Agnon’s First First Edition
A birthday plea for Israel’s only lit laureate
S.Y. Agnon, Israel’s only Nobel Prize winner in Literature, published his first novella “And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight” one hundred years ago. On the laureate’s birthday it only seems fair to be implore you all to go into your attics and see if you’ve got one of the novella’s first editions in a crate somewhere with your baby teeth.
While 50 copies of the book were initially printed, there are only two known editions, one in the Agnon family’s private collection and the other in Israel’s national library. The man on the 50-shek bill helped to put Israel on the cultural map with his 1966 win in Stockholm. An excerpt from his Nobel lecture exemplifies Agnon’s ethereal touch, which has influenced generations of Israeli writers ever since.
As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile.
But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the sons of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing.
In his autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz ends an early chapter with a tribute to Agnon in which he asks and answers what he took from Agnon, whom Oz knew as a child.
What is it, in fact, that I learned from him?
Perhaps this. To cast more than one shadow. Not to pick the raisins from the cake. To rein in and polish pain. And one other thing, that my grandmother used to say in a sharper way than I have found it expressed by Agnon: “If you have no more tears to weep, then don’t weep. Laugh.”
With any luck, Oz may defy the annual long-shot odds against him and someday take the podium in Stockholm. That might certainly help make the crooked seem straight.