Betrothed, is set in Turkish Palestine in the early days of Zionist settlement before the World War One, a period when Agnon himself lived there for a time. He shows us a world that seems to be a very different place from contemporary Israel; ’Life was unexacting, very little happened’.
Jewish though any book written in Hebrew must be, borrowing so much resonance from the language of the Bible, Agnon here also seems deeply classical. There is a trance-like, elegiac quality to the unreeling of events, that creates a contemplative vision rather than a narrative noise.
In this early Zionist world we hear about the dreams of pioneer life; ’He saw himself joining a settlement and becoming a farmer, sowing seed with one hand and holding his Talmud in the other’. Here we can smell and taste a quiet pre-war world — but it is not a ’traditional’ one, for one thing rather self-assured women feature in Betrothed, some have emigrated alone and are particularly radical and independent while others are the more respectable daughters of emigrating fathers. Betrothed, as the title suggests, is the story of a love but with a very unexpected ending.
Rest and restlessness
The "rest' in "Betrothed" is in the times, in the language of the telling and in the protagonist. The times, the port city of Jaffa at the turn of the century: "The days before the First World War... .days many times longer than ours, and a man was able to do much more, with hours left over in which to take stock of the world." The tempo is slow and leisurely. The protagonist is Jacob Rechnitz. From whatever busy-ness is in the place, Jaffa with its "trade and labour... shipping and forwarding", the very first paragraph sets him off as a person who takes "no part in any of these". Though he is described as "not particularly passive", he is passivity itself. It takes a lot to get him going when "life was very unexacting; very little happened... days slipped by quietly; people were undemanding". Till a woman comes who awakens Jacob from his "waking sleep". But Jacob has found his calling not because he has consciously tried; it just came along on its own and roused him from his slumbers.
"Edo and Enam", that means movement / restlessness, is an elaboration of one of Pascal's Pensees: "All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot sit quietly in their own room." The Greifenbachs have left home to travel; Ginath is seldom home; Gamzu has covered most of the globe in his journeys; Gemulah has been transplanted. Out of this restlessness comes ruin. Agnon quotes the Ecclesiastes (his stories are full of Biblical references): "Going to the south, turning to the north, turning turning goes the wind, and again to its circuits the wind returns." What Agnon is saying is an elaboration of Plato's axiom: "For motion to be at rest and rest in motion, for either of them... .will compel the other to change to its opposite."