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Book Schnooks: "A Simple Story"

The first book slated for discussion in the Jewish bloggers book group (we're calling ourselves Book Schnooks) is S.Y. Agnon's A Simple Story.

A Simple Story begins with the unspoken, and doomed, love affair between Blume (poor, and an orphan) and her (respectably well-off) cousin Hirshl. Hirshl is kind of a nebbish; he falls into an engagement with a woman he doesn't love, because he's reluctant to create an embarrassing scene when everyone at a party jumps to the conclusion that they are engaged. Hirshl's mother is delighted (she'd been dropping hints with the town shidduch anyway), and Hirshl figures, what the heck, he might as well go with the flow. Blume leaves silently, and Hirshl and Mina marry. They are unhappy, he succumbs to depressive madness and is sent to a sanatorium, Mina bears him a son, he endures a rocky homecoming, and soon Mina is pregnant again. As they walk on the promenade one evening with their new baby they see Blume across the sidewalk but do not speak. When the book ends, they seem strangely content.

In the afterword to my edition, translator Hillel Halkin argues that part of the book's genius is the way it subverts reader expectations. We expect that the separated lovers will either reunite someday, to great happiness, or that their separation will destroy them. (Halkin calls these options "Rapunzel" and "Romeo and Juliet.") And yet neither of these expectations is fulfilled: true, Hirshl's obsession with the woman he can't have drives him mad, but his illness is cured, and in the end he finds a kind of happiness with Mina. Oddly, we are left not knowing what became of Blume. The book ends, "Everything that happened to Blume Nacht would fill another book....[M]uch ink would be spilled and many quills broken before we were done. God in heaven knows when that will be."

A Simple Story adds a Jewish-humor twist to the classic saga of doomed love. In an article in The Pakn Treger a few years back, Francine Prose wrote that "Jewish humor encompasses an intimate acquaintance with absurdity: the laughter of the pregnant nonagenarian, Sarah, from the book of Genesis. It embraces the jokes that don't quite make sense about a world that makes no sense either."* The humor in A Simple Story definitely dips into absurdity (the comedy of errors leading to Hirshl's engagement to Mina; the scene where Hirshl, going mad, lies on the grass saying "ga-ga-ga-" to himself). The humor is Jewish humor because of the wry and ironic way in which sorrow and laughter are combined. As Prose suggests, it is Jewish humor because it is absurd, but also because the absurdity never quite has the upper hand.

I enjoyed parts of A Simple Story. I identified with Blume from the very first line ("The widow Mirl lay ill for many years..."), and found the early chapters quite compelling. Agnon has a deft touch with humor; in writing about the intersection of love and society he's a kind of Yiddish Jane Austen. I like the way his characters measure time Jewishly ("It was a day in May, the first of the Jewish month of Iyyar..."), and the scenes in Mina's parents' sukkah are especially vivid and lovely. Like Sholom Aleichem, Agnon is a master of bringing the pre-Shoah Eastern European Jewish world to life.

But I also found the book frustrating. Precisely because I connected with Blume early on, it bothered me that she receded so completely from the storyline once Hirshl and Mina became engaged. Her absence was important for a while (as when melancholy Hirshl stood beneath her window), but after a while even her absence vanished from the plot. That left me dissatisfied. I felt cheated because the character I was first given to connect with is dropped like the proverbial hot potato, both by Hirshl and by Agnon.

And I didn't entirely grasp the reasons for Hirshl's transformation at the end of the book. Was I meant to understand that he had matured past his childish obsession with Blume, and was now capable of contentment with his wife and children? Was I meant to see that it is better to follow one's parents' advice on love than to strike out on one's own? Is this simple story about the triumph of the social order over the romantic tendencies of an individual? Because of the style of the time in which it was written, A Simple Story doesn't give us much insight into Hirshl's interior condition, so I don't have good answers to any of those questions.

In the end, I can see why this is a classic; I think it's a good book, but it's not one I expect to return to. I'd rather follow the threads of Jewish literature to Cláper, by Venezuelan-Jewish author Alicia Freilich, or Delmore Schwartz's stunning short story In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. Still, if you're looking for an Old World classic to shed some light on pre-Shoah Jewish life, I'd put A Simple Story up there with Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman and Other Stories: not my favorite cuppa, but ultimately worth a read.

*From Francine Prose's "The Jewish Cockroach," Pakn Treger, Number 25, Summer 1997/ 5757.