Lost & Found
At Professor Bachlam’s
by S.Y. Agnon
The Toby Press, 814 pp., $19.95
The anti-hero of S.Y. Agnon’s posthumous novel Shira, Dr. Manfred Herbst, is a professor at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the 1930s. Born and educated in Germany, like so many of the actual faculty members at the institution in those days, Herbst tends his flock of index cards, tirelessly searching for the final footnote to complete his work on Byzantine tomb inscriptions, the one that will, he hopes, earn him tenure. Agnon, ever the witty Galician, skewers the dry, pedantic, Germanic personality of his leading man, whose very name, Herbst (German for autumn), telegraphs that his best days have fallen like so many dry leaves, while he is weighed down by domestic life, departmental bickering, and writer’s block. And Herbst is by no means the only target on which the novelist sets his sights. Agnon, who lived in Jerusalem throughout the period during which the book is set and traveled a great deal in its academic circles, peopled Shira with many semi-ridiculous professors who bore suspicious resemblance to his neighbors.
Although Shira was not published in its entirety until 1971, some chapters began appearing already in the late 1940s, immediately sparking attempts to unlock the presumed roman à clef, just as in the case of the recent Israeli film Footnote (He’arat Shulayim, reviewed in the Fall 2011 issue of this magazine), which explicitly drew on many elements of Shira. Many have argued that Agnon’s pompous Professor Bachlam was based on Professor Joseph Klausner (1874–1958), a Lithuania-born Hebrew University professor, chief editor of The Hebrew Encyclopedia, and losing candidate in the first election for president of Israel. Agnon and Klausner were neighbors in Jerusalem’s Talpiot suburb and had a famously chilly relationship, as documented by Klausner’s great-nephew Amos Oz in his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness.