A SIMPLE STORY by S. Y. Agnon; translated and with an afterword by Hillel Halkin (Schocken: $14.95). "A Simple Story" is, of course, not so simple. When poor Blume Macht's mother dies, she is sent to live as a housemaid with her well-off Galician relatives, the Hurvitzes. There she meets Hirschl, her second cousin, who promptly falls in love with her. She seems to care for him in return, but Hirschl's business-like parents have another match in mind, a well-bred but shallow girl named Mina Ziemlich. In another time and place, this might have inspired an act of youthful rebellion. Here, however, in this turn-of-the-century East European backwater, the parents prevail. Hirschl and Mina are wed, and the remainder of the book is an agonized and sometimes comic lament for Hirschl's lost love. Jewish soap opera? Not exactly. S. Y. Agnon's fiction, laced as it is with Talmudic wit, is a fine example of anti-Modernist sentiment. His characters rarely think for themselves. Their world has strict boundaries, and though some are tempted by the chaos of modernity, no one is about to take the plunge. "Nothing ever turns out the way we'd like it to," chides the narrator of this tale, reminding us again of the long arm of tradition. Yet while the pace can be plodding, in the end "A Simple Story" occupies a strategic place in our hearts, like a home-cooked meal or an evening spent talking with an old friend.

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