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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Looking back after 50 yeas on The Chosen

This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Chaim Potok's (first?) novel, The Chosen - never read it, started it yesterday. Potok's writing style would never be called literary, artistic, or beautiful - but he gets the job done in his workmanlike, plodding manner. There are so many aspects of this novel that are quaint and dated. First, there's not a hint of sexuality (in fact half-way through every significant character is male; the men are weirdly deracinated and desexualized - widowed, or completely isolated from their wives; and the boys, god forbid!, never talk about girls). Think of what Roth could do - and did - with this material (in his early stories in Goodbey,columbus, right through to his last novel, which had a sports-coach character much like the coach in The Chosen)! The story is about two orthodox Jewish teenage boys in Brooklyn, in 1945 (there are various references to the war, but more as time-check than as a true plot element): one of the boys, Reuven (the narrator) is from a somewhat emancipated if not assimilated household, and aspires to become a mathematician. The other - the extremely brilliant and athletic Danny - is the son of a Hasidic rabbi, from a completely unassimilated Orthodox culture, and he has no choice in life but to inherit from his father the leadership of the tight-knit community. The boys start off as rivals and become best friends; the long scene in which Danny takes Reuven to meet his father and gain his father's approval is one of the many weirdly desexualized scenes in the novel: it reads exactly like a guy taking his girlfriend to meet the family. Potok could have had some fun with this scene, but he's a deadly serious writer, sometimes a plodding writer. If he does get a gag going - such as the washed-up prize fighter in the hospital ward with Reuven and his constant references to 10-rounders and so forth, he hits the note again and again, in case we missed it. When it comes to the back story - forget it, Potok has Reuven's scholarly Dad go on for pages and pages about the history of the Hasidic movement, etc. - pausing once in a while to say something like, "I'm getting tired," or "Are you getting tired?" When a character ever asks that, the answer has to be: Yes! It must have taken some courage to publish this novel, as who would have thought a novel about internal struggles among Orthodox Jews would find a wide readership? (Roth had proven there was a wide readership for contemporary Jewish fiction - but her wrote about fully assimilated Jews - not these throwbacks to the 15th century). And the bet paid off: for despite all these flaws I've highlighted in this post, at the end of the day The Chosen is a sweet story, and we are caught up immediately in the lives of the characters and in their plight, their yearnings, their flaws. Potok is no stylist, but he's a storyteller - equally, or more, important; I don't know for sure, but I think The Chosen was made into a successful film, and that's no surprise, either - Potok has a good sense for dramatic scenes - the softball game that opens the novel, the Reuven's visit to the Hasidic service - that, with his plodding dialogue pared down - good sharpen the narrative and bring it even more to life.

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