First Impressions: My Name Is Asher Lev

I made a sort of tacit promise to myself that, so far as I could help it, I was going to read only one book at a time, at least for the next few months. I promptly threw that plan out the window when I returned from a Barnes and Noble trip with a copy of Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel My Name Is Asher Lev.

For those who haven’t heard of it, My Name Is Asher Lev is the story of a Hasidic boy growing up in 1940’s Brooklyn. Blessed with a natural talent for drawing and painting, he decides to pursue art his own way, even when his vision of the world clashes with what his family and his community believes and expects of him.

I decided I had to (mark: had to) read this book after Brenton Dickieson mentioned it on his blog A Pilgrim in Narnia. According to Brenton, one of the central debates of the novel concerns the relationship between art and truth. Nerd that I am, that was enough to entice me already, but the icing on top was this comment from one of Brenton’s readers, who, at the time, was working her way through the novel: “I already love his [Asher’s] struggle of trying to figure out what color ‘cold’ is.” At that point, I was sold. Perhaps the lingering influence of The Book Thief, which asks some equally odd questions, is to blame, but when questions like that come up in novels, I can’t help but be intrigued. So here we are.

Initially, I was only going to read the first page or two, just out of curiosity since both this author and his subject matter are entirely new to me. It only took that long for me to get sucked in.

~

Already, Potok seems to be a digressive author. For instance, on page 3 (which is actually page 1 of the narrative), we read this:

The fact is that gossip, rumors, mythmaking, and news stories are not appropriate vehicles for the communication of nuances of truth, those subtle tonalities that are often the truly crucial elements in a casual chain.

Some people are put off by authors who use their narration as an opportunity to get off on a philosophical tangent. Personally, I’ve never minded where an author takes his narration as long as it’s somewhere interesting, which this is.

Fellow book blogger Lydia Morris counts Chaim Potok as one of her favorite authors and describes his writing as “vivid and intense.” I can’t say I disagree because even after only five pages, I am in love with Potok’s writing. His style is almost lyrical, but without the absurdity and the flights of fancy of which so-called “lyrical” authors are sometimes guilty. Take for example this excerpt from page 4, in which Asher describes a dream he had about an ancestor he’s been taught to revere:

It was no joy waking up after a dream about that man. He left a taste of thunder in my mouth.

Both brilliant and unexpected. I think I’m going to like this book.

Of course, this completely throws off the reading schedule I had planned for the summer. But now that “little Asher Lev” has elbowed his way to the top of my nightstand stack, I think he plans to stay.

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9 thoughts on “First Impressions: My Name Is Asher Lev

  1. I’ll join the queue awaiting your review of this vivid, astonishing book. (I wish I knew more about the background, though: I’m sure I’m missing a lot of what would be obvious to other readers). Speaking of vivid novels about fictional painters, have you read Kipling’s The Light That Failed or Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (upon which another deligthful Alec Guinness film is based – though it selects the humor and vitality and leaves out the agonizing sorrow)? Joyce Cary was in Oxford during the war, but I don’t know about any Inklings connections. His Northern Irish background is interesting to compare with the Lewises’, though: see A House of Children (1941).

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    1. I’m afraid I haven’t heard of either of those books. Part of the reason I decided to read My Name Is Asher Lev is because I thought a book about and by an artist might give me a better idea of what goes into creating visual art. I’ll keep those two books in mind for if in case I want to delve further into this topic later on. (Especially the one by Kipling, as I love his poetry but haven’t read his fiction yet.)

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