Reading Agnon in a Time of Coronavirus

Jacek Bełc

Jacek Bełc is a Polish-born instructor of literature at Jimei University in Xiamen, China. He is an avid reader and teacher of S.Y. Agnon’s Nobel Prize winning writing and maintains a correspondence with R. Jeffrey Saks, Director of Research at Agnon House. This is an edited version of a recent update. Read more about his interest in Agnon here.

Jacek Bełc in Xiamen (courtesy of author)

I was set to teach an all-Agnon course in the upcoming spring semester, with a syllabus complete and a maximum capacity roster of students registered, but with the coronavirus raging everything is being postponed indefinitely and the university is shut down, so that’s probably a class for another term, presuming of course that my wife and I (and all of China) get through this crisis. For our own part, we’re well and without symptoms for now, in Fujian Province, which is distant from Hubei where the outbreak started and where the greatest suffering is. It’s impossible to know what the coming weeks and months will look like, though. All the more reason for my wife and I (and our cat) to treasure each other’s company, excuses for which we’re always glad to find anyway.

I have used my forced vacation and semi-quarantine to revisit Agnon’s Temol Shilshom (in translation as Only Yesterday), which in the light of recent events here I have found to been eerily apposite. For example, in the “About Diseases” chapter (IV:12) we read, “Fear increases. One doctor says the situation is dangerous. And his colleague adds, It is dreadful. And things are terrifying even to the healthy. And everyone who can is ready to take his family and get out of the city, but there’s no place to flee, for bad rumors come from other places.” No kidding. (Agnon was describing malaria, meningitis, influenza, and of course rabies in Jerusalem in the first decades of the twentieth century; the passage’s relevance to our current situation in China is perfectly apt.)

It continues:  “Prices rise. The lack of income combined with helplessness makes folks despondent. And yet the sun is at its zenith and toys with the world on earth.” I had the same thought just hours before I read that particular passage, stepping out onto the balcony (we have an eighth floor apartment) and looking at the gorgeous, pristinely empty university campus (just cats on the streets, birds in the treetops – and no sound but birdsong), and the massive clouds and the breaks in them and the sun shining through. But there’s more! “There are brazen people in Jerusalem who say that there is no epidemic here at all, but merely that the diseases of the Land usually come every year and kill a few souls, and thus last year, two hundred people got sick and thirty of them died, but a few Rabbis and officials made all that noise to evoke pity in the heart of the Jewish philanthropists outside the Land so they would send them money. But that is not the truth, for even the schools of the freethinkers were closed. But when we challenge the words of The Young Laborer [HaPoel HaTzair], the paper presents evidence that not all the schools were closed [etc.]”! It really doesn’t matter whether it’s 1910 or 1920 or today in 2020, people are people! I could barely help but laugh. Among the teachers in the university here we have one who’s been emphasizing all month that it’s “no big deal,” that she’s lived through all sorts of “virus scares” in her time, and no matter what comes up in the news (the numbers at this point are definitively worse than the last major outbreak, which was back in 2003), the insistence remains — “there is no epidemic here at all, but merely that the diseases of the Land usually come every year and kill a few souls … ” Amazing. Agnon captures the essence of human experience in his own time and in our own.

That’s our world, after all, full of unexpected dangers. Living in the midst of this sort of crisis, the first of its kind in my lifetime (that is, at least, on a national scale as opposed to personal), provides new insights to existence. I am now also reading In Mr. Lublin’s Store , set in Germany in the final months of World War I. Mr. Lublin himself comments on the ongoing carnage, and observes that no one knows how it will end. “No one knows what the outcome of the war will be. We know just one thing and that is that the war is lasting too long, and the longer it goes on the more severe it becomes.” Earlier I would have read right past a line like that, thinking flightily, yeah, well, war, history – from our vantage point we do know how it ended. How very differently the line strikes me now that I myself, and my loved ones, are living through a frightening period that nobody, literally nobody, can predict the final outcome of! The longer you live the more you see, and the more sympathy, ideally, grows within the heart. Rabbi Saks, this brings to mind, incidentally, your comments in a recorded lecture I heard you deliver on Only Yesterday, part of your survey of Agnon’s longer novels, about how there are certain great books one really ought to read at least once a decade, to see how the work has transformed with time, just as we the readers have changed over the years.

In any case, I meant this letter to share in the joy of Agnon, so let’s leave it at that.