S. Y. Agnon’s “To This Day”

Reviewed by Tsipi Keller

Image of S. Y. Agnon’s “To This Day”

"During the Great War, I lived in the west of Berlin, in a room with a balcony in a small boarding house on Fasanenstrasse." So begins To This Day, Agnon's shortest novel, first published in Hebrew in 1952. The narrator, a young intellectual stranded in Berlin during the war, is presumably at work on a book about the history of clothing, a subject he came to, he tells a friend, "wanting to write about people from the past, I thought it was necessary to picture them." At any rate, it proves to be a hopeless task, not least because our narrator is easily distracted by people he meets in cafés and restaurants, friends and strangers alike, and the stories they seem eager to tell him. Ever-present as well is the misery he witnesses in a city where even the trees are affected by the war, "covered with dust that the breeze blew everywhere. Trees planted to make life better were only making it worse. Man, says the Bible, is a tree of the field. I suppose that's why the trees join in when men go to war and spread misery." Restless, he wanders from boarding house to boarding house, looking for the ideal room where he could work in, but whatever room he ends up in cannot compare with the ideal memory of his rooms in Jaffa, where he had emigrated and lived for a few years before coming back to Berlin on a whim.

When we first meet our narrator, he is packing his valise to travel to Grimma, via Leipzig, to save the library of the late Dr. Levi, now in the hands of his ailing widow. Travel during war time is difficult, especially for a foreigner without a ration book to buy food, and who requires special permits from the police. In the train station in Leipzig he runs into an erstwhile friend, the famous and beautiful actress Brigitta Schimmerman, who now runs a nursing home for wounded soldiers. She invites him to meet her later and lunch with her, and, having a few hours to kill, he calls upon an acquaintance of his, Dr. Mittel, "a shrewd old man and first-rate scholar." They discuss the future of Germany, the war, and most importantly, Hebrew books; needless to say, our narrator misses his luncheon with Brigitta. When he finally reaches Grimma and meets Dr. Levi's widow, she is too feeble and incoherent to discuss the fate of the library, and our narrator returns to Berlin and his endless search for the ideal room.

In the best modernist tradition, To This Day doesn't have a linear plot. The narrator's thoughts and random encounters are the plot. The goose liver dripping blood in his jacket pocket is the plot. Bathtubs serving as beds, or filled with dirty linen, potatoes, cauliflower, are the plot. Cripples and invalids from the war are the plot. The nameless narrator (we learn, indirectly, his first and middle names, which also happen to be Agnon's, on pages 92-3) is our nonjudgmental cataloguer and re-counter of human follies and frailties, as he listens to (or witnesses) stories of cruelty but also of goodness and generosity, sprinkled throughout with humor, with the sayings of ancient rabbis, with the folktales and legends people tell and still live by. If the narrator seems detached, the eternal guest/outsider, it is perhaps because he no longer feels part of the old Europe, having lived in Jaffa and now longing for it, for its windows, for its fragrances. Still, it is also the self-imposed detachment of the writer who, aware of his limitations in time and place, doesn't presume to interpret and to analyze. Every so often he feels compelled to add: "I hope I've given you some idea of this clever man"; or to remind us: "I'm not a mind reader." His tone is direct, friendly, as if narrator and reader are old acquaintances who happen to run into each other in the street and sit down for a leisurely chat in a café.

In his Nobel Prize address (1966) Agnon said: "In my writing ….I was influenced by every man, woman, and child who happened in my way….The conversations of people, the stories they told, were engraved on my heart, from where I drew them with my pen." A simple and clear statement, even if the resulting work, per force, is rich and complex, digressive, dreamlike, often nightmarish, as we settle with the narrator in a room only to move to another ("I only call it a room because in those days anything could pass for one."), and as we follow him from one random encounter to another.

Of special note is Hillel Halkin's beautiful rendition of Agnon's multifaceted Hebrew (see also his translation of Agnon's A Simple Story), as well his informative and illuminating Introduction. To This Day, Halkin says, is "an intricately woven spider web," and the narrator, preparing to return to Palestine at the end of the war (and the last pages of the book), tells us that were he to tell us everything, "the number of chapters, subchapters, and sub-subchapters in my story would be infinite. Some day, if God gives me enough strength and ink, I'll perhaps write a thousandth part of the thousandth part of it."

Tsipi Keller is a novelist and translator. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Award and of CAPS and NYFA awards in fiction, and the author, most recently, of the novels Jackpot (2004) and Retelling (2006), both published by Spuyten Duyvil.