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In Mr. Lublin’s Store
By S. Y. Agnon
The 1966 Nobel Prize winner in Literature was the Israeli S. Y. Agnon’s (1888-1970). His final novel “In Mr. Lublin’s Store” prompts readers to ask what he intended as the central theme of this work. He left it to readers to discover his intent. This is not bad. It is good. It prompts readers to think. All good literature is filled with ambiguities and obscurities, including the Bible. Two people write the best literature, the writer and the reader.
This last book was assembled by his daughter Emunah Agnon Yaron (1921-2015) after his death. The book is part of the thirteen book series of “Toby Press S. Y. Agnon Library.” The book contains Agnon’s daughter’s article on how she assembled her dad’s book, an Afterword by Haim Be’er, a well-known Israeli novelist on his interpretation of the book, and 28 pages of informative illustrated annotation that explain the history and meaning of many items mentioned in Agnon’s novel.
Although several chapter were published in newspapers and journals during Agnon’s lifetime as stand-alone short stories, it was not until after his death that the book was published in its entirety. It is composed of narratives, anecdotes, encounters, and conversations, some parts of which are delightfully unrealistic, “magic realism,” such as the appearance before the narrator of three medieval horsemen who magically transport him from Germany to France, back in time, to meet Charlemagne.
The book is sometimes grim, but it is filled with humor and irony. It gives readers an account of the culture and people of Germany during the First World War and the Jews who lived there at that time, including Chasidic and assimilated, pious and scholarly Jews, and the historical cooperation between Jews and Germans at that time, and the effects of the war upon the society and on the individual.
The novel is set in Mr. Lublin’s Store in Leipzig, Germany during the First World War on Friday the 20th of Tevet, the anniversary of the death of the philosopher and codifier Maimonides in 1204. It was the 27-year-old narrator’s practice to read books by the master on his anniversary. He was on his way that Friday to get food for the Shabbat and stopped to say hello to Mr. Lublin who requested that he stay alone in the store until he returns. The narrator agrees to stay in Mr. Lublin’s store with no books or telephone. Mr. Lublin promises to return but does not return, and the narrator is unable to read Maimonides’ books. He had nothing to do during this time but to recall his past thoughts and memories, but unable to fulfil his goal, his study.
He recalls many things such as the woman who did not want to desecrate the Sabbath by selling products in her store on the Sabbath, but she felt she needed to keep the store open all week so that she would not chase away customers. So she prepared a bill of sale, giving the store to a non-Jew on the Sabbath, and donated all Sabbath proceeds to charity. She later felt that her child died because she profaned the Sabbath. He remembers the boy who rushed into the war before his time had come to join up. “Because he rushed into the war before his time the war rushed onto him before his time and he died without coming back.” He remembers the rabbi who with great compassion prays “incessantly for every Jew to the extent that the angels can’t manage to carry all his supplications to the Glorious Throne.” And he remembers much more.
But as he sits and remembers, he does not study Maimonides as he wanted to do. And he remembers that a similar event occurred to him when he came to Leipzig to study with a certain rabbi but was unable to do so because the rabbi was overinvolved with community affairs. The rabbi himself wanted to study but could not do so because of the affairs.
What do these missed opportunities, these failures, symbolize? What is it that Agnon wants us to think when we read about people wanting to improve themselves by reading Jewish literature and failing to do so? Why is Mr. Lublin’s store devoid of books? Why does the narrator’s dead father appear and say he mourns for him?
The novelist Haim Be’er discusses the book in his Afterword, and he addresses these and other questions raised by this thought-provoking and fascinating novel. Readers may, and many will, see something different than Haim Be’er, and this is good, for Agnon writes masterpieces.