Shmuel Yosef Agnon is considered one of the great founding fathers of modern Hebrew prose - literature. His prose is rich, multi- leveled poetic. I for a few years had the privilege of reading through some of his texts in Hebrew with Rabbi Eliezer( Lew) Jacob. Rabbi Jacob( Yaakov) had a deep knowledge of the Hebrew traditional sources. And so reading through Agnon with him was an incredible learning experience. For every Agnon sentence is much more than it is on the surface. It is richly and ironically allusive, and suggests meanings as if a poetic text.
I say this to indicate that there can be no comparison between a reading in Hebrew of Agnon's work and one in English. Still this book is translated by one of the most well- known and finest of translators from Hebrew to English, Hillel Halkin. It reads beautifully, and while knowing I missed much by not reading the Hebrew text I found the English translation totally absorbing.
I might add that Halkin provides a long preface to the work. This preface adds much but I would have preferred seeing it as an 'Afterword'. I would also have preferred that there be some kind of glossary to deal with certain concepts , realities in the text that the contemporary reader might not have knowledge of.
All this said I deeply enjoyed the reading. Agnon is not a fast - forward. He is a one step ahead , half - a- step back, and two- steps around writer. We go somewhere but we are not sure where, and we get there very slowly. The wandering narrator of this work ,who lost in World War I Germany after having lived for a number of years in Jaffa, knows no rest. He goes from rented room to rented room, meeting characters who illuminate the Jewish and human situation, not only of their time but of all time. There are a number of striking characters in the work, whose stories we come to know and whose meetings with the narrator reveal more of a 'picture' we know will not be complete, but will be blurred at the edges and irresolute- as is characteristic of Agnon. What is happening to the narrator and main character will continually be elaborated by parable, by story, by hints, and ironies. i.e. Anyone who knows Agnon's other work will feel perfectly at home in this one- when of course one central theme of Agnon is the theme of never quite feeling at home.
One special joy of this work for me is entering a fictional universe in which the Jewish element is not external and programmatic but inherent and characteristic. In this sense I feel at home in the work of Agnon as I feel in the home of another great writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
This book for me was a great joy to read. I believe it should be for others also.