To This Day
Reader, I would like to offer a brief and abridged history of Recurrence in the arts. I want to make this survey — progressing from the Romantic rewriting of folklore through Existentialism, to the modern regressions of movies — because I want to avoid talking about S.Y. Agnon’s “To This Day.” I want to avoid talking about Agnon’s novel, his last to be translated into English, because it is terrible, and Agnon is among my favorite writers.
In 1869, Friedrich Gerstäcker wrote a story titled “Germelshausen,” about a traveler who stumbles upon a German village of that name, which appears only once every hundred years. There, this young, handsome traveler meets the local beauty and falls in love. We can almost recite from the book’s jacket copy, or movie trailer: To stay with her means leaving the modern world behind. As this is German tragedy, reader, he leaves her.
The 1947 stage musical “Brigadoon,” coming as it did just following World War II, transplants Gerstäcker’s tale to the Scottish highlands and, in its film version of 1954 especially, provides its lovers with a Hollywood ending. In 1993, Harold Ramis directed “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a Pittsburgh weatherman condemned to relive the titular day over and over: In Punxsutawney, Pa., to report on Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog whose shady emergence from his hole is supposed to foretell either the end or extension of winter, Connors begins to exploit his recurrence’s hedonistic potential: He sleeps with strange women, drives drunk, learns to play the piano and speak French — all meaninglessly, without consequence. Eventually, he convinces his love interest and television producer of the reality, or surreality, of his situation. The two fall in love, and their love breaks the spell. They wake in bed together, to the strains of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” on the morning of February 3.
It’s public knowledge or should be that only true love can sunder what science fiction calls “the time-loop”: Only the fervid pounding of our hearts can break the chokehold of Ouroboros, the Greek snake that swallows its own tail and serves as our oldest symbol for infinity.
Movies provide endlessly happy endings for such Existentialism: Nietzsche’s doctrine of Eternal Return stipulates that because there is a fixed number of atoms in the universe, those atoms will again, in some monstrously distant future, reassemble themselves in exactly the same way they have now — and so history will repeat, whether or not we’re around to remember.
The rewind and fast-forward buttons are not so decadent inventions; 20th-century literature specialized in the dramatization of Nietzsche’s philosophy: Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman” ends where it begins, in a circular hell of a murderer searching for his bicycle; Eugene Ionesco’s “The Lesson” is the drama of a schoolteacher who, in the course of a lesson, kills his student, though the student comes back from the dead for further instruction (the teacher represents fascism, we’re told, and the student or students the weaker nations of Europe). Despite our atoms, we do not have the time to investigate the variant loopings of Sartre’s “No Exit,” and Kafka’s two novels, which are actually the same novel repeated, one set in a court case and the other amid a nameless and perhaps existenceless castle.
“To This Day” is an obvious fiction of Recurrence: A young Galician Jew named Shmuel Yosef Bach has lived in Palestine and has now returned to Europe, at the advent of World War I. He is stranded in Berlin and in need of a room, but there is a severe housing shortage. The reason for his return to the Continent? Nothing to do with the war. He’s supposed to evaluate a collection of rare Jewish books; call him, then, not Ishmael or Achashveros but the Wandering Appraiser. The authenticity if not of the Bible then merely of real life is achieved in the following manner: These were the exterior facts of Agnon’s early years; Shmuel Yosef are Agnon’s first two names, and his character’s Bach is a German or Westernized echo of Buczacz, the Ukrainian city of the author’s birth, later forsaken for Zion.
Aside from authorial recurrence as character, here is the dominant loop: Bach flits from room to room, either evicted by putrid landladies or deciding himself that the accommodations provided don’t suit — too cold, too damp, badly lit. The book begins with him being asked to vacate his current room by his landlady, Frau Trotzmüller, because her son has returned (with Bach’s help) from the front. Bach bounces to another room, loses it. Then yet another, and again and again. In between, he visits with a relative and encounters Ostjuden who’ve been displaced by the fighting and have flocked to Berlin, the capital of the Second Reich, capital of the lucubratory and anonymous loneliness. Bach’s itinerancy is supposed to be a metaphor or analogy for Jewish wandering, and the entire novel is intended as a polemic for the existence of a Jewish State.
Though Agnon was writing well before the days of Bill Murray, and prior even to Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon,” he knew his Nietzsche, as well as he knew Ecclesiastes’ “the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun”; he has bibliomaniacal Bach writing a book of his own, called, of course, “On the Repetition of Things.”
It’s 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 freelancer’s rush.
“Were I to tell you everything that followed, the number of chapters, subchapters, and sub-subchapters in my story would be infinite,” Bach summates in the final and so finite pages. “Some day, if God gives me enough strength and ink, I’ll perhaps write a thousandth part of the thousandth part of it. In this particular book, I’ve sought to relate one sequence of events from the time of the war. I’m not one for grand notions and I prefer to deal with small things. Still, there’s no denying that small things add up to big ones. Because I couldn’t find a room in Germany, I had the good fortune to return to Palestine. God give me strength and a last drop of ink and I’ll tell you about it now.”
Arguably it’s Palestine, or Israel, that intrudes on the infinite. Zion, the one true love that was supposed to eternalize the Jews, can be read as an intrusion on history, as the entity or philosophy that arrests the recurrence of wandering, and so sequesters the Jew even further from the secular world than his homelessness had, or his life as an Other. Agnon wouldn’t have been happy with this interpretation of Israel as aberration. Thank God he only wrote “To This Day” once.
Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.