Forget about multiple points of view: My Name Is Asher Lev is basically Asher's diary, except instead of writing about who he's got a crush on and what he ate for lunch at school, he's writing about being a little Picasso who's also a pariah in his Hasidic congregation.
This novel's tone is subjective because it's told from a single point of view (Asher's), and therefore all the events that are described are filtered through Asher's lens: if he's upset/thrilled/annoyed about something, we definitely know about it. Because Asher is an artist, his point of view is particularly—how shall we say—artisitc:
I watched the mashpia put his hands on the desk, saw him still talking to me, and thought the street was crying and wondered how I could paint the street crying. I thought I had said something like that to myself before, but I could not remember when or where it might have been. The street is crying, I thought, and I'm sitting here. It's my street and I can't draw it. I want to paint it, I have to paint it while it's crying, and why am I sitting here? (131.1)
It takes a pretty unique mind to imagine a street crying, but then Asher's mind is about as unique as they come. It's passages like this that remind us how subjective the tone of this novel is. And passages like this one:
I remember drawing a building burning, a large marble building set in a green glade and surrounded by gentle hills. I drew it in pastels and made the marble of the building pale blue and veined with small wandering rivulets of white. There was a golden dome with a trim of purple arabesques; there were tall arched windows, somewhat like the windows of the Ladover building. I drew flames pouring from the windows and swirling around the roof and eating into the marble. My mother asked me what it was, and I said it was the library in Alexandria, the one the Moslems had ordered burned because its books could not be as important as the Koran. (121.1)
Asher draws this after his mom tells him about the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, which contained a number of important Jewish texts. Asher's unique way of perceiving the world leads him to create this drawing, and to make it look like the Ladover building in his own neighborhood.
Asher's subjectivity sometimes gets in the way of his objectivity. Even though he's trying to clear his name and tell the story he believes is true, he's still doing it from a perspective—his own. And before we get all philosophical and start stroking our Socratic beards and wondering whether a subjective point of view can be capital-T True, we should keep in mind that every story is told from someone's point of view, which means the truth of the story is relative to its storyteller. Is your mind blown yet?
Even though Asher Lev is a fictional character, he's still writing an account of his own life—last time we checked, that's called an autobiography. Add to that the fact that this novel is about Asher's transition from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, and we've got ourselves an autobiographical coming of age novel on our hands.
The novel begins with Asher as a young child, discovering the heady freedom of being both a little kid and an artistic genius:
I remember those early years of my life, those first years of my efforts with pens and pencils and crayons. They were very happy years; laughter came easily to both me and to my mother. We played. We took long walks. (6.4)
The novel is structured around the chronology of Asher's existence. For the first twenty years of his life, we go where he goes, see what he sees, and essentially grow up with him. We follow him through his childhood into the tragedy of his uncle's death and his mother's depression, his struggles with his artistic gift, and his banishment from the community he loves to dearly.
The story ends with Asher coming into his own as an artist, which is a sign that he is becoming an adult—or, to put it more technically, "coming of age":
'The apprentice has become a master.' (362.3)
When Anna Schaeffer says this to Asher after his second art show, the implication is that he has outgrown his training with Jacob Kahn and is now ready to become a practicing artist in his own right. He's such an adult that he even gets forcefully emancipated from his family. Welcome to the real world, kid.
Could this title be about…identity? (Hint: yes, it definitely could.) Think of it as the response to a question: someone's asking "Who are you?" and our heroic protagonist responds, "I am Asher Lev." Asher is telling us who he is.
But why is it about identity? Well, because the book is. Chaim Potok takes us on the journey of one boy's quest to understand who he is, and to figure out the contradictory elements of himself that are sort of at war with each other: yeshiva student, artist, son, etc.
The ending is pretty tragic, because it's basically Asher being cast out of his community and shunned by his parents. Not a great start to a career, huh?
I came out of the apartment house. It was cold and dark. I looked up. My parents stood framed in the living-room window. I hailed a cab and climbed inside. It pulled slowly away from the curb. I turned in my seat and looked out the rear window of the cab. My parents were still watching me through our living room window. (369.2)
The ending emphasizes one of the book's themes, which is the struggle between individual and community. All his life, Asher has depended on his community to make him feel included and whole. But when his artwork is difficult for other members of the community to accept, he's got to break free and deal with the fact that he's an individual who must strike out on his lonesome—especially if he wants to be an artist.
In showing us his final interaction with his parents before leaving Brooklyn for good, the ending of the book yanks at our heartstrings, and for a good reason: good endings are supposed to make us feel something. In this instance, Asher feels the pain of leaving his parents and his world behind, and the uncertainty of having to be on his own for the first time in his life. His future looks hazy and confusing and his past looks like one big disaster.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this ending is the fact that Asher turns around in the cab to see that his parents are still watching him out the apartment window. This leaves the reader with some hope that, although there is a major ideological rift between Asher and his family, his parents will always love him and watch out for him.
One of the Big Apple's most famous boroughs, Brooklyn is well known for its literary and artistic (and hipster) communities. If you're going to grow up to be a prodigy painter, there's pretty much no better place to be born than Brooklyn. This is because Brooklyn is full of fantastic things to draw:
In the spring, [Mama and I] sometimes went rowing in Prospect Park, not far from where we lived. She was an awkward rower, and she would laugh nervously whenever she fell backward off her seat from a skimming pull at the oars. But we went anyway, and often I took my crayons and pad with me and drew her as she rowed, and drew, too, the look of the water beneath the sky and the surface movements stirred up by her erratic oars. (7.4)
Asher is captivated by the busyness and color of New York City, and it serves as the foundation for some of his earliest paintings. Here he rhapsodizes about his city street:
I remember drawing the contours of that world…the wide street that was Brooklyn Parkway, eight lanes of traffic, the red brick and white stone of the apartment houses, the neat cement squares of the sidewalks, the occasional potholes in the asphalt; the people of the street, bearded men, old women gossiping on the benches beneath the trees, litle boys in skullcaps and side-curls, young wives in long-sleeved dresses and fancy wigs—all the married women of our group concealed their natural hair beneath wigs for reasons of modesty. (6.1)
As evidenced by this quote, Brooklyn is also home to one of New York's largest Jewish populations. And it has been for a long time: the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Borough Park and Williamsburg contain some of the strongest Hasidic communities in the city—they roll deep in these parts. The setting's sense of community provides Asher with a strong thematic background for many of his paintings.
Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.—Picasso
Quipped by none other than the famous Picasso, this quote is about how pictures can tell us a lot about the real world. To get a little more sophisticated, art is a "lie" because it shows us something, but it's not real—a painting of a can is just a painting of a can and not a can, right? But even though art isn't really real, it tells us a lot about the real world around us.
Case in point: Asher's Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II: these paintings (a picture of his mom being crucified on a window) tell us something very true—namely, that Rivkeh suffered a good deal because her son and husband were always fighting over her son's art.
Clear, direct prose—Potok writes in a way everyone can understand and never really tries any fancy stuff.
No frills or fancy word-stuff as far as the eye can see. This novel is written in a direct and to-the-point manner, using basic language to directly tell the reader what is going on in the narrative. Sure, we know what Asher's feeling, but that's only because he outlines it for us directly, like in this paragraph about how little he wants to leave Crown Heights for Vienna:
I lay in my bed with my eyes closed and did not want to leave my room. I thought at one time during that week that a violent snowstorm raged outside; but I was not sure and I did not care. I did not want to leave my room. I did not want to leave my street. (93.2)
A good explanation for the simplistic language may be the fact that Asher is writing from a kid's point of view, and kids aren't exactly great pontificators. The major benefit of the matter of fact and concise style is that the story is very easy to understand, which means we as readers can spend our time dealing with its poignant emotions instead of looking up words in the dictionary:
I would not paint on Shabbos. I spent Shabbos mornings praying and reviewing the Torah reading. I spent Shabbos afternoons studying a book on Hasidus I had brought with me. Jacob Kahn spent Shabbos mornings on the beach with his wife and Shabbos afternoons painting. (258.3)
The cultural gap between Asher, a religious Jew, and Jacob Kahn, a non-practicing Jew, is about fifty miles wide here. And because it's laid out in Asher's simple and direct language, it is far easier to grasp that it would have been if it had been written in flowery purple prose.
The mythic ancestor is that dude Asher keeps on having dreams about: the mysterious great-grandpa who made a ton of money for the goyische landowner before setting out to wander continental Europe on his own, teaching everyone he met about the Torah and Judaism.
Asher's relationship to his mythic ancestor is primarily one of fear and guilt. He sees in his mythic ancestor a presence much greater than himself, and doubts his ability to ever live up to it:
I was told about him so often during my very early years that he began to appear in my dreams: a man of mythic dimensions, tall, dark-bearded, powerful of mind and body; a brilliant entrepreneur; a beneficent supporter of academies of learning; a legendary traveler, and author of the Hebrew work Journeys to Distant Lands. The great man would come to me in my dreams and echo my father's queries about the latest bare wall I had decorated and the sacred margins I had that day filled with drawings. It was no joy waking up after a dream about that man. He left a taste of thunder in my mouth. (4.1)
The mythic ancestor is an important symbol in this book because he represents Asher's scholarly heritage and the hardship his father's family suffered in Europe. The mythic ancestor exists in this book in order to be juxtaposed with Asher: the fact that Asher has chosen to become an artist rather than follow the scholarly family tradition causes him to feel guilty. This guilt is partly what inspires him to paint Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II, and we know how that turns out.
Pretty much everyone can agree that Russia in the mid-1940s and 50s wasn't exactly Disneyworld, or even Epcot. Several times throughout the book, Potok reminds us of the barren and miserable wasteland that is Russia under the rule of Josef Stalin. Russia is a place where Jewish people suffer persecution—it is also the place where Asher's family came from.
Russia and Russia-related hardships are brought up frequently in order, once again, to juxtapose the relatively safe and comfortable life Asher lives in Crown Heights with the brutal and difficult one his ancestors lived in Russia. Asher struggles to come to terms with the suffering in Russia, often through his interactions with Yudel Krinsky:
Inside my room, I lay on my bed with my eyes closed and thought about the man from Russia. I saw his face clearly: the nervous eyes, the beaked nose, the pinched features. That face had lived eleven years in a land of ice and darkness. I could not imagine what it was like to live in ice and darkness. I put my hands over my eyes. (41.1)
Much of Asher's artwork ends up being about the struggles encountered by his ancestors and contemporaries in lands less fortunate than his own.
You don't have to be a practicing Christian to be familiar with fact that crucifixion is a major symbol for Christianity. For Ladover Hasids who do not believe in the redeeming power of Jesus Christ, however, it's a very taboo thing to look at or even talk about the crucifixion. You can definitely bet they didn't line up to see The Passion of the Christ.
Crucifixion has two functions in this book: 1) as a symbol of intense suffering and 2) as a symbol of taboo ideas and concepts. Asher first sees the crucifixion of Jesus Christ depicted in paintings by Christian painters; he learns very early on that the ultra-religious Hasidic community isn't exactly down with Christian art.
Asher latches onto the idea of the crucifixion as a symbol of intense suffering for a cause one believes in—otherwise known as martyrdom. Later on, he uses this symbol to express his mother's attempts to reconcile the very different passions of her husband and son in Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II:
She knew there was something in the gallery I was afraid to have them see. Mama, it's a crucifixion. I made our living-room window into a crucifix and I put you on it to show the world about your waiting, your fears, your anguish. Do you understand, Mama? (355.2)
But because the crucifixion is a taboo image as far as Hasidism is concerned, the painting gets him expelled from the community. In this way, Asher himself becomes a martyr for his own art, just like Lady Gaga.
Asher Lev is the star of the show in every way—the novel is named after him, written about the events of his early life, and narrated by him. Unlike a peripheral first person narrator (Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, anyone?), a central first person narrator is in the thick of things, telling us about his or her story as it unfolds.
My Name Is Asher Lev couldn't be more clear about its first person narrative technique. We need look no further than the very first paragraph of the book to find evidence of it:
My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in the papers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion. (3.1)
The important thing to remember when you're dealing with a central narrator is that he/she may or may not be reliable. Fortunately for us, Asher Lev is about as levelheaded and reliable as they come. In fact, the whole process of writing this book is supposed to be about telling the truth and whacking through the jungle of myths and rumors spread about him since he painted the controversial paintings that rocked the Hasidic world:
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 causal chain. So it is time for the defense, for a long session in demythology. (3.4)
Asher promises to be reliable by defining his autobiography as the opposite of untruthful stuff like gossip, rumors, and mythmaking. This book is intended to capture the "nuances of truth" which no other account of Asher's life could capture otherwise.
You'd think being a genius painter would be a good thing, but Asher Lev's story is actually pretty tragic.
Asher is a gifted young artist living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He loves his family, he loves painting and drawing, all is fine and well. But he knows he's destined for something bigger than just doodling in notebooks.
Asher becomes aware of the plight of the Jewish people in Russia. He starts dreaming about his mythic ancestor, who traveled Europe being a good Hasidic scholar. He begins to paint portraits of wandering scholars and suffering Jews.
Asher's parents tell him he's going to move to Vienna with them and Asher wants absolutely nothing to do with that. Asher keeps on getting in trouble for failing at school, and his dad is really not thrilled with what a teen rebel his son's turning out to be. This stage persists for a pretty long time, like as in most of the book.
Asher grows apart from his parents enough to travel on his own. He lives in Paris like an artist, but declines to wear a beret. While in Paris, he paints Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II, and even as he does this he knows things aren't going to end well for him.
Asher's parents see Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II and pretty much disown him. The Rabbi casts him out of the Ladover community.
The setup for the novel is pretty basic: Asher Lev is a little kid who can paint and draw like an adult who's already graduated from art school. He's a pint-size Picasso, and he comes from a community that doesn't exactly take well to pint-size Piccasos. Which sets the stage for…
Asher keeps on getting in trouble with his über-religious father for painting pictures that aren't exactly beautiful. A picture of Abraham, father of the Israelites, on top of a hill surrounded by angels? Sure. But a picture of Asher's mom sick in bed? Not at all okay. This tension occupies most of the book, Asher struggling to express his gift while his loved ones get all worked up about how sacrilegious he's being.
The climax of the story comes pretty late in the book, when Asher's parents see Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II. These pictures are pretty much the height of sacrilege, because they feature both Christian imagery (the crucifixion) and Asher's family very prominently. Yikes. Although the paintings are considered the best he's ever done, they're also bad news for the Ladover Hasidic community.
Asher is cast out of his community for his controversial paintings. His father, who was already extremely distant from him, basically stops talking to him. His mother is grief-stricken because her son has disobeyed Jewish law. Asher's Rabbi asks him to leave the Ladover community in Crown Heights, and he does.
Asher learns that it is basically impossible for him to be both an artist and a religious Jew, which is pretty devastating. Ultimately, he's forced to choose his art over his religion. He leaves his parents and community to start a life on his own.
Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (201.23)
Marc Chagall (painter), (31.4)
Pablo Picasso (sculptor), (31.9)
Josef Stalin (Russian dictator), (56), (87)
The Holocaust, (71), (73)
Guido Reni (painter), (199-200)
Guernica (painting by Piccaso), (197), (199-200)
Massacre of the Innocents (painting by Guido Reni), (199-200)
Amedeo Modigliani (painter), (208)
Chaim Soutine (painter), (208)
Jules Pascin (painter), (208)
Sculptor (painting by Andrea del Sarto), (232)
School of Athens (painting by Raphael), (232)
Rembrandt (painter), (238)
Pierre Auguste Renoir (painter), (260)
Pietà (sculpture by Michelangelo), (311)
The Last Judgment (painting by Michelangelo), (315)