Author: Chaim Potok
Details: (c) 1972 Chaim Potok; Pub 1973 Fawcett Crest Books
Verdict: My name is Asher Lev is well observed and emotionally powerful.
Reasons for reading it: I have run out of new books to read (boo!) and this is one that bears rereading.
How it came into my hands: I picked it up in a charity shop somewhere because it seemed worth having my own copy.
My name is Asher Lev is a bit brain-bending because it is essentially a book about itself. Not in a post-modern, meta-fictive kind of way, but a slightly fictionalized account of Potok's experience of writing this particular book. Potok offended the ultra-Orthodox community he grew up in by becoming a popular novelist, but they were prepared to accommodate him as long as he continued living a religious lifestyle, but he was unable to live with that compromise and published My name is Asher Lev, an account of his mother's mental illness as well as his development as a writer, even though he knew that that was going to get him thrown out of the community. Asher Lev is an artist, not a writer, and his painting his mother crucified is the allegory for Potok writing a book about Lev's painting...
However, leaving aside the confusingly autobiographical aspects, the book works very well as a novel of the conflict between dedication to art and very genuine loyalty to community, tradition and family. There are a lot of novels in this sort of genre where it is perfectly obvious to the reader that the Great Quest comes first, whether the protagonist is motivated by a phenomenal talent, True Love or being the Chosen One who must save the world; the family are just boring, soulless (or even actively evil) obstacles that Mary Sue must overcome in order to break free. This isn't the case with Asher Lev; it is clear that he really loves his parents and honestly wants to live by their (Chassidic Jewish) values. He hurts them and violates those values only because he is absolutely compelled to do so to be able to live with himself, and it's the portrayal of that as a real conflict, where it's far from obvious what the right course is, that gives the book its power.
Asher Lev himself is an odd viewpoint character. The point of the story is for him to be a natural artistic prodigy with world-class genius, and such a character can easily be a Mary Sue. Asher Lev isn't; he is a normal, flawed human being who happens to have a phenomenal talent in one particular area. Reading as a teenager, I sympathized with him unquestioningly, but to my adult perception he comes across as a bit self-centred in his conviction that his art should take priority over everything else. I think that's the point; he is very much an adolescent, with the arrogance that matches his genuine ability, but with rather stunted empathetic qualities.
Other than that, the atmosphere is typically Potok. I happen to like Potok, with his detailed descriptions of life in the very claustrophobic Chassidic community of post-war Brooklyn, and the experiences of immigrants from Eastern Europe adapting to life in a country where they don't generally face violence, but they still very much don't fit in. The pacing is really odd; more than half the book is taken up with Asher's childhood and simply going over his relationship with his parents, with almost no action other than at the character level. I think this is perhaps a flaw of the book being so nearly autobiographical; one gets the impression of somewhat therapeutic writing. At least it is well done and successfully sets up the emotional climax as well as portraying the parents as real, sympathetic human beings. They don't object to their son's engagement with secular and Christian culture because they are narrow-minded, but because they carry the scars of most of their family being killed because of Christianity-derived anti-semitism. And it's reasonable to be upset at his portrayal of his mother's illness for the whole world to gawp at.
I think what really works about MNiAL is that it uses a fairly understated style to convey some really intense emotional realities. It is not the most exciting book ever, but as a character piece it really stands out.