Recipient of the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature, Shmuel Yosef Agnon was born in Galicia in 1888. He immigrated to Jaffa in 1908, but spent 1913 through 1924 in Germany. In 1924, he returned to Jerusalem, where he lived until his death in 1970.
A prolific novelist and short-story writer from an early age, Agnon received numerous literary awards, including the Israel Prize on two occasions.
Called “a man of unquestionable genius” and “one of the great storytellers of our time,” S.Y. Agnon is among the most effusively praised and widely translated Hebrew authors. His unique style and language have influenced the writing of subsequent generations of Hebrew authors. Much of his writing attempts to recapture the lives and traditions of a former time, but his stories are never a simple act of preservation. Agnon’s tales deal with the most important psychological and philosophical problems of his generation. “Via realistic and surrealistic modes,” writes the New York Times, “Agnon has transmuted in his many words the tensions inherent in modern man’s loss of innocence, and his spiritual turmoil when removed from home, homeland and faith.” An observant Jew throughout most of his life, he was able to capture “the hopelessness and spiritual desolation” of a world standing on the threshold of a new age. Extolled for his “peculiar tenderness and beauty,” for his “comic mastery” and for the “richness and depth” of his writing, it is S.Y. Agnon’s contribution to the renewal of the language that has been seminal for all subsequent Hebrew writing.
His home in Talpiot, built in 1931 in the Bauhaus style, was turned into a museum, Beit Agnon. The study where he wrote many of his works was preserved intact. Agnon’s image, with a list of his works and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, appeared on the fifty-shekel bill, second series, in circulation from 1985 to 2014. The main street in Jerusalem’s Givat Oranim neighborhood is called Sderot Shai Agnon, and a synagogue in Talpiot, a few blocks from his home, is named after him.
Agnon is also memorialized in Buchach, now in Ukraine, where he was born. There is an extensive (relative to the size of the museum) exhibition in the Historical Museum in Buchach and, just a few yards away, a bust of Agnon is mounted on a pedestal in a plaza across the street from the house where he lived. The house itself is preserved and marked as the home where Agnon lived from birth till the age of (approximately) 19; the street that runs in front of the house is named “Agnon Street” (in Ukrainian).
After Agnon’s death, his home was opened to the public. In the early 1980s, the kitchen and family dining room were turned into a lecture and conference hall, and literary and cultural evenings were held there. In 2005, the Agnon House Association in Jerusalem renovated the building, which reopened in January 2009. The house was designed by the German-Jewish architect Fritz Korenberg, who was also his neighbor.
Books Published in Hebrew
The Bridal Canopy, Schocken, 1932
A Simple Story, Schocken, 1935
A Guest for the Night, Schocken, 1939
Only Yesterday, Schocken, 1946
Shira, Schocken, 1971
In Mr. Lublin's Store, Schocken, 1974
Agnon published 24 volumes of novels, novellas and short stories. The Collected Works of S.Y. Agnon was published by Schocken in eight volumes between 1953-62, updated with the 11 works that appeared posthumously.
Books in Translation:
Some 85 of S.Y. Agnon's works have been published in translation in 18 languages. Selections available from Amazon.com in our bookstore:
A Book That Was Lost : And Other Stories. NY: Schocken, 1996.
A dwelling place of my people : sixteen stories of the Chassidim. Scottish Academic Press, No Date.
A Guest for the Night. Gollancz, No Date.
A Simple Story. NY: Schocken, 1985.
Agnon's Aleph Bet : Poems. PA: Jewish Publications Society, 1998.
The Bridal Canopy, NY: Schocken, 1980.
Days of Awe : A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days. NY: Schocken, 1995.
In the Heart of the Seas : A Story of a Journey to the Land of Israel. NY: Schocken, 1986.
Present at Sinai : The Giving of the Law : Commentaries Selected by S.Y. Agnon. PA: Jewish Publications Society, 1994.
Shira. NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996.
Twenty-one stories. NY: Schocken, 1970.
Photo: Israeli GPO photographer, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.