Classic Remarks: Name A Classic That Should Be Required Reading

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a 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:

What is a classic you think should be required school reading?

My Name Is Asher Lev

The secret of most syllabi is, of course, that the instructors put books on it that they like.  You may think they’re choosing the best of the canon or some significant classics and, to some extent, they are choosing the books that you “ought” to have read if you’re going to have a solid grasp of the literary tradition and its influences.  Still, when you only have room for maybe two novels in a high school class or eight in a college course, and an entire range of “important” books to choose from, you’re going to be tempted to choose the ones that you personally enjoy.  In that fine tradition, I thus present to you a critically-acclaimed and very important modern classic–but also one I happen to love: My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.

My Name Is Asher Lev follows the titular character as he grows up a Hasidic Jew but one who possesses a artistic gift his father thinks is demonic.  Asher needs to paint to live, but his community believes art is a waste of time.  His gift causes others to scorn him and his father to hate him.  His family is being torn apart.  And yet Asher wants to believe that he can express himself as an artist and still remain faithful to his religion.  The tension between his desire to paint and his desire to serve his God and his people combine to create a story that is likely to break your heart.

And, of course, the work would count as a diverse piece of fiction that would also help students empathize with and understand with characters who may have a different lifestyle or religion from their own.  As schools increasingly search for books that reflect the lives of a myriad of readers, this one would certainly help fill that gap.

Krysta 64

In the Beginning by Chaim Potok

in-the-beginningInformation

Goodreads: In the Beginning
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1975

Official Summary

David Lurie learns that all beginnings are hard. He must fight for his place against the bullies in his Depression-shadowed Bronx neighborhood and his own frail health. As a young man, he must start anew and define his own path of personal belief that diverges sharply with his devout father and everything he has been taught…

Review

“All beginnings are hard.”

In the Beginning differs from some of Potok’s other novels in that the narration switches seamlessly between past and present, smearing together time. This is a literary style I do not always like, as I think it is often unnecessary and therefore can come across as pretentious, but Potok makes it work. It fits the story, as David attempts to explain the origins of his people and his beliefs, how his past is so strongly connected to his present and his future.  In the Beginning, then, though different in style from many Potok books, exudes the same heart and understanding of human nature that make Potok a true master.

David starts the novel as a sickly child, weak and often afraid, particularly of that which he does not understand.  His voice, to me, sometimes comes across as odd: too adult and yet so naïve at once.  He’ll frequently tell others (close to him) about his emotions, that he’s afraid or that “It was a really bad feeling.”  David, however, is supposed to be a bit of an oddball character, a child with a big brain he does not necessarily know how to use.  Adults credit him with understanding more than he lets on.  So, while young David is a bit strange, he grows throughout the novel, slowly coming into his own—and slowly losing his openness when he learns what it can cost him.

The book will draw to mind, a little, My Name Is Asher Lev, as David also struggles with wanting to learn and do and understand things his community thinks best not to be understood.  The theme here is more educational and intellectual attainment, rather than art, and it’s perhaps less at the forefront.  The protagonist’s struggles are comparable, however.  Strangely, though I love Potok’s works, I have never done biographical research on him.  Yet In the Beginning strikes me as clearly autobiographical, and I think I begin to understand some of what Potok must have lost—and gained—while pursuing his own writing career and his own search for truth.

Potok’s works, in general, are quite readable to those readers without much knowledge of Judaism, though I think In the Beginning gives somewhat fewer context clues for terms than Potok’s other novels.  It’s nothing a quick Google search will not be able to readily resolve for a reader, however.  This story also relies a bit on the reader’s knowledge of history, but only in very broad terms.  David lives through the Great Depression, though the term is never used and child Davis is only vaguely aware that many families have money problems; readers have to fill in the gaps.  A bit of the same ambiguity is applied to the description of WWII, though the novel gets gradually more explicit (which, admittedly, is historically accurate; David’s family is shocked by what the newspapers reveal at the war’s end).

Potok’s work is always deeply personal while also offering profound insight into humanity at large.  Others of Potok’s novels are closer to my heart, but In the Beginning is certainly a masterpiece in its own right and well worth the read.  I’m sorry I took this long to get around to it.

4 stars Briana

Before the Blog: Reviews from the Past

Past Collage

I’ve mentioned before that Krysta and I both spent years reviewing books for ourselves before we ever started blogging, and, for better or worse, we still have a lot of those reviews.  Knowing this, I thought to myself Wouldn’t it be fun if we did a little flashback feature and posted some of those past reviews?  Krysta said it would just be embarrassing (and actually she’s probably right), so that’s why I’ve decided to share some reviews from 2009.  They’re not quite as old as some of the others, and so of somewhat better quality. (Notice too that my personal reviews and summaries were often much shorter than the ones I write for the blog!)

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451

Summary

A modern classic, this is the story of a world where books are banned but not forgotten, and men—like Montag, a fire man and burner of books—must choose between comfort and knowledge.

Review

Bradbury tells an engrossing, provoking story populated by real, dynamic, and diverse characters that will be appreciated by any bibliophile.  One can practically feel the ashes flowing about Montag’s person and small the kerosene he can never wash away, as Duncan’s blood forever stained Macbeth.  The fear, the questions, the uncertainty, and the hope are all real, all richly layered.  Bradbury redeems American literature with pure style, great thoughts, and a futuristic vision horrible but not unbearable.

Today’s Reaction

I haven’t reread Fahrenheit 415 any time after 2009, but I think my opinion would be very similar if I did.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest HemingwayA Farewell to Arms

Summary

An American ambulance driver serving in the Italian army during World War I falls in love with an English nurse.

Review

The title of A Farewell to Arms is, without a doubt, the most intriguing part of the entire novel—and it was borrowed from a poem by George Peele.  The book may officially qualify as one of the most boring pieces of literature ever penned by man—surpassing both Ethan Frome and Brave New World to mount the top of worse summer reading assigned.  The former has New England style to redeem it and the latter some thoughts on antiutopia that were worth some investigation.  Hemingway has little.

The characters in general are flat and, if not disagreeable, hardly likeable either.  One is most attached to Frederic Henry, as he is the narrator and the tale told from his perspective.  Yet, despite the natural sympathy, one must constantly wonder what he sees in Catherine Barkley—besides escape from war.  She is submissive and dull and does nothing but repeat herself and ask foolish questions—and repeat the foolish questions.  Fitzgerald’s Daisy is both a goddess and genius in comparison.

The middle of the book is not half-bad, with some interesting perspectives on war and some varied characterizations, ranging from military enthusiasts to those who think that war a waste and joke.  The depiction of the battle police and their self-righteous judgments is gruesomely captivating.  The beginning, however, is a prolonged torture, and the end effaces whatever point one saw in the preceding three hundred pages.  And destructive as it is, it somehow is missing.  Henry is absurdly stoic, moving on as if little had happened—thus, the effacement.

A Farewell to Arms achieves most in its inspiration [for me] to avoid religiously Hemingway’s work in future.

Today’s Reaction

Ouch.

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim PotokThe Gift of Asher Lev

Summary

The sequel to My Name is Asher Lev, the book begins about twenty years after Lev’s exile to Paris.  The death of his uncle recalls him to Brooklyn and his past, where a new understanding of old stories will bring both loss and gain, and potentially help rekindle his dormant creative genius.

Review

Potok pens another compelling novel, taut with the conflict of two different worlds bound by one man who understands and loves them both.  Insights on truth, art, family, and love come rolling off the pages.  Abundant, they reveal Potok’s great and gentle knowledge of humanity.  The Gift of Asher Lev is nothing less than the natural successor to My Name Is Asher Lev and a book that cannot be missed by anyone who believes literature is both beauty and truth.

Today’s Reaction

Chaim Potok remains one of my favorite authors, and I still admire his masterful ability to understand and portray human nature.  I also love the Keats allusion I threw into this review.

My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Summary: Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, and he has a gift for art.   But Hasidic Jews do not value art.  When Asher is young, his drawings are considered a foolish waste of time.  As he grows older, his paintings are seen as unholy because an understating of art necessitates an understanding of the nude and the Christian crucifixion.  Asher must try to navigate the two different worlds of art and religion and convince his community that it is possible to live in both.

Review: Chaim Potok is a visionary author whose gift lies in telling compelling stories that touch the heart of what it means to be human.  In My Name Is Asher Lev, the main conflict is often described as being between a boy’s devotion to art and his devotion to faith, but the question is not as simple as whether he should paint or whether he should pray.  Asher believes it is possible to do both, but he is almost alone in his opinion, and a number of tensions grow up between him and his family, him and his teacher, and him and the Jewish community.

In a different book, the protagonist might come to some conclusion about “being true to himself” and break away from the past and the people “holding him back.”  There is no such simple resolution here, and the subtlety and complexity of the means by which Asher tries to navigate and meld his two worlds makes the book ring truer than a dramatic break would.  Asher’s heartache and his attempts to hold his life and family together indicate that there are things more important than pursuing a successful career. (Modern society might say more important than “following one’s dreams.”)  In My Name is Asher Lev, fulfillment cannot come from making selfish decisions, and that is a truth most readers will recognize.  Besides, there is no positive concept of “answering only to oneself” when the presence of God is so important in one’s life.

Asher cannot completely please anyone.  He tries but cannot successfully explain the distinction between a naked woman and a nude to his father.  He upsets his teacher by hesitating over whether to paint and then display his nudes.   Ultimately he needs to carve a unique identity for himself, but he learns to base his decisions not on what will make people happy (including himself), but on what will be most meaningful.  Have you ever known a happy artist? his teacher once asks him.  My Name Is Asher Lev, then, is a story not about a man who finds happiness but a man who finds fulfillment.  Of all the things a book can be about, it is about one of the most important: living a meaningful life.

Published: 1972

Sequel: The Gift of Asher Lev