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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

"My name is Asher Lev" by Chaim Potok

The last book I read, Eros Island by Tony Hanania, was characterised by paragraph-long sentences, with multiple commas and semi-colons, which explored descriptions with unusual words and vivid metaphors. It jumped around in time and the characters merged into different worlds. I found it difficult to follow the narrative, at times to work out who was who. This suited the world being created, a world of decadence and decay, spoilt rich kids, drug-taking, disillusion.

The world of Asher Lev is very different. He grows up into a highly organised and secure world, that of a Jewish sect in Brooklyn. The narrative has a linear structure. The sentences are typically short, blunt and declarative, such as: “My father found me like that in the doorway. We walked home together. My mother was asleep. We ate supper alone. It continued to rain.” This is from chapter one and it can be seen that as Asher gets older his sentences can become more complex, especially when he is talking about art.

Asher Lev is a born artist. He is a child prodigy of the visual arts. But the world into which he is born is one which does not value his gifts. This is a no-nonsense world in which men work and people worry. It is typified by his father, who works for the leader of a Jewish sect, rescuing Jews from Stalin's Russia. Asher attempts to conform; for a while he learns to live while stifling his gift. But he can only be fulfilled by embracing his art and this means he has to rebel, to hurt his community and his mother who wants him to make only "pretty" pictures and his father who characterises what Asher does as "foolishness". Asher's rebellion is articulated when he exclaims: “Foolishness is something that's stupid ... Foolishness is something a person shouldn't do. Foolishness is something that brings harm to the world. Foolishness is a waste of time. Please don't ever call it foolishness anymore, Papa.” (Chapter 5) Still the sect leader attempts to make Asher conform: “Many people feel they are in possession of a great gift when they are young. But one does not always give into a gift. One does with a life what is precious not only to oneself but to one's own people.” (Chapter 5)

It is interesting that the sect is trying to rescue Jews from Stalin's Russia while simultaneously attempting to impose conformity upon their own dissident.

This is a book that does for the visual arts what Patrick Susskind's Perfume did for scents. Time and again Asher talks about the technicalities of his craft:

  • The drawing felt incomplete. It bothered me to have it incomplete. I closed my eyes and looked at the drawing inside myself, went over its contours inside myself, and it was incomplete.” (Chapter 1)
  • That was the night I began to realise that something was happening to my eyes.  ... I felt myself flooded with the shapes and textures of the world around me. I closed my eyes. But I could still see that way inside my head. I was seeing with another pair of eyes that had suddenly become awake.” (Chapter 4)
  • How would I paint that, the rain dripping from the branches, the rain streaking the window, the grey rain filling the world with dismal mist? People walked beneath umbrellas. The asphalt glistened. The bleak sky hovered menacingly over the tops of the buildings ... I saw the clouds moving swiftly and dark across the buildings and I wondered how I could catch that dark movement, that watery swirl of light and dark greys ... how I could paint the street crying.” (Chapter 5)
  • What if I took some of those squares? I thought. Won't that make it more interesting?” (Chapter 6)
  • I will teach you composition. I will teach you how to create tension. I will teach you how to handle rage in colour and line.” (Chapter 8)
  • There are two ways of painting the world. In the whole history of art, there are only these two ways. One is the way of Greece and Africa, which sees the world as a geometric design. The other is the way of Persia and India and China, which sees the world as a flower.” (Chapter 9)
  • The only honest way to paint today was either to represent objects that are recognisable, and at the same time integral to the two-dimensional nature of the canvas, or to do away with objects entirely and create paintings of colour and texture and form, paintings that translated the volumes and voids in nature into fields of colour, paintings in which the solids were flattened and the voids were filled and the planes were organized.” (Chapter 10)
  • We talked for a long time about the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, about illusion, depth, planar structure, points, areas, lines, dispersive and progressive shapes, surface control, colour separation, values, contrasts, accents, matrix.” (Chapter 12)

There are also comments about what art means and what it means to be an artist which apply to whatever dream you are following:

  • Every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. Every man who is showing the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a ‘universal’ without patriotism, without home, who has found his people everywhere.” (Chapter 8) This reminded me of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider.
  • Guilt should not interfere with your art. Use the guilt to make better art.” (Chapter 8)
  • A man's painting either reflects his culture or is a comment upon it, or it is merely decoration or photography.” (Chapter 10)
  • Art is not for people who want to make the world holy. You will be like a nun in a bro - in a - theatre for burlesque.” (Chapter 8)
  • Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way.” (Chapter 8)
  • Only one who has mastered a tradition has a right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it.” (Chapter 8)
  • It would have made me a whore to leave it incomplete. It would have made it easier to leave future work incomplete. It would have made it more and more difficult to draw upon that additional aching surge of effort that is always the difference between integrity and deceit in a created work.” (Chapter 13)

There are other great moments:

  • Gossip, rumours, mythmaking and news stories are not appropriate vehicles for the communication of nuances of truth.” (Chapter 1)
  • She did not appear to be bothered by the sun. It was as if there were nothing behind her eyes for the sun to bother.” (Chapter 1)
  • By November, the trees were almost bare. Solitary leaves clung to the branches as tenacious reminders of life. They fell and the trees stood naked on the street. It rained and the leaves layrotting in the gutters. It snowed and the leaves were gone.” (Chapter 6)
  • Sometimes I think it is not wise to grow too old ... but I am not aware that we are given a choice in this matter.” (Chapter 11)
  • He walked surrounded with the sense of his achievement.” (Chapter 12)
  • There are distinct disadvantages to reaching eighty ... but it is better to reach it then not to reach it. I think I will try for ninety.” (Chapter 12)
  • My frames of reference have been formed by the life I have lived.” (Chapter 12)

This is a wonderful novel about individual freedom and the artistic urge. March 2019; 320 pages

It has a sequel: The Gift of Asher Lev

This is one of the books that my sister Jane has given me. Jane is an English teacher in Bradford and her selections are usually excellent, for example:

  • Winter by Ali Smith (which meant I had to buy Autumn by Ali Smith and read that first)
  • The Dry by Jane Harper: Jane and I have always enjoyed a good crime novel and this is excellent
  • The Hate you Give by Angie Thomas: Jane's teaching means she is always good at spotting teen novels and this is one of the best.

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