Tuesday, September 19, 2017

ET: Almanac

Some years later, when the General Assembly of Kibbutz Hulda sent me to university to study literature, because the kibbutz school needed a literature teacher, I summoned up my courage and rang Mr. Agnon's doorbell one day (or in Agnon's language: "I took my heart and went to him").

"But Agnon is not at home," Mrs. Agnon said politely but angrily, the way she answered the throngs of brigands and highwaymen who came to rob her husband of his precious time. Mistress Agnon was not exactly lying to me: Mr. Agnon was indeed not at home, he was out at the back of the house, in the garden, whence he suddenly emerged, wearing slippers and a sleeveless pullover, greeted me, and then asked suspiciously, But who are you, sir? I gave my name and those of my parents, at which, as we stood in the doorway of his house (Mrs. Agnon having disappeared indoors without a word), Mr. Agnon remembered what wagging tongues had said in Jerusalem some years before, and placing his hand on my shoulder he said to me, "Aren't you the child who, having been left an orphan by his poor mother and distanced himself from his father, went off to live the life of the kibbutz? Are you not he who in his youth was reprimanded by his parents in this very house because he used to pick the raisins off the cake?"(I did not remember this, nor did I believe him about the raisin picking, but I chose not to contradict him.)) Mr. Agnon invited me in and questioned me for a while about my doings in the kibbutz, m studies (And what are they reading of mine in the university these days? And which of my books do you prefer?), and also inquired whom I had married and where my wife's family came from, and when I told him that on her father's side she was descended from the seventeenth-century Talmudist and kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz, his eyes lit up and he told me two or three tales, by which time his patience was exhausted and it was evident he was looking for a way of getting rid of me, but I summoned up my courage even though I was sitting there on tiptoe, precisely as my mother had done before me, and told him what my problem was.

I ahd come because Professor Gershom Shaked had given his first-year students in Hebrew literature the task of comparing the stories set in Jaffa by Brenner and by Agnon, and I had read the stories and also everything I could find in the library about their friendship in Jaffa in the days of the Second Aliyah, and I was amazed that two such different men could have become friends. Yosef Hayyim Brenner was a bitter, moody, thickset, sloppy, irascible Russian Jew, a Dostoevskian soul constantl oscilating between enthusiasm and depression, between compassion and rage, a figure who at that time was already installed at the center of modern Hebrew literature and at the heart of the pioneering movement, while Agnon was then (only) a shy young Galician, several years Brenner's junior and still almost a literary virgin, a pioneer turned clerk, a refined, discriminating Talmud student, a natty dresser and a careful, precise writer, a thin, dreamy, yet sarcastic young man: what on earth could have drawn them so close to each other in the Jaffa of the days of the Second Aliah, before the outbreak of the First World War, that they were almost like a pair of lovers? Today I think that I can guess something of the answer, but that day in Agnon's house, innocent as I was, I explained to my host the task I had been set, and innocently inquired if he would tell me the secret of his closeness to Brenner.

Mr. Agnon screwed up his eyes and looked at me, or rather scrutinized me, for a while with a sidelong glance, with pleasure, and a slight smile, the sort of smile--I later understood--that a butterfly catcher might smile on spotting a cute little butterfly. When he had finished eyeing me, he said:

"Between Yosef Hayyim, may God avenge his death, and me in those days there was a closeness founded on a shared love."

I pricked up my ears, in the belief that I was about to be told a secret to end all secrets, that I was about to learn of some spicy, concealed love story on which I could publish a sensational article and make myself a household name overnight in the world of Hebrew literary research.

"And who was that shared love?" I asked with youthful innocence and a pounding heart.

"That is a strict secret," Mr. Agnon smiled, not to me but to himself, and almost winked to himself as he smiled, "yes, a strict secret I shall reveal to you only if you give me your word never to tell a living soul."

I was so excited that I lost my voice, fool that I was, and could only mouth a promise.

"Well then, strictly between ourselves I can tell you that when we were living in Jaffa in those days, Yosef Hayyim and I were both in love with Samuel Yosef Agnon."

Amos Oz - A Tale of Love and Darkness

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