Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Hannah Coulter

It’s the year 2000 and Hannah Coulter is 78 years old. She’s the title character in Wendell Berry’s novel and she spends the novel telling the reader about her life in a Kentucky farming community. She doesn’t just tell the reader what happens, though. She reflects about her life, her community, and the role that community plays in her life and how it fits into the world at large. Much of her story is being told to her nephew, Andy Catlett.

As an 18 year-old, Hannah marries Virgil Feltner who didn’t come back from World War II. A few years after Virgil’s death, she marries Nathan Coulter. She talks of this marriage as her “long” marriage. But her first marriage still seems fresh in her mind. She remembers it with youth and innocence and all of the romance that goes with that. She recognizes that the marriage was never allowed to grow old – for better or for worse. Her marriage to Nathan, who also fought in World War II but came home with memories of Okinawa and doesn’t die until he’s in his 70’s, gets to grow old with both good times and bad times but always with the strength of their character and their community.

So much of Wendell Berry’s writing involves loss. Hannah’s story is no different. She deals with the loss of her first husband and eventually the loss of her second husband. Her children move away from the family farm and she lives to see significant members of her community pass away. The loss of family farming as a way of life is especially difficult for Hannah and Nathan as they live throughout the majority of the twentieth century seeing numerous technological changes that  they don’t always consider to be for the better. The great losses of Hannah’s life are dealt with but not in a way in which she “gets over” them. The losses themselves never go away. Hannah just goes on living her life with them and in spite of them. The learning to live with them takes her most of her life:

As I have told it over, the past visible again in the present, the dead living still in their absence, this dream of time seems to come to rest in eternity. My mind, I think, has started to become, it is close to being, the room of love where the absent are present, the dead are alive, time is eternal, and all the creatures prosperous. The room of love is the love that holds us all, and it is not ours. It goes back before we were born. It goes all the way back. It is Heaven’s. Or it is Heaven, and we are in it only by willingness. By whose love, Andy Catlett, do we love this world and ourselves and one another? Do you think we invented it ourselves? I ask with confidence, for I know you know we didn’t.

I’ve never been one to choose between plot-driven stories and stories that are not but, of the latter, Hannah Coulter is one of the best.

 

The Gift of Asher Lev

Master of the Universe, how You run Your world. To me You give this gift so I cannot live without the scents in which the gift finds life; to Rocheleh You give a curse so she cannot go anywhere near those scents. If there is wisdom here, it escapes me. Unless You wish to show irrevocably that the gift is mine alone; that there is no future for it in my family; that it begins and ends with Asher Lev. Is that it? Asher Lev, artist. Asher Lev, troubler. Asher Lev, dead end.

In Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev, Asher has a few conversations with the Master of the Universe. I say conversations but Asher is the only one doing the talking or at least the thinking to himself. In this sequel to the novel  My Name is Asher LevAsher is now 45, married with two children, and living in France still in exile from his Ladover Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

Gift

He still lives in conflict with his faith and his art while continuing to uphold both. As twenty years have passed, it’s now obvious that this tension won’t go away and this knowledge gives Asher a kind of melancholy strength as he deals with situations that bring his family back to Brooklyn.

After reading both novels back to back (second time for both), the endings for both stand out for their lack of resolution. The reader gets the idea that Asher will be living with this unresolved tension for the rest of his life.

The plot of this novel slowly and thoughtfully proceeds to a major decision for Asher and his family; however, much of the novel consists of the thoughts that go through Asher’s mind as he edges closer and closer to what could be considered inevitable. Some of those thoughts come out as prayers to the Master of the Universe. Most of these prayers are anything but pious. As the brutal honesty in Asher’s art causes much of his conflict, that same honesty finds its way into Asher’s inward heart and prayers.

 

My Name is Asher Lev

I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all – in the way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.

Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things.

But I will not apologize. It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.

asher lev

Asher Lev’s father works to set up Hasidic yeshivas (Jewish schools) throughout post-War Europe while his son Asher stays in Brooklyn continuing to pursue his artistic gifts. Both of these passions collide to become the core conflict in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev. In this novel, Potok does for faith and art what he does for faith and learning in The Chosen and The Promise.

Asher’s father never truly comes to terms with Asher’s gift and passion. As a child, Asher, himself, doesn’t fully understand it. In spite of his parent’s love for him, they don’t know what to make of his drawing and painting. It is interesting, though, that once a week on the Sabbath, all differences are set aside.

Potok portrays Asher and his parents with so much grace and subtlety that the reader understands both sides of this conflict even if Potok’s sympathies are with Asher. It’s also amazing how realistically Potok gives Asher’s Rebbe, the leader of his Hasidic community, the wisdom to know that while Asher will stand out as different, his talent and desire won’t be squashed. The Rebbe does his best to keep Asher within his Hasidic faith even if Asher’s talent moves him into what could be considered dangerous territory. And by the end of the novel, the Rebbe has appeared to succeed. While some traditions may go by the wayside and Asher leaves his community, he continues to practice both his faith and his art.

potok

As Asher’s faith world isn’t sure where his art belongs, his art world isn’t sure where his faith belongs. When Asher attempts to hide his Hasidic side curls behind his ears, his mentor tells him to either keep them where they are or cut them off, but don’t try to hide them. As a teenager, Asher talks to his agent about how his art might influence the world, she tells him:

Art is not for people who want to make the world holy…Do you understand me, Asher Lev? If you want to make the world holy, stay in Brooklyn.

Asher ultimately determines his rationale for painting as he compares his work to his father’s:

I wanted to paint the same way my father wanted to travel and work for the Rebbe. My father worked for Torah. I worked for – what? How could I explain it? For beauty? No. Many of the pictures I painted were not beautiful. For what, then? For a truth I did not know how to put into words. For a truth I could only bring to life by means of color and line and texture and form.

For me personally, I could read this novel over and over again without getting tired of it. Being able to look back over the decades since I first read it, I see how it helps me reconcile my own faith with my love for art and literature.

 

 

 

Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow

Jayber Crow

Here on the river I have known peace and beauty such as I never knew in any other place. There is always work here that I need to be doing and I have many worries, for life on the edge seems always threatening to go over the edge. But I am always surprised, when I look back on times here that I know to have been laborious or worrisome or sad, to discover that they were never out of the presence of peace and beauty, for here I have been always in the world itself.

Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow is a lot of things. It’s the story of the decline of a way of life. It’s a weaving together of stories about small southern town antics told by its barber. It’s the weaving together of thoughts and ideas about philosophy, theology and economics also from the point of view of Port William, Kentucky’s barber. It’s the story of one man’s vocation, community and purpose. And it’s an odd but beautiful story of unrequited love.

For me personally, though, it’s a novel that in its own little way got me through a dark time in my life. During the week of Father’s Day in 2009, my wife and kids and I drove down to Myrtle Beach to hang out by the ocean for a few days. It was in the midst of what is now sometimes called The Great Recession and I had been unemployed for four months. I remember it being unusual because during most vacations I think of coming home and going to work again. With this trip, I kept wondering what was the point of going home.

But on the beach by the ocean I happened to read Jayber Crow for the first time and it was also my first time reading Wendell Berry. The title character, also the above mentioned barber, learns early on in his life that he doesn’t like dealing with what he calls “the man behind the desk” – which for him represents anything organizational, institutional, or corporate. He proceeds through his life to determine his own community, friendships and purpose outside of “the man behind the desk”. I can’t say that I’m completely free from this idea as Jayber but in 2009 it was nice to know there was someone -whether Jayber or Berry or both – who felt the same way I do on many days. And it was nice to know that someone – even fictionally – succeeds in separating himself from these things.

I also found a kindred spirit in Jayber as he talks about his relationship with the church in his small town. In addition to barbering, he also serves as the church’s janitor. He never really addresses his reason for going but always stresses how he feels like an outside man even when he was inside – but he kept going.  I loved the way he said that some of his best ideas came when he was NOT listening to the sermons that were being preached. I don’t know if this was one of those ideas but it jumped out at me on the beach and it hasn’t left me yet; hopefully it never will:

I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.

 

 

 

 

 

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

And how cunningly spirit and body are knit together. A slip of the knife and you create an idiot. If this is so, why not the reverse? Could you sew and snip, and patch together a genius? What mysteries remain to be revealed in the nervous system, that web of structures both material and ethereal, that network of threads that runs throughout the body, composed of a thousand Ariadne’s clues, all leading to the brain…

I figured it was about time I read something by Margaret Atwood. I selected Alias Grace because it was the only Atwood novel that was still checked in at my library and I’m glad I did. I have not seen any part of the Netflix Original Series based on this novel so I’m not able to make any comparisons.

alias grace

In 1850’s Canada, Grace Marks, a “celebrated murderess” tells her psychiatrist Dr. Simon that the murder confession she gave to her lawyer during her trial ten years past contained what her lawyer wanted her to say so as to avoid the death penalty (which she did). So as Grace tells her doctor her own story, a seed of doubt is immediately planted in the readers mind about the reliability of Grace’s story. Sometimes unreliable narrators come off as too contrived but Atwood perfectly uses this tool to build the psychological suspense that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

Not only do we get Grace’s story but we get the thoughts and reactions of all those around her. Some look at Grace from a spiritual and religious sense either convincing themselves she is a sort of demon or making attempts to save her soul and reform her. Others see her from a scientific and medical standpoint as someone who is either insane and too far gone or as someone who’s mind can be put back together.

Atwood weaves all of these viewpoints together to provide a different type of mystery or thriller. While the reader may not question whether Grace has something to do with the murders of her employers, they don’t know exactly the how and the why of it. That’s the real mystery.

Atwood’s characterization of Grace provides another contrast that adds to the mystery. As Grace tells her experiences to her doctor, the reader gets minute details about her work ethic as a servant. In another story, this might bore the reader but here it provides one more chilling reason to wonder how Grace may have become a murderess. And Grace’s faith adds the final dimension to her mesmerizing story:

As for what I was named after, it might have been the hymn. My mother never said so, but then there were many things she never said.

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me!/I once was lost, but now I’m found,/Was blind but now I see.

I hope I was named after it. I would like to be found. I would like to see. Or to be seen. I wonder if, in the eye of God, it amounts to the same thing. As it says in the Bible, For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face.

If it is face to face, there must be two looking.

Through Atwood’s storytelling, the reader sees Grace clearer, maybe even “face to face”.

The Promise by Chaim Potok

promise

There’s a scene in Chaim Potok’s The Promise in which Danny Saunders, studying for his Doctorate, takes his fingers to the side of his face and tugs on the now imaginary earlocks that were once there. They are one part of his Hasidic upbringing that he chose to leave behind as he studies Psychology instead of taking his father’s place as leader of his community. Continuing from Potok’s The Chosen, Danny seamlessly moves between his Old World Hasidism and his new intellectual and professional pursuits. It’s not that he hasn’t had his share of struggles and conflicts but he now appears comfortable in both of his worlds.

Reuven Malter, on the other hand, has conflicts within his own world as he studies for his rabbinical ordination. In his Talmud class, he uses more modern methods of interpretation as opposed to the traditional ones much to the dismay of some of his teachers. Reuven’s conflict is wonderfully expressed in this sarcastic rant characteristically listened to by Danny in a supportive and gentle manner:

“We are at war, friend. Didn’t you know we are at war?”

Danny said nothing.

The enemy surrounds us. The evil forces of secularism are everywhere. Look under the bed before you say the Kriat Shma at night. Look under the bed before you pray the Shacharit Service in the morning. And while you’re at it check the books on your desk and look in your typewriter and close the window because they come in with the wind. Did you know they come in with the wind?”

“All right,” Danny said quietly.

“The hell it’s all right. We become like dead branches and last year’s leaves and what the hell good are we for ourselves and the world in a mental ghetto. The hell it’s all right.”

To have a friend to whom one can truly express their frustrations is presented as a huge blessing by Potok and I think it’s what continues to fascinate me with Danny and Reuven. Their friendship stays strong.

While a rabinnical ordination may not usually be intense drama, Potok brilliantly lets the tension mount between Reuven and his teachers to the point that his oral examination becomes a nail-biter for the reader.

How disagreements over tradition can cause hurt and pain both endured and inflicted becomes a major theme for Danny and Reuven and the friends they make as they continue their spiritual and intellectual journeys.

 

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

 

chosen

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen introduced me to two of my favorite characters in all the books I’ve read.

The narrator, Reuven Malter, an Orthodox Jewish teenager living in Brooklyn in 1945, observes the commandments and believes in God. His father is the one who has brought him up this way and is also the one who recognizes his son’s intelligence. While his father studies the Talmud with Reuven, he encourages his son to think critically and on a more scientific and historical level than most Orthodox Jews would during this time.

Danny Saunders, a Hasidic Jewish teenager living a few blocks from Reuven, follows more rigid traditional practices and is next in line after his father to take over as leader of his sect. However, like Reuven, Danny also has a brilliant mind and secretly reads works by Darwin and Freud which have been forbidden by his Hasidic community and his father.

potok

The two boys meet during an intense baseball game between their respective schools. And they become fast friends in spite of their differences as evidenced by Reuven’s comment during their first conversation:

“I’m all mixed up about you. I’m not trying to be funny or anything. I really am mixed up about you. You look like a Hasid, but you don’t sound like one. You don’t sound like what my father says Hasidim are supposed to sound like. You sound almost as if you don’t believe in God.”

And as their friendship grows, Reuven continues to have questions. Questions that Danny doesn’t necessarily answer but is comfortable with Reuven asking:

…Danny was patient, as patient as my father, and slowly I began to understand the system  of psychological thought Freud had constructed. And I, too, became upset. Freud contradicted everything I had ever learned. What I found particularly upsetting was the fact that Danny didn’t seem to have rejected what Freud taught. I began to wonder how it was possible for the ideas of the Talmud and the thinking of Freud to live side by side within one person. It seemed to me that one or the other would have to give way. When I told this to Danny, he shrugged, said nothing, and went back to his reading.

As the story unfolds leading to the emotional conclusion between Danny and his father, the boys learn to think on their own. But what has always attracted me to this story is the fact that neither boy walks away from his faith. They question many aspects of it and choose to eliminate ideas or practices that they can’t reconcile to the world they see themselves living in – but they continue their religious and intellectual journeys.

Potok manages to pull the reader into these boys’ worlds with only ever so brief explanations for those (like myself) who might not be familiar with the Jewish culture. The author teaches the reader about this world while they think they are only reading a good story. An amazing feat!

This is the third time I’ve read The Chosen and I’m still moved by the friendship of these two boys and the fathers who let them go.