting any joy and satisfaction from his son and has started worrying lest his other sons learn from Isaac's deeds. He pondered the matter and agreed to send Isaac where he wanted to go. True, there is no prospect for the Land of Israel, but at any rate there may be some profit in that, for when he sees there is really nothing there, he'll come back to his hometown and settle down like everybody else, and the other sons will be saved and won't get dragged into this nonsense.
Simon didn't spare his son's dignity and would joke, For what reason do I agree to his journey? So he'll see with his own eyes that the whole business of the Land of Israel is a fiction the Zionists made up, and he'll remove it from his heart. Isaac heard and wasn't vexed. For the sons of Israel, if they aren't the sons of rich men or geniuses, grow up meekly, hear their disgrace and keep silent. And Isaac said to himself, Let Father say what he wants, in the end he will see that my way is the right one. Thus Isaac received his father's consent to the journey. From the day he was born not a thing had been done to his desire until that thing came and was done to his desire.
So great was the power of Isaac's trust in the Lord that even the town wags who make a joke of everything didn't laugh at him. His father began to think that perhaps God sent him to be a sustenance and a refuge for us. When Simon considered the journey, he started worrying and groaning and sighing, May I drop dead if I know where I'm going to get the money for the trip. Even if I sell all my wares it won't be enough. And even if it is enough, nobody comes in to buy, for Isaac has already made the customers forget the way to my shop. And even if my customers do come back they don't pay cash. All Simon Kumer's days were worries about money. Three generations had drawn their livelihood from the treasures their ancestor Reb Yudel Hasid had discovered, and the fourth generation finished off that wealth and didn't leave Simon Kumer, father of Isaac, son of the son of the daughter of Reb Yudel's daughter, even the remnants of remnants of those treasures. And now that he is pressed for money, no miracle occurred to him, and he didn't find a treasure as his ancestor did. Reb Yudel who had perfect trust in God was paid by the Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He to match his trust, while Simon his descendant placed his trust in trade, and trade sometimes brings honors to those who practice it and sometimes brings horrors on those who practice it.
Now a new worry was added to his worries, finding money for the journey. In those days there was some idle money among the well-to-do men of the city, for the royal authority had issued a decree against pawning, and they were afraid to lend to a Gentile who might report it to the government, yet they did take the liberty of lending to Jews at a fixed rate of interest. But where will a poor Jew get money to pay? And there's another problem here too, for Isaac won't find any work in the Land of Israel, and by the time his departure is paid for, he'll need to borrow to pay for his return.
Meanwhile, the time came for Isaac to be drafted into the army, and there was not a chance that he would be excused, for he was a healthy fellow and without the wherewithal to bribe the army commanders, and serving in the army meant profaning the Sabbath and eating forbidden foods. In spite of himself, Simon went back to pondering the journey.
Thus he went to the pawn shop and borrowed money for travel expenses and for clothes and footwear, for Isaac's clothing had laid him bare and his footwear wore him down because it was patched. He bought him clothes and ordered him shoes and a hat. Clothes of wool, shoes of sturdy leather, a hat of black felt, for they weren't yet experts on the climate of the Land of Israel and didn't know what clothes that Land demanded. True, they heard that the Land of Israel was a hot land, but they thought hot means beautiful, an in the poem of our bard, the marvels of a land where spring blooms eternal. For he is going to a place where they didn't know him and his clothes will show that he is from a fine home. Then Simon has six shirts sewn for him and ironed meticulously, because the ones he had showed more rips than patches, for ever since the day his mother died, no hand had mended them. If Simon had been blessed with wealth, he would have provided wedding garments for his son, but now he wasn't blessed, he provided him with supplies for the road. And he took a pillow and a featherbed from his wife's bed and gave them to Isaac. Then he took a valise and a sack, a valise to put the clothes and shirts in, and a sack to put the pillow and featherbed in.
Isaac parted from his father and his brothers and his sisters and all his other relatives and set out on the road. To the disgrace of his hometown, we must say that he parted from it without pain. A city that didn't send a Delegate to the Zionist Congres
Meet the Author
S. Y. Agnon (1887-1970) was born Shmuel-Yoysef Tshatshkes in the Jewish town of Butshatsh in eastern Galicia, formerly a Polish region. In 1908 he went with the Second Aliya to Palestine, where he published several early masterpieces in Hebrew. In 1912-1924 he lived in Germany and was regularly supported by the publisher and Zionist Sh.-Z. Schocken. From 1924 Agnon lived mostly in Jerusalem. In 1966 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Among his works translated into English are A Simple Story, The Bridal Canopy, Days of Awe, In the Heart of the Seas, and Shira.
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Isaac Kumer's story is a joy to read. I've learned so much about Zionism and what living in 'Israel' means to many people. Agnon is an incredible storyteller. He writes in a way that he wants you to think about a message he's trying to get across, yet he leaves no question unanswered. I love this book! I hope to visit The Promised Land myself!