A Book That Was Lost
By S. Y. Agnon
Toby Press’s 2008 volume of “A Book That Was lost” contains ten more short stories than Schocken Press’s 1995 version, and thereby includes all the stories that are published in Agnon’s book entitled “Twenty-One Stories.” The stories show how great a writer Agnon (1888-1970) was and why he was given the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Some of the stories, such as “To the Father’s House,” contain what some call “magical realism,” such as candles suspended in the air and a twentieth-century man meeting an eighteenth-century scholar. Also “The Letter,” where a man draws a synagogue in the sand, knocks on its door and walks in. Others, such as “Friendship,” are dream-like, Kafkaish; a man disliking his visit with a neighbor decides to go home, but he cannot find his way back and has even forgotten his address, a blind friend he hasn’t seen for many years helps him, and he discovers he is standing right beside his home. Still others show how life changes, as in “Metamorphosis,” where a married couple become distant to one another and divorce, but once the divorce is consummated they become attracted to each other.
Most of the stories have many interpretations, layers of them, one deeper than the next, as in “Fable of the Goat,” where a goat leads a boy from Europe to Israel through a cave. Unfortunately, not seeing the note the boy sent his grandfather to follow the goat, the grandfather butchers the goat and loses his opportunity to go to Israel. This is a magical tale with a message that Jews are missing an opportunity to emigrate to Israel. But it also teaches that we fail to see all kinds of opportunities before us and butcher them. It is my favorite Agnon parable.
Many, such as the fourteen-page “Fernheim,” are realistic, even strikingly so. Fernheim returns to see his wife Inge, whom he loves dearly. He has been in a prisoner of war camp, imprisoned for some time. Inge had been engaged with Karl Neiss when Fernheim met her, but Fernheim saw a landslide bury him during the war, and all presumed he was dead, so he and Inge were married. Now he returns from the prison camp to discover that Karl Neiss is alive and has been courting his wife who is in love with him. Inge is not even curious about Fernheim’s terrible experiences in the camp. It is a very moving, pathetic story.
The notes that explain the stories, which are in the end of the book, uncover the meaning of many tales, the deeper meaning we may miss. One example is “The First Kiss,” which seems to be a dream-like experience with the number three being repeated twice and being told it is one, referring to the Christian view of the trinity and the Jewish understanding that God is one; and that the kiss refers to apostates returning to the Jewish fold. Both the simple meaning and the deeper one are beautiful.
The Toby Press book also includes a very interesting eight-page Preface written in 2008, notes on the ten stories that are added in this book that is absent from Schocken’s book, and a two-dozen page introduction, a biographic note, and a glossary of Jewish terms that are also in the Schocken volume.