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S.Y. Agnon’s ‘Twofold:’ An Introduction

The 1939 short story appears in Tablet for the first time in English translation

Jeffrey Saks
October 03, 2014
Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon. (Courtesy of the Agnon House, Jerusalem)
Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon. (Courtesy of the Agnon House, Jerusalem)

“Twofold” (in Hebrew “Pi Shnayim”), appearing in Tablet for the first time in English translation, is a 1939 short story by Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon. It appears in Hebrew as part of his cycle of 20 surrealistic tales, the Sefer HaMa’asim (Book of Deeds), which caused a radical reevaluation of his aims and accomplishments as a writer when they began appearing in the early 1930s. Until these stories of high anxiety Agnon had been considered a master of the nostalgic, pietistic tales of the old world. Suddenly he showed himself as a fully modern writer grappling with a complex set of issues and questions about Jewish life, leading to a reassessment of the entirety of his canon. (It was precisely these stories that led to the oft-repeated comparison between Agnon and Kafka; an association the Hebrew writer bristled at.) Like so much of Agnon’s writing, these stories explore the connection and disconnection between “what was and what is”, between “tradition and modernity”, between “there and here”—and the degree to which the two sides of each of these dyads can be bridged, if at all.

“Twofold” takes place on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, and through its dream sequences, in regression to Agnon’s youth in the small Galician prayer house of his father. It is among his more developed treatments of the theme of that holy day and the challenges of repentance, with the narrator telegraphing his anxiety as his soul stands in the balance on the Day of Judgment. While we should never fall into the trap of confusing the author with his narrator, there seems to be a clear autobiographical mapping of Agnon’s life onto points in this story. In its original version it was entitled “The Dream,” and Agnon’s friend Gershom Scholem suggested that these stories originated with the author’s own dreams and nightmares. Whether that is true is less significant than the power “Twofold” has in telegraphing the pull that the past exercises over our present lives.

For those interested in further discussion of Agnon’s story, translator Jeffrey Saks, a rabbi, has lectured on the subject at the Agnon House in Jerusalem. Full video of the free course is available here.

Rabbi Jeffrey Saks is the founding director of ATID and its program, and is the Director of Research at the Agnon House in Jerusalem. Some of his translations of Agnon’s stories have appeared in Tablet and in the Toby Press’ Agnon Library.

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