Wander the streets of any Israeli city and you’re bound to come across one named Rehov Shai Agnon. In that way, the Jewish state honors one of its most important writers and a Nobel Prize laureate in 1966.
Yet, “In Mr. Lublin’s Store” — cobbled together posthumously by Agnon’s daughter from stories published in newspapers and from other sources — has the distinct feel of a work written by a Jew, and about Jewish experiences, from and in the Diaspora. (It was published in 1975, but this is the first English translation of that novel.)
Actually, Agnon spent much of his early life outside of the Land of Israel. Born Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes in 1888 in Galicia, he immigrated to Turkish-controlled Palestine in 1908, but lived in Germany from 1912 to 1924, including in Leipzig, the book’s setting, before returning to Jerusalem, his home until he died in 1970.
Thus, Agnon experienced the Jewish past by living in a small Polish town for the first 20 years of his life, the Jewish 20th-century present in Germany during World War I and in the early 1920s, and the future of his people in Israel. Elements of all are found in this novel.
It is based on a simple premise. On a Friday evening, the protagonist goes to Mr. Lublin’s store. As the proprietor had to leave on business, he asks his visitor to mind the store while he is gone. Mr. Lublin removes the newspapers and disconnects the telephone, leaving our Mr. X with nothing to do. So, he lets his imagination take over, reliving his experiences and those of others from Germany and from his hometown in Galicia.
In the novel, Agnon deals with relations between Germans and Jews in pre-Hitler Germany — which, according to his telling and despite the presence of some anti-Semitism, are not bad.
Of course, that might have something to do with the survival strategy that many German Jews employed. It was, of course, that favorite crutch used by so many Diaspora Jews: assimilation. Bernard (Berish) Salzmann owns a cafe. “On the outside,” Agnon notes, “he looks as if his forefathers were born in Leipzig. The gentiles were indistinguishable from him but on the inside he was a hasid … .”
He also depicts Jews who stayed in their homes in Eastern Europe and those who left for Palestine or who moved westward into Central Europe. He paints a canvass of all those relationship through a series of vignettes and short stories.
The author’s antipathy to war is a recurring theme.
War, he writes, “does not treat all its combatants equally. It takes a limb or two from some and the soul away from others.”
World War I has “devoured all good merchandise” and “killed the best of the sons.”
It “has not only damaged the food for the soul, but those trivial things created for Mankind’s pleasure. … When this war wants to kill, it kills, and when it doesn’t want to kill it robs us of the joy of life.”
Agnon’s humor is — as is every aspect of the book — very Jewish.
One of the shopkeepers in the building owned by Lublin didn’t enjoy selling his stock, which tended to be beautiful but not very useful.
The narrator recalls that the shopkeeper once agreed to sell him a compass. But the storyteller realizes that “the compass was as ignorant about directions as I was. It might have known why the craftsman made it, but since it grew old it lost interest. Or perhaps its maker was afraid the compass would find its way to places he did not like and he did something to it that would weaken its power.”
“In Mr. Lublin’s Store” has its moments. But I found it repetitive, somewhat disorganized and difficult to read — maybe because, despite Agnon’s daughter’s efforts, those disparate parts weren’t really meant to be combined into a single novel.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.