Recommend a Diverse Classic (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

Recommend a diverse classic.

One of my favorite books is Chaim Potok’s modern classic My Name Is Asher Lev, which tells the story of a boy whose passion for art threatens his relationship with his father and his community.  Asher cannot help but paint, but his father, an Orthodox Jew, is convinced that Asher’s talent is demonic.  Asher wants to believe that he can reconcile his art with his faith and that what he does is worth something, even if he is not serving his people the way generations of his family have served.  But learning to be an artist means painting nudes and, even worse, considering the power of a crucifixion painting.  Asher feels compelled to follow his vision wherever it leads him, making choice after choice that threatens to destroy his family even as each allows him to feel that he is remaining true to himself.  Asher and his father both see the world in different ways and, though they repeatedly try to bridge the distance between them, they ultimately are too similar ever to understand each other.

The book ends with no easy answers or moralistic messages.  Rather, it suggests that even though art may be necessary, it may also be selfish and destructive.  Its uneasy confrontation with the  nature of art and the cost of success become even more provocative when considered in light of what Potok might have been trying to work within himself as he wrote.  Where do art and faith mix and where do they diverge?  How much meaning can we find in art and in which kinds of art?  Does a compulsion to do something justify doing it?  And what happens when the path you see laid out before you is a path no one  else thinks you should take?

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18 thoughts on “Recommend a Diverse Classic (Classic Remarks)

  1. Dani @ Perspective of a Writer says:

    It’s that last question you posed that really lingered with me…And what happens when the path you see laid out before you is a path no one else thinks you should take? … I’ve struggled with that self same question as I’ve worked at being a writer and while I do have ampules family members who support my dream it is daunting when you feel like everyone else you know thinks you are a little bonkers… you really have to dig deep and know for yourself that this is the path you want to take… it also means though accepting the consequences of that choice… neat post and meme!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, even though I haven’t done much research into Potok’s life, it’s hard not to suspect that he was considering his own path as a writer! (He also painted a little.) I am not a writer, but any time someone does something that’s not a traditional 9 to 5 job, people do seem to be skeptical and disapproving! I suppose the irony is that traditional 9 to 5 jobs seem very scarce these days! But I certainly admire your courage and conviction to do what you love!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Oh gosh this was such an exciting choice!! Partly because I love Potok and also because for a lot of people Jewish books just aren’t considered “diverse enough”, but mostly because you brought to light some things I hadn’t thought about (I swear every time this book comes up it makes me think more)- I loved what you said here: “even though art may be necessary, it may also be selfish and destructive”. I think this is the crux of the issues in the book. I guess one way that I look at art (and why, as you’ll know from previous discussions) is that it doesn’t have to be selfish or destructive- but it’s a valuable point in the book because for so many people the pursuit of a goal can have these consequences. Anyway, I’m rambling on- this was such a brilliant and thought provoking choice!! Love it!!

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    • Krysta says:

      I hadn’t known that Jewish books weren’t considered diverse by some. I think Potok is particularly important because his books aren’t Holocaust books. Holocaust books are, of course, important–but Jewish people have been around in other parts of history, too! Potok does indirectly touch on the Holocaust in some of his works (such as The Promise, where readers indirectly see the survivors trying to rebuild their lives in New York), but he also offers a wide scope of other types of stories.

      I think the interesting part of the story is that it suggests that Asher’s father may also at times be making selfish and destructive choices. However, these choices are seen as good and necessary because his work serves his community in a visible and demonstrable way. So if he can’t be with his family much because he’s travelling, if he doesn’t want to support his son because he’s worried about his reputation, people may think it’s sad but they’ll understand why he’s doing it. Asher, on the other hand, is creating things that “just” hang on a wall. So he doesn’t receive the same consideration his father does when he makes similar choices to his father.

      Liked by 2 people

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        haha well I obviously don’t agree, it’s just one of those things. Yes I one hundred percent agree with you there!! And that’s one of the things I really like about him (though I still need to read the Promise!) On the subject of Jewish books on other subjects, have you read any Bashevis Singer by any chance? His writing style is very beautiful.
        Yes that’s true- it’s very interesting to examine how even the act of doing good, or at least trying to, can have destructive consequences for his family life. Yes that’s an excellent point. I hadn’t thought about that either- but you’re right. It’s interesting, because they actually have very similar personalities, in terms of working for the sake of career and putting that first- yet because one career is seen as respectable in the community it reaps rewards (despite the problems it causes) whereas Asher’s decisions are more often seen as destructive.

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        • Krysta says:

          I’ve never heard of Singer! But I do love beautiful writing so I’ll have to check him out. Thanks!

          I think, too, for awhile at least there’s a sense that…the children don’t matter? Or at least that their voices and opinions don’t matter. And I think that’s something many children can relate to–the feeling that they have something to say but that adults aren’t listening. Asher has a very strong sense of what he needs to do and that it’s important, but, of course, because he’s not an adult, the adults in his life assume he can’t understand what he’s talking about or the other projects in his family’s life he might be disrupting. The thought that they could be disrupting his life or his projects never occurs to them.

          Liked by 1 person

          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            Awesome! I did actually feel like they listened to him to be honest- especially cos I don’t think parents normally listen when a child tells them they don’t want to move house/country. I felt like there was more of a disconnect in their goals and they expected him to understand their perspective, but couldn’t understand his (perhaps because he was a child). That said, I understood the parents more on that regard, because children shouldn’t dictate whether their parents take a job abroad, because (and I think this happens in the book) that can give way to selfish attitudes. I’m not saying parents always know best, but I think part of growing up is learning when to give way. Perhaps the fact that Asher Lev gets his way is why he doesn’t consider his family’s feelings at the end. Anyway, such an interesting book, because it always leads down an endless rabbit hole of discussions!

            Liked by 2 people

            • Silvia says:

              I do agree that we, parents, don’t necessarily ask for our children opinions when something has to be done. At the same time Asher was depressed, he was a gifted child who was having a hard time adjusting to life. His mother was very depressed too. I think his parents never quite understood him. I’m not sure why Asher didn’t consider his parents feelings in the end, to me it’s more a matter of having to do something, even if the price you pay is that high. You know how much pain his parents are going to undergo, yet Asher went through all that pain too.
              Asher wasn’t devout in his parents eyes, yet for others outside his world, Asher was pure and faithful to some principles.
              It’s a jarring book, yes, a rabbit hole of discussions.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Krysta says:

              Yes, it does seem like the pain each character was going through blinded them to an extent to the suffering of others, though Asher does at least come to realize that he and his father have put his mother through some difficulties! It seems a bit as if Asher doesn’t want to understand his father in the end, because he’s carrying some of that bitterness from how he felt he was treated as a child. Once he’s an adult and can understand more, he doesn’t bother–he’d rather just run off to Europe and attempt to avoid the situation altogether.

              Liked by 2 people

  3. Silvia says:

    About Ashe’s father and Asher himself… that’s a great point. I think there’s a contrast between generations and cultures. Asher’s father defines his purpose in life by the greater good of the collective. Asher’s world is an ‘interior revolution’, maybe a more modern, or more western (or American) way of looking at life that is defined from the capacity of the individual to become the tension point between culture as we know it, and culture (values, ideas) redefined and challenged.
    Asher is not a selfish individual, but he doesn’t translate action, meaning, or purpose in the same pragmatic way than his father. There’s a huge chasm between his parents and him. There’s love, but there’s not a same frequency in which they can dialogue or live.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    I am embarrassed to admit that I have never heard of this. But I am looking through your review and adding to my Goodreads list 🙂 I really want to read more of everything this year. I did notice that it looks as though you have it listed as a series in your review, but I cannot find that information elsewhere. Is it part of a set or am I looking at the review information wrong?

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    • Krysta says:

      I don’t think Potok is as well-known as I think he ought to be. He’s a really sensitive and thoughtful writer. Many of his books focus on relationships (not just romantic ones, which is what I’ve realized people always think I mean by “relationships!”), which is something I like as a reader. I also appreciate that his stories often focus on struggles of faith or struggles between generations. Many of the characters want to continue to be faithful to their religion but are interested in jobs or knowledge their community is suspicious of. Sometimes people seem to think that being faithful means you have to toe the line or not question anything, but Potok’s books are all about questioning and showing that lively questioning rather than passive acceptance is actually an integral part of living out faith. I also think it’s just very human to feel pulled in two directions and that it’s great that Potok acknowledges that his characters can be flawed or struggling, but again, still desirous of living out their faith.

      There’s a sequel called The Gift of Asher Lev. I’ve only read that once, but I’ve read this one multiple times. So, um, I awkwardly can’t remember what it’s about or give you more information on that!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

        Thank you so much for the additional insight Krysta! I love when stories explore such topics in a more realistic and head on approach. I feel it is a normal part of life to challenge and question faith and many other areas of our lives (as you mentioned better than I above). This sounds so promising. I definitely added.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. David says:

    I read “The Chosen” in high school and sort of liked it despite my relative immaturity. At the time I still spent too much time looking down on “realistic” fiction when I should have been learning to appreciate different kinds of stories. But some of it stayed with me. I’d like to reread it. But this one especially sounds meaningful to me. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      The Chosen is Potok’s more famous work, but I unfortunately haven’t reread it in years! Perhaps it’s time to change that. I, too, preferred fantasy, but I remember that The Chosen moved me enough to become a huge Potok fan!

      Liked by 1 person

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