A fantastic Agnon parable

Agnon’s short story called Ad Olam in Hebrew, was entitled “Forever” in the 2014 volume[1] and retranslated and included in the 2016 Toby Press volume “Forevermore & Other Stories,” under the title “Forevermore.” The tale seems to be straightforward but it is unclear what Agnon, who generally writes in an ironic manner, wanted to convey. As Jeffrey Saks, the editor of the latter volume wrote: “In almost every case, if reading any of the stories in this collection leads you to think Agnon has merely piously retold an old hasidic tale, you are not fathoming what is written between the lines, nor are you hearing the ironic tones which almost always accompany the work.” Jeffrey Saks tells us that “Forevermore is among Agnon’s most enigmatic works, and the object of continual fascination for critics.” In short, Agnon did not win the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature because he writes simple tales. He won because his stories are complex, multi-layered, brilliant once understood, classics. What is the story, what are some of the difficulties in the tale, and what are some ways to understand it?

According to Agnon’s tale, “Forevermore” is a story is about a man Adiel Amzeh who spent every waking hour in near isolation for twenty years studying the history of the ancient city Gumlidata, which was a big city, the pride of other nations, until a legion of Goths invaded and turned the city into piles of dirt and made her people slaves forever. Amzeh wrote the history of the city and sent the manuscript to many publishers, but they all rejected the book. He tried to find sponsors without success. However, one day a rich man offered to look at the manuscript and told the author that if he liked the book, he would publish it. An appointment was made for the two to meet.

As he was about to leave for the appointment, an old woman who visited him every year came to his house to get books for the leper confinement home. She was a nurse at the home. During their conversation, she told him that there was a very old manuscript at the home that contained the history of Gumlidata, including information he did not know. Amzeh gave up his plan to visit the wealthy man and went with her to the home, realizing that once he entered, he could not leave for fear of the spread of leprosy. He then spent the rest of his life in the home studying the manuscript that was there and discussing it with the leprous inmates.

All of the names in the story of people and places begin in the Hebrew original with a gimmel or ayin, both gutturals in Sephardic Hebrew.[2] No one knows why Agnon did this. Was it pure playfulness? It is clear that Agnon is highlighting this usage and wants us to notice it but we can only guess why. I think he wants us to think about grunting, growling, and agony because this is what the protagonist Adiel Amzeh is suffering, and once we realize that the name means “This people [is] God’s ornament,” we understand that he is a stand-in for Jews generally.[3]

It is possible that Agnon is ironically portraying the misguided pious Jew who has isolated himself from society and forsaken the pleasures that God made available for him, who spends his life studying ancient documents that are generally irrelevant for today’s society, and who goes so far to join a leper colony, that is he joins a group that is even more isolated than he was previously, so that he can dwell on the ancient documents; yet any information acquired will not leave the leper home, that is, it will not become part of societal knowledge.

It is also possible that Agnon’s irony focuses on the history of Jews and Judaism. The people whose prize city, its Gumlidata, was destroyed by the Romans and, Agnon may have kept the critique by the Roman Apian in mind, Apian who claimed that the Israelites left Egypt because they were lepers and Pharaoh forced them to leave Egypt, and Agnon is saying that Jews, the lepers, are forced to live in a leper house, that is, in isolation from society with their primary occupation being the study of Torah.

See my review of “Forever” on Amazon, the 2014 translation of Ad Olam, for more information about this short tale and another interpretation.


[1] Create Space, translated by Yehuda Salu, 2014.

[2] The names beginning with an ayin are translated in English as an A, and loses the guttural sound, one of the many loses that occur in translations of Agnon’s writings. In the title to the story in Hebrew, Ad Olam, both words also begin with an ayin.

[3] In Hebrew the words are reversed “God’s ornament this people.”

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