What Flaubert Taught Agnon

Agnon and Flaubert: the conjunction is, at first blush, altogether unlikely. Their background and the kind of language in which each wrote could scarcely have been more different. Agnon, the commanding figure in Hebrew fiction in the twentieth century and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Buczacz, Galicia, in the eastern end of the Hapsburg Empire. Yiddish was his first language, and he wrote a few stories and some poems in Yiddish when he was in his teens. He had no formal general education, but his mother read the classics of German literature with him, for German was the language of cultural prestige under the Hapsburgs, even where, as in Galicia, it was not the vernacular. In any case, the focus of his early education was on traditional Hebrew and Aramaic texts — the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, Midrash, and the plethora of commentaries on all four of those hallowed works. He decisively turned from Yiddish to Hebrew because Hebrew was for him, as he wrote in one of his stories, “the language of all the generations that had gone before us and all the generations to come.” In keeping with this idea of the eternality of the language, the Hebrew that he wrote was essentially the Hebrew of the early rabbis in idiom, lexicon, and grammar, though it exhibited some elements of later strata of the language — but very few from modern Hebrew. To invoke a counter-factual analogue, it would strain the imagination to think of Flaubert writing in the French of the medieval fabliaux. One must add that Agnon, with scant exceptions, was repeatedly coy and evasive about his relation to European writers. He like to present himself as a traditional Hebrew teller of

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