Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev
My Name is Asher Lev concerns a boy divided between the drive for art that possesses him and the Hasidic religion into which he is born, which is somewhat like the Jewish equivalent of fundamentalist Christians. Think of his sect like the Verbovers of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The duality inherent in mixed loyalties is hardly a new topic; the most obvious example I know of is Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund. But it’s done well here, and one feels Asher’s agony as he attempts to tread the artist’s path and the Hasidim’s. Inside, however, the artist predominates, and, as is typical in American fiction, self identity trumps group identity, as it should. Maybe Asher can’t help it. As a young man, he
began to realize that something was happening to my eyes. I looked at my father and saw lines and planes I had never seen before. I could feel with my eyes. [...] I could feel texture and color.
The struggle to develop his eye and practice his visual art while remaining faithful to the extreme interpretations and teachings of religion fuels the novel’s conflict. Asher doesn’t give up, and if at times the pompousness of the art talk almost overwhelms, other moments of genuine emotion make up for near bombast. In some criticism of Asher’s art within the novel, one senses the same kind of criticism that might be used against Potok: sentimentality and a rejection of trends in art hobble him. Both novels act as defenses against that charge, and they are mostly successful. In growing up, Asher makes the difficult choices growing up entails. We think he makes the correct trade-offs, but in such a milieu, those trade-offs are grave indeed.
Parts of the novel fail, like a painting askew: a mythic ancestor arrives in Asher’s dreams for no particular point, and many descriptions are flat, especially given all the discussions of how an artist sees. Ones like this appear over and over:
I got off the train and climbed the stairs to the street. It was cold and wet and gray. A bitter wind blew against the tall buildings.
The beds were covered with spreads. The refrigerator hummed softly. The apartment was neat and clean and faintly resonant with its own silence.
It was a large waiting room with white walls, a single window in the wall to my right, and a heavy wooden door in the wall across from the window. There was a desk beneath the window and chairs along the walls.
Banal description will hardly kill a novel, but if they are sufficiently banal and frequent, why include them? Why describe places that are everyplace and weather that’s as bad as the weather anywhere? There is no reason, and part of the reason I called My Name is Asher Lev strange in the first paragraph is because these descriptive problems are not so enormous that they capsize the novel.
Alas, The Gift of Asher Lev is a disappointment compared to My Name is Asher Lev. One sees no growth, little reconciliation, and no useful understanding for the state of the first two in my list. The world is ambiguous, yes, and that’s pounded into our heads. Many great novels come to no conclusions but better illuminate the confusion of the life—such as Moby Dick—but The Gift of Asher Lev is not among them. Characters like Lev’s boorish, ignorant cousins are comic book foils that contrast with the Rebbe’s wisdom. Devorah has all the character of an empty housewife, despite the references to her existence
Moment of humor are a change, but they’re too few to be a signifiant one. Asher, growing tired of his community’s ceaseless suspicion of his life—it is hard to refer to being an artist as a mere “profession”—responds to one inconsiderate inquiry by saying “That’s why I became an artist. So I wouldn’t have to worry about what other people think. You hit the nail right on the head, Kroner.”
The classroom scene in Asher’s daughter’s Yeshiva is the book’s fulcrum and chief reason for interest, and it’s reminiscent of Barth’s metaphor of the soft-shell blue crab in The Friday Book, which all interested in the definition and meaning of art should read for that essay alone. In Potok’s rendition, Asher draws a ram in three ways: once poorly, like a child, again realistically, like a photograph, and again with portions exaggerated for effect, like an artist. He asks a class of children rhetorically, “Aren’t all three different ways of seeing the same object?” and as a defense of the subjectivity merging with the individual’s perception it’s wonderful. As a short story, it would be equally good. As a scene in a novel, it’s like an island rising above an otherwise cold sea.
We find too few of those islands, and transcendent pieces of writing are too rare and disconnected from the story. Using a different metaphor, one could say that too many white spaces lack connective tissue and simple are. One other good example of the good in this novel: Asher explains his gift by saying “I don’t hope to accomplish anything. I just do it,” which is as good an artist’s credo as any, albeit one that many, many artists have espoused in various forms at various times. Asher’s wife, Devorah, says at one point that “We hear a song or read a story, and the good feelings we get don’t remain inside us. We are either anticipating them, or we’ve had them and they’re gone. We never experience them as now.” Well, maybe, and she’s describing the specious present that William James wrote about. It’s not a bad thought, but it’s underdeveloped, like most of this novel. My Name is Asher Lev is stronger and less curmudgeonly. On page 104 of The Gift of Asher Lev, he thinks that “The ordinary was king. And the courtiers were popularization, shallowness, doubt, cynicism. The century was exhausted.” Five pages later, a friend says of the art world, “There is too much ersatz work being done now, calculated gestures everywhere, cultural entertainment.” Maybe there is: but so what? And even if the evils of cultural entertainment are upon us, one isn’t obliged to indulge them. How about less complaining and faux existentialism and more work?
You’ll find it, but in My Name is Asher Lev. I will end reiterating the point made in the first paragraph: pretend that My Name is Asher Lev has no sequel. You’ll like it better.