I am a member of a closed Facebook group Women Reading Great Books. https://www.facebook.com/groups/967350739957023/
We swap titles of books we have enjoyed and join the chat such as ‘What is the longest book you have ever read?’ or ‘What is the most difficult book you have ever read?’ I had more than one answer to the first question: Gone with the Wind, War and Peace, and Love in the time of Cholera. The second one was more tricky. I could only think of books I have hardly started because I just didn’t like them: books by Mrs Gaskell and Arnold Bennet. Or books I read again by Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch and Penelope Lively. Not many new writers there.
So I was intrigued to discover My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. I’d never heard of the writer or the book. Published in 1972 he is hardly a new writer, indeed he died in 2002, but he was new to me. Chaim Potok was a rabbi, a philosopher, a chaplain during the Korean war, a husband and a father. One web site says of him: His Judaism, and his dissatisfaction with it, formed the cornerstone of his stories. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/chaim-potok/
I was hooked from the first line of the book. My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines…the notorious and legendry Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.
The tone of writing hinted at memoir or, at least, bio-fiction. But this is a novel, an invented narration expressing his unsettled relationship with his Jewish inheritance and faith and his parents, particularly his father’s, disappointment with his chosen pathway in life, that of a draughtsman, painter and sculpture. This story about a dedicated painter, a man who made pictures of his life and experiences, had an added attraction for me as my daughter is also a painter. https://alicesheridan.com
I have painted but now I write so I, inevitably, analyse books as I read them. Briefly, the story maps Asher’s battle with this desire to make art and his father’s, a rabbi, total disapproval as he regarded painting as an unholy occupation, a gift from ‘the other side.’
I have said that I was hooked on My Name is Asher Lev from the start and it is true that I loathed to put the book down, but I was disappointed by the end. My sympathy had switched from the narrator, the son Asher, to his father, a rabbi. But Asher was the narrator of the narrative and surely it is the job of the writer to engage the sympathy of the reader for the narrator. Otherwise why read the book? Had I misunderstood the purpose of the book?
What was the message of the book? Did novels have to have a deeper meaning than just the resolution of the story? And did this novel have a positive, rewarding resolution? It does not. By the last page, as he leaves home for good, Asher is still in revolt against his father, his father still won’t accept his son’s talent as a glorious gift and his mother is still torn between her devoted love for her husband and her natural, maternal love for her son.
All she can say on parting is, ‘Please write…You will write? Have a safe journey, my Asher. Have a safe journey.’ Heart breaking. The story is a tragedy.
But I will recommend the members of Women Readers of Great Books to read this one as it is, definitely, a great book.