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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



To this Day

by
S.Y.Agnon


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase To this Day



Title: To this Day
Author: S.Y.Agnon
Genre: Novel
Written: 1952 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 175 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: To this Day - US
To this Day - UK
To this Day - Canada
  • Hebrew title: עד הנה
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Hillel Halkin

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing but very loosely structured

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Forward F 10/4/2008 Joshua Cohen


  From the Reviews:
  • "I want to avoid talking about Agnonís novel, his last to be translated into English, because it is terrible, and Agnon is among my favorite writers. (...) Itís this very repetition that mars. As this novel was written for serial publication, each chapter occupies part of its time with a recapitulation or revision of a previous chapter. But to bind words between covers is different from verbigeration in separate installments; Agnon or an editor should have edited for book publication. The prose is equivalently lapsed. Agnon attempts a neutrality of tone as far from his typical biblical allusion and recursive Germanisms as Jerusalem is from Berlin. The ending aliyah is particularly abrupt, and though the editor and translator, the able Hillel Halkin, tries to give its quick wrap-up a Voltairean, "Candide"-like gloss, it fails; all is just piecework, a freelancerís rush." - Joshua Cohen, Forward

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of To this Day is an Austrian Jew living in Berlin during World War I. Because of his poor health he has not been drafted, but still regularly has to present himself for re-evaluation to the draft board (where the standards for who is fit to serve sink as the war drags on). He had been working on a massive book, a universal history of clothing, but isn't getting much work done on that. He seems to have enough money to get by, but lives a relatively aimless existence.
       One problem the narrator encounters in wartime Berlin (and the few other places he ventures) is the acute housing shortage, and he is frequently on the search for a new room -- this being an era when it was common not to rent a whole apartment, but rather to board in someone else's. He complains of: "a grand conspiracy of rooms against me" , and To this Day is, in large part, a chronicle of his moves from one room to the next. It's not a downward spiral from bad to worst, as there are times he lucks into a decent place, such as when he moves in with the very accommodating Lichtensteins, but there's something wrong with almost each of the rooms he stays in. (The best of the lot, at the Lichtensteins, has to be abandoned when their building is bought by a newspaper publisher, who clears all the tenants out.) From a room with a smelly butcher below his window (with him being a vegetarian) to a place where the dog hair makes it into everything, even the morning coffee, he rarely finds a place where he's even halfway comfortable -- or willing or able to stay for the long term.
       Without much to do (except occasionally hunt for a new room) the narrator putters about. He has his hangers-on -- friends, the daughters from one house he boarded at -- whom he occasionally tries to escape, and he has some people he turns to, notably Brigitta Schimmermann, a former actress who married well and had set up a nursing home for soldiers. There's also Dr.Levy's library: the book begins with him leaving his first (and perhaps most comfortable) room when Dr.Levy's widow asks for his help in dealing with the grand book collection -- though this too doesn't turn out to be nearly as straightforward an undertaking as he initially imagined (with the widow a very well-used comic figure in the novel). But the book does come full circle, as that collection then becomes something he has grand hopes for when he has finally found a place to make his home, an actual house and not just a room.
       With its descriptions of wartime Germany, with the shortage of food (and necessity for ration cards), the suspicion of foreigners (and Jews), the damaged souls who returned from the front, and the women left behind, and, of course, the housing situation, Agnon offers an entertaining picture of those difficult times. It isn't a smoothly told story, the narrator recounting much of what happens to him and who he encounters but rarely dwelling on or developing any specific theme or storyline. It's not quite just a list of anecdotes, either, but there are spots where it seems he's just trying to slip a specific story (or even just a line) in. The humour helps, as the narrator is an amusing enough fellow, though Agnon doesn't play it for big laughs.
       It makes for an interesting picture of the Germany of that time -- though it really does feel as though written from a distance (as it was, the book appearing decades after the events it describes -- and, significantly, after another, very different, World War). It's a world where:

Once, German women sought out Jewish men, who were known to make loyal husbands and good fathers who didn't drink. Nowadays, the only difference between a Jew and a German was that some Jews went to temple and most Germans didn't like Jews.
       The hopelessness of his hunt for a room also leads to the tidy resolution:
     Where was I ? Unable to find a room in Germany, I was obliged to return to Palestine. And since Palestine, too, was in shambles from the war and not everyone could find a room there either, I bought some land and built a house with several rooms. Not that I needed more than one room for myself, but I also needed space for Dr.Levi's library..
       In his Introduction translator Hillel Halkin argues that To this Day isn't the "episodically meandering work" that it is sometimes dismissed as, but rather: "as carefully conceived and tightly written (to say nothing of entertaining) as any of his novels". His explanation has some appeal, but ultimately To this Day isn't written quite tightly enough, the connections not smoothed out enough, leaving too much of an episodic feel throughout. But even as it is an occasionally rough ride it is certainly entertaining, offering a good glimpse and sense of the times, and a bit more.
       
       

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Links:

To this Day: Reviews: S.Y.Agnon: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Shmuel Yosef Agnon (שמואל יוסף עגנון) was born in Galicia in 1888. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966, and died in 1970.

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© 2008 the complete review

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