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.
"[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 Book World
"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
On the Soil of the Land of Israel
Isaac stood there on the soil of the Land of Israel he had yearned to see all the days of his life. Beneath his feet are the rocks of the Land of Israel and above his head blazes the sun of the Land of Israel and the houses of Jaffa rise up from the sea like regiments of wind, like clouds of splendor, and the sea recoils and comes back to the city, and does not swallow the city nor does the city drink up the sea. An hour or two ago, Isaac had been on the sea and now he is on dry land. An hour or two ago, he was drinking the air of other lands, and now he is drinking the air of the Land of Israel. No sooner had he collected his thoughts than the porters were standing around him and demanding money from him. He took out his purse and gave them. They demanded more. He gave them. They demanded more. Finally, they wanted baksheesh.
When he got rid of the Arabs, a Jew came and took Isaac's belongings. He led him through markets and passages, alleys and yards. Trees with abundant branches rose up, and strange cattle were chewing their cud. And people wrapped in turbans mock in their own tongues. The sun is blazing above and the sand is burning below. Isaac's flesh is an enveloping flame and his sinews an ardent fire. His throat is hoarse and his tongue is like parched soil, and his lips are dry and his whole body is a jug of sweat. Suddenly a light breeze blew bringing life in its wake. But as suddenly as it came, so it disappeared. And once again he seems to be inside a case of fire and a pool ofboiling water. He looked in front of him and was stunned. His escort had brought him to a yard and taken him into a dark house full of sacks and bundles and belongings and packages and baskets and crates and boxes, and told him they were setting the table and would soon call him to dinner. Isaac rummaged around for those letters our leaders in Lemberg had written for him to show the landlord that he wasn't mistaken about him.
The landlord wasn't mistaken about Isaac, but Isaac was mistaken about the landlord. This house was an inn and the landlord was an innkeeper and all his efforts with Isaac were simply to be paid for room and board. If Isaac had gone with others who had attached themselves to him on the boat, he wouldn't have had to wind up in this hostel where the food was thin and the bedbugs were fat, the bugs sucked his blood by night as their owner sucked his blood by day. Or maybe those who attached themselves to him first were also innkeepers whose affection was all for the sake of money. Isaac justified the judgment meted out to him and accepted everything lovingly. Isaac said, Tomorrow I'll go out to the field and I won't need this fortune I brought from Exile, and it didn't matter if they took a lot from him or a little.
Isaac spent that day and all that night in the hostel. He drank a lot and slept a little and waited for dawn to go to a village. When day broke and he wanted to go, the landlord said to him, Eat first and then go. When he had eaten and got up to go, he said to him, Where are you going? He told him, To Petakh Tikva, the Opening of Our Hope. The landlord said, The wagon's already gone. He wanted to go to Rishon Le-Tsion, the First of Zion, and he told him, Today the car doesn't go there. He wanted to go to some other place, and he told him, Arabs attacked that place and destroyed it. And so with every place Isaac wanted to go to, the owner of the hostel found something to delay him. At that time, the hostel was empty, had no guests, and when a guest wound up in the hostel, the innkeeper held on to him until his money ran out. Isaac fathomed the innkeeper's mind, and he got up and went to find himself a cart.
Isaac went out to look for a cart. As soon as he took one step, both his feet sank in the sand. This is the sand of Jaffa that digs underneath you to swallow you up. As soon as you stand on it, it runs out and turns into holes on top of holes.
The sun was strong in its dominion and beat down on Isaac's head. His eyes were filled with salt water and the fire lapped it and boiled it. His clothes are heavy and his shoes are blazing like coals. The ironed shirt he donned in honor of the Land sits on his heart like a soaked Matzo, and the hat rains salty dews down on his face.
Shapeless houses are strewn over the sand, which rises above their thresholds and rubs into the walls. The windows are closed and the shutters gleam in the sun. No sign of life is evident in those houses, but puddles of slops standing full and smelling foul indicate that human beings dwell there.
Isaac walks around in the wasteland of Jaffa. No man on earth, no bird in the sky. Only the sun stands between sky and earth like a dreadful being that won't bear any other being in its presence. If he isn't burned in fire, he will dissolve in sweat. Isaac no longer feels his clothes and shoes, for he and they have become one single mass. In the end, even the sense of himself was stripped from him, as if he were removed from himself.
God took pity on him and he didn't lose his head. Isaac knew the road he came from and knew that he could go back to the hostel. He made his heart obstinate and didn't return. He said to himself, Today I'll get to the settlement and I'll go into the forest and dwell in the shade of a tree and no sun in the world will overcome me. An imaginative man was Isaac and he imagined that the people of the settlements had planted forests to dwell in their shade.
Soon after, Isaac left the desert of sand and reached a dwelling place. Camels and donkeys and mules loaded with wares were standing around as if they bore no burden. Nearby sat a few Arabs with long, multicolored tubes in their mouths, and their eyes were raised to the sky. Nearby stood a few Jews and debated with the Arabs.
Isaac encountered one fellow. He said to him, "Pray, my lord, where might I find here a vehicle going to one of the settlements of the Jews?" The fellow held out his hand and greeted him. He welcomed him, saying, A new man, a new man. Isaac nodded in reply and said, I arrived yesterday, and now I want to go to Petakh Tikva or Rishon Le-Tsion. Does my lord know where I might find a vehicle? The fellow replied, "Does my loydship see dose green trees standin in a line? If it may please my loydship, he'll toyn toyd dose green trees; and dere my loydship would please to find de carriages my loydship is seekin, both dose dat journey to Peysakh Tikvoy and dose dat journey to Rehoyvis and to Rishoyn-le-Tsioyn, and dose dat journey to de udder dwellins of our brudders, children of Isroyel, who dwell on de holy soil in de Holy Land." All that to make fun of him for talking in his Ashkenazi Hebrew of the Exile. Isaac got into conversation with him, and in the end they went into a coffeehouse to drink lemonade.
When they entered they found a group of young men, sitting both silent and slovenly. They raised their weary eyes to Isaac and looked at him. One of the group stretched out his hand and greeted him and said, A new man comes, hissing as if he were hushing his thoughts and calling Hush hush. Isaac returned his greeting and said, Yesterday I was fortunate enough to ascend to the Land of Israel. And as he spoke, he waved his hat like a fan and blew a breeze on his face, he wiped his sweat and said, It's hot here, hot here. Someone exclaimed in amazement, The springtime isn't over yet and he's already hot. And another one looked at Isaac's clothes and said, The sun gets hot from patriots like you.
Isaac ordered lemonade for himself and his companion and the companions of his companion. He drank and didn't quench his thirst, and drank again and didn't quench his thirst. As soon as the beverage entered his body it came out on his face. He held his glass and wiped his sweat, wiped his sweat and drank some more. At first that drink is sour and sweet and finally it scratches your guts and leaves an insipid taste in your mouth. His companions ordered black coffee to get rid of the taste.
One of them asked Isaac, What's new in the world? Isaac, who thought there was no world except for the Land of Israel, replied, I'm a new man in the Land and haven't yet heard anything. On the contrary, perhaps I shall hear from you what's new in the Land. One of them answered, News you want to hear. Well then, hear. This place what is it, a coffeehouse, right. And this man talking to you what is he, a laborer in the Land, right. And this day what is it, a day like any other day, right. If so what is the laborer doing in the coffeehouse on a weekday? Except that he pursued all the Effendis in the settlements of the Land of Israel and didn't find any work. And why didn't he find any work, because their work is done by Arabs. And why doesn't he turn to construction work? After all a Hebrew school is being built here in Jaffa with money from a Jewish donor supported by the committee of the Lovers of Zion in Odessa, and they surely need workers. But the building supervisors turn us down and say that they have already given the construction work to contractors, and the contractors turn us down, because it's easier for them to work with foreign laborers, since the foreigners cost them less. And since they won't say that they're turning us down because, by their accounting, we cost them more than what they need to make a profit, they slander us, saying that we don't know the work. It's not enough that they take away our livelihood, but they also dishonor our name. Why are you looking at me? Don't you understand a human language?
Isaac understood yet didn't understand. He understood that they were building a Hebrew school, and didn't understand the actions of the contractors. He understood that that man walked through all the settlements, but didn't understand that he couldn't find anything. And why didn't Isaac understand, after all he did know Hebrew, but that man spoke with a Sephardi accent, and mingled Russian and Arabic curses with words that had been invented in the Land. How much Isaac loved the conversation of that man, held in Hebrew and in the Land of Israel.
Another man added, The officials of our national institutions, some of them get the salary of a governor, and complain about us laborers that we want a salary of two or three Bishliks a day. And they, who are no wiser than we are, think they have some superior wisdom and they made themselves patrons of the Yishuv, and they placed themselves in offices and write memoranda, while we pull the skin off our bones and take a leading part in all troubles.
Someone pointed at Isaac and said, Why are you scaring him? Said the one who spoke first, Shall I compose an idyll of the Land of Israel for him? And the other one said, That I leave to the poets and the tourists, and I ask you all, are you the only ones suffering? Aren't there people here who came before us, and if we tell all the troubles that befell them, time would run out. They came to a wilderness, a place of harsh malaria, and gangs of highwaymen, and harsh laws and evil governors. If they built themselves houses, the king's officials came and destroyed them. If they sowed, their neighbors came and threw their beasts on the grain. If they drove them out, they went to cry to the government that the Jews attacked them. And if some of the harvest remained, they didn't know if they should sow it next year or use it to bribe the clerks not to twist their laws against them. And what they rescued from humans was taken from them by Heaven. But they didn't despair and they endured all the troubles and they maintained the Yishuv through their suffering and turned the deserts of the Land of Israel into homes and vineyards and fields. And as he mentioned their suffering, he told of their heroism, and as he told, his companions told more and even more. Thus they sat and told tales about afflictions and tales about heroism, about those in the plain and about those in the mountains, about those in the sands and about those in the swamp. About those who eat the harvest of their fields and about those who are eaten by the Land. It is small, our Land, and how great are its troubles. And since they were telling about the settlements, they told about their founders. And as they were telling, they were amazed at themselves that they hadn't noticed the heroism of those founders before now.
How Isaac loved that hour when he sat in the Land of Israel in the presence of laborers of the Land of Israel who were telling of the building of the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel was acquired with suffering, and he who loves the Land of Israel and lovingly accepts her suffering, is privileged to see her being built.
As they sit, hunger begins to oppress them. One of the group stood up and said, It's lunchtime. Anyone who had a Bishlik or half a Bishlik began pondering whether to eat at noon or in the evening, and anyone who didn't have a cent in his hand was exempt from superfluous contemplations. It was hard for Isaac to leave the group so he invited them all to dine with him. He really did want to go to the settlement, but it was worth it for him to while away a day with them. They sat and ate together. They ate to satisfy their hunger, and he who wasn't used to the food of the Land of Israel ate little, and even that did not accord with his habits. After they ate and drank, he paid their expenses. How heavy is the currency of the Land of Israel and how many kinds there are there, Francs and Megiddos and Bishliks and Matliks. If all the coins were put in one side of the scales and all the food in the other side, the coins would tip the scales.
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!