The sequel to My Name is Asher Lev. Asher, now married with two children, a famous artist, travels back to the Ladover Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn for the funeral of his Uncle. The Ladover community is split over Asher, many seeing him as producing blasphemous art which is a desecration; others being proud that they can bask in the reflected glory of the great artist. Asher himself, remembering the death threat he received that sent him into his long French exile, feels suffocated and finds he cannot work. But his mother and father welcome the opportunity of getting to know their grandchildren and, as the week turns into months and longer, Asher begins to realise that there are immense and insidious pressures on him pushing him towards making a terrible decision.
The book is carefully structured. Not a great deal happens in the first quarter, there is a slow build up, as if the writer is preparing us layer by layer. Then, around the end of the first quarter, things start happening. Asher is first called, late at night, by the Rebbe; these meetings will become a hallmark of the book, representing, I thing, the tortured meetings with God which people have when they can't sleep (it would appear the Rebbe never sleeps). Asher's daughter disappears briefly. Asher gives a pivotal taslk to his daughter's religious school. Asher discovered that his uncle has bequeathed an amazing art collection to hjim, Asher, in defiance of the anger of his children, Asher's cousins. From this point Asher begins to have extraordinarily vivid dreams, and waking dreams, in which people such as his art treacher and Picasso and religious figures including the Rebbe, begin to battle for his soul. By the half-mark the Rebbe reveals that "I am, after all, only flesh and blood. I, too, had a beginning and will one day have an end." (Ch 2, p 175) And Asher flees to France. Here, he is able to consider his situation from a greater distance; what happens to him and what he remembers and the discussions that he has conspire to gradually reveal the nature of the choice he is being asked to make. But it is not until we enter the final quarter that this choice becomes clear. From then on I read with passion and dread.
There are some clever author tricks. The author is able to use Asher's artistic output to (no pun intended) illustrate the story, such as when he reveals that his picture of Abraham and Isaac shows Abraham actually killing Isaac, based on an idiosyncratic tradition. There is the story of his wife's experience during the holocaust in which as a four year old she returns home to the flat in Paris to find her parents with Gestapo: her mother screams at her as if she is not her mother's child and so she flees and is saved. A recurrent theme is five-year-old Avrumel's rag doll with which he talks; what the doll says reveals twhat Avrumel really wants to do.
The book is slow. It builds up and up and up using a great deal of description. Asher, as a painter, is naturally brilliant at visual descriptions but he is equally good at describing sounds and feelings and the remarkable intensity of his hallucinatory dream-life. His tender and affectionate relationships with his wife (who suffered terribly in the Holocaust and now ardently seeks God's plan even when wondering how God can be considered good), his daughter and his little son, are beautifully drawn; other characters are carefully constructed and spring from the page in three-dimensional reality. It takes time to read but it is worth the pateince: this is a remarkably well-written book.
I loved the first book. This seems slower and more intense. The power of this remarkable book made me feel asphyxiated and left me with a terrible anger. To evoke such emotions shows that the book is well-written.
It's also good about explaining how an artist must endlessly renew himself.
There are some wonderful moments when the writer seems to see the world as a visual artist might:
- "The cascades of colour and form; the images that had possessed me: I would gaze at them inside myself, watching them grow from the empty point of their beginnings, from the void of nonbeing, to amorphous, shapeless lumps, and then simmer slowly into a molded nucleus of life, fragile, tender, frightened, incomplete. That constant wide-eyed looking at the shapes inside myself. The strange sense of being possessed by the Other." (Ch 1, p 29)
- "I drew him gently - the small radiating lines in the outside corners of his eyes; the rounded fullness of his nose; the high forehead with the ridge below the hairline and the slope in the lined valley below and then the twin rise of bone above the eyebrows. I made the lines soft and wispy, brushing passages from plane to plane with my middle and small fingers." (Ch 1, p 94)
- "Along the parkway people walked leaning forward into the rain. Cars manoeuvred tortuously through the roadside construction. The wet spring morning wore the dismal look of a dying winter afternoon." (Ch 2, p 126)
- "On the sidewalks and along the curbs, puddles of water reflect the palm trees and the sky. Pastel-colored hotels line the boulevard and face out to the sea. Later, with the night, the hotel lights and beachfront lamps will come on, the perfect curve of the coastline will blaze like a fiery necklace, and the fabled nightlife of Nice will begin." (Ch 5, p 263)
- "Max and John, faintly brushed by the lights, seemed ghostly and insubstantial." (Ch 6, p 291)
Other wonderful moments:
- "It is sometimes difficult to make a distinction between 'establishing an individual style' and 'repeating oneself'." (Ch 1, p5)
- "Do not be ironic in the presence of death. When else, if not then?" (Ch 1, p 38)
- "We're all older, tireder, closer to the gray time before the final darkness." (Ch 1, p 73)
- "Do not expect redemption if you enter the world of art. Redemption is death to art. Tranqullity is the poison the artist takes when he is ready to give up his art." (Ch 1, p 98)
- "An artist ... must see the world whole, he must somehow learn to see during the blinks, he must see where no one else can see, he must see the connections, the betweenesses in the world. Even if the connections are ugly and evil, the artist must see and record them." (Ch 1, p 100)
- "Satan works out in the open, cards on the table. He gives it to you straight, no gasmes. God plays at sweetness and goodness, and kills you." (Ch 3, p 193)
- "She had little patience for the vacuous world of the philistine, and no comprehension of the subtle texturing of religious consciousness. She saw in both those world - the bourgeois and the religious - bigotry, small-mindedness, the clawing of the benighted; greed for money and zealousness for God." (Ch 3, p 205)
- "If the chaos were hot, I could create in it. But this chaos is cold with the touch of money." (Ch 4, p 223)
- "A fourth-level bureaucrat on the take could do better at running things. Master of the Universe ... You are the cruellest artist of all!" (Ch 4, p 231)
- "Got no right to steal other people's experience. Becomes phony if you use it. Takes genius to absorb other people's experience and use it right." (Ch 6, p 293) Note the two uses of the word 'right'
- "Most destinies come to us in simple declarative or interrogatory sentences: 'Let there be light.' 'It is not good for man to be alone.' 'Am I my brother's keeper?'" (Ch 7, p 330)
A masterpiece written by a novelist at the very top of his game. A beautifully written and profound book with a slow and inexorable build up to a terrible choice.
September 2020; 370 pages