Hungry in Jerusalem: 'A Whole Loaf' by S. Y. Agnon

A Whole Loaf – S. Y. Agnon

Like Agnon’s work in general, ‘A Whole Loaf’ draws on traditional Jewish religious sources, but is thoroughly modern in style and theme (particularly in the themes of anxiety and indecisiveness).  Also typically for Agnon, the story has a dream-like (or nightmare-like) quality.

The unnamed narrator is in Jerusalem at the end of a hot Sabbath day.  His family are abroad (for reasons we never learn) and he has to fend for himself, which he is doing rather poorly.  The simple tasks of procuring food and drink seem to elude him, even as the heat of the day is described in almost hyperbolic terms.  In fact, the heat is described as emanating from the ceiling, walls, and floor of the narrator’s apartment – oven-like – so that he is literally baking.

Early in the story, the narrator encounters the Moses-like figure of Dr. Yekutiel Ne’eman, who gives him some letters to deliver to the post office, after scolding him for allowing his family to be separated from him.  The narrator earnestly promises to do so, and momentarily experiences a feeling of real guilt at Ne’eman’s reproof, but mostly he seems to be motivated by “a desire to make Dr. Ne’eman feel more pleased.”  We begin to suspect that this man has shallow relationships with his fellow human beings, and that he is a rather poor judge of character.  His feelings of guilt and duty are equally shallow, and evaporate as quickly as they arise.

Agnon, as a devout Zionist, no doubt shared and endorsed Dr. Ne’eman’s rebuke, and it is safe to say that the story is, on one level at least, an allegory of the duty of the Jewish people to forsake the assimilated life of Europe with its decadent temptations and return to the Land of Israel.

(In the commentary of the translation I’m using, A Book that Was Lost, Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman, eds., there’s some exposition of Agnon’s symbolism in the story, and it’s well worth reading.  I myself am not a scholar, so I will confine myself to remarking on the plain sense of the story.)

The man resolves to take the letters to the post office, as he has promised Dr. Ne’eman, but he’s also hot and thirsty and dying for a decent meal; so he’s torn between going to the post office first or going to a hotel to grab a bite to eat, and spends most of the story dithering between these two courses of action.

“It is easy to understand the state of a man who has two courses in front of him,” he comments reasonably enough.  But here and in a number of other places, he sounds insecure and seems to solicit the reader’s (or listener’s) agreement and sympathy for his situation.  You can almost picture the guy with a pleading look on his face saying “You do understand, don’t you?”

In the second half of the story we meet Mr. Gressler, whom the narrator seems eager to please, even though Gressler is the one who struck the match that burned down the narrator’s home and books.  (The narrator lived upstairs from the apostate textile merchant – whose wares were “like paper” – so this consequence was in no way unforeseeable.)  Our narrator lets on to some mixed feelings toward Gressler following the fire, but in general seems to want to maintain cordial relations with him.  I think he puts Gressler and Ne’eman on exactly the same level in his own estimation.

(As a biographical note, the house fire was not an abstract idea for Agnon, who lost his home and library to a fire in 1924.)

The one person the narrator feels unambivalent about is Mr. Hophni, the inventor of an improved mousetrap.  (At first I thought the mousetrap detail might be the translator’s idiomatic rendering of some other phrase, since we have the expression in English, “build a better mousetrap”.  But no, the story is talking about a literal rodent-catching device.)  He finds Hophni insufferable.  In particular, he finds Hophni’s bragging about his success objectionable.  (Perhaps another measure of the narrator’s own insecurity.)

So when the narrator is offered a lift in Gressler’s carriage (a rarity in that place and time, we’re told), he happily accepts, but his happiness is short-lived when he sees Hophni coming aboard as a fellow passenger.  Our narrator, now not only irritable from hunger and thirst but further provoked by the presence of Hophni, finally loses it and grabs the reins, causing the horses to panic and overturning the carriage.  (His subsequent fear of being hit by a motorcar must be exaggerated, because if carriages were a rarity, how much more so motorcars.)

Psychologically, this is perfect:  all through the story, the guy is incapable of making up his own mind and choosing a course of action, burdened by his doubts and anxieties.  And when his frustration reaches the boiling point and he finally takes decisive action, it’s a disaster.  I think we’ve all been there.

Two paragraphs near the end of the story – set off by repeated phrases before and after – appear to form a nightmare (or nightmare-within-a-nightmare) sequence.

The narrator, having stayed in the restaurant past closing time without ever getting his food (even the “whole loaf” of the title), finds himself locked inside.  (The lock sounds “like the sound of a nail being hammered into the flesh” – a curious comparison, particularly in a Jewish story.)  He is then paid a visit by a mouse, which he seems powerless to frighten away, as if physically immobilized.  He expresses anxiety that the mouse might soon begin to gnaw on his body; from the anatomical progression envisioned in this scenario, we might suspect that there’s an element of sexual anxiety there as well.  The mouse is then joined by a cat, whom the narrator expects to save him from the mouse.  (We’re not told whether he is re-thinking his opinion of Hophni.)  But the cat and the mouse take no notice of each other, instead gnawing on the bones of the left-over food, and the light in the room fades, leaving only the green glow of the cat’s eyes.  Eventually the narrator wakens to see the cleaning staff and last night’s waiter.  (“I took hold of my bones,” he says, in a final, disquieting echo of the previous night.)

The title of the story calls to mind the baking of bread, an image reinforced by the narrator’s oven-like apartment in the opening scene.  In this reading, the man himself is the “loaf”.  (The analogy of bread to man is not unreasonable, as both are traditionally spoken of as being brought from the earth by G-d.)  But the locked room at the ending of the story – which was published in 1951 – hints at a more recent, and more ominous, use of ovens.

The story itself appears cyclical, with the closing passage almost identical to the beginning.  At the end of the story, the Sabbath has ended, but the post office is still closed and the letter remains undelivered.  The narrator is still alone.  He’s still hungry, thirsty, and very very hot.   And there’s no sign that his physical and spiritual torment is likely to end any time soon.  I think the simplest explanation is that he’s in hell.