Today’s post is about Chaim Potok’s book, The Chosen, which I consider an excellent read as well as great studying material – for all of us: writers, booklovers, nerdy teenagers, religious folks, even conscious non-believers. I have to admit, I fell in love with this novel when I read an introduction by Shalom Auslander, where he said (the very first words before you open chapter 1): Dear God, I hated this book. I hated this book more than I hated Shakespeare, and I really hated Shakespeare. The only work I hated more than Shakespeare’s was the Old Testament, and I hated this book even more than I hated the Old Testament. Not that I had ever read it, of course.
Well, this is precisely what the teaser to a generation of fed-up, lazy, phone-addicted, tired people with a short attention span, should look like… It is also worth mentioning that Shalom Auslander isn’t alone in his hate for Shakespeare. Leo Tolstoy couldn’t stand him either. 😉
At the end of his foreword, Mr. Auslander states: This book is a mirror. It discusses the most critical questions – how do we relate to one another? What our responsibilities—to ourselves, our parents, our children?
Chaim Potok is an American and a Jew. His father came to the USA from Poland, where he had served in the Austrian army during the First World War. After crossing the Atlantic, he couldn’t, at first, grasp the difference between the Christian in America and the Christian in Poland, Europe. Life was challenging because everything was so different. Especially the new scent of freedom…
His son, the author we’ll discuss today, was part of the second generation of Jews, growing up in New York. This is a critical detail for understanding this novel. The second-generation grew up in a different culture, or rather, a complex of cultures; they experienced the beautiful and the terrible in the world on another level. They had no experience of the struggles of their fathers; they only heard about it, by word, as a tale.
The book begins from an ordinary event—a baseball game described to the smallest detail. If you don’t know how to play, you’ll learn by the end of chapter 1, I promise you! I have to add that sometimes, such detailed descriptions can bore us, or make us put the book aside, especially if we don’t give a damn about baseball or don’t know the rules, or simply watched the game once or twice in our lives, only for the views of the super-trained athletic bodies we couldn’t miss…😬
In any case, the purpose of this plain, ordinary chapter is to make a point: “the most important things that will happen to you will often come as a result of SILLY things, as you call them – “ORDINARY THINGS” is a better expression. That is the way the world IS.”
Take a moment to appreciate the simplicity, the beauty, and the magic contained in this phrase!
Chaim Potok used this trick many times in his book: the interweaving of ordinary accidents and important life-changing outcomes.
Many authors often want to surprise or scare the reader to death in the first paragraph of the story because this is what the market demands, but Potok sticks to the truth. The most horrific events start as natural, standard, familiar accidents.
I’d now like to focus your attention on such literary devices, or ‘visual capabilities’ as:
Chaim Potok uses these very often and with great success!
Let’s take a closer look at the repetition, or the “follow the eyes” formula, the use of which I truly admired in the novel The Chosen. The most important condition is to use the latest (and fresh) details you repeatedly see, preferably in a single scene or chapter. Let me give you an example: I’m sitting in my favorite restaurant (bye-bye, COVID), and all seems as usual, but I notice a cat among the pigeons: something refreshing, atypical, or unexpected. I don’t want to make her uncomfortable, but I can’t stop looking. I’m saying to myself: dammit, just eat your meal! It doesn’t help — no matter what, my eye wanders and stops on her. One time, three, five…
What is happening is that you repeatedly follow your eyes’ movement and emphasize the subject (or object) that bothers you. Stop! Get back to what you are doing. Follow your eyes — faster this time because you know exactly where the subject of your attention is. Stop! Again, get back to what you are doing. Jump this time to the object. Notice why it bothers you. Stop!
This technique is fantastic but infamously difficult to apply effectively. There’s a possibility that you’ll repeat the situation without the intention. What’s the end goal of this repetition? How should the reader feel?
Remember, there’s a world of difference between mind-numbing tautology and powerful repetition!
In Chaim Potok’s book, it sounds like this (when the hero is in the hospital):
I heard a movement next to me and turned my head. The curtain had been drawn around Mr. Savo’s bed, and I could hear people moving around. I sat up. (he has never seen this curtain before, there’s a conversation with a nurse, sleep)
When I woke up in the morning, the curtain was still drawn around Mr. Savo’s bed. I stared at it. It was light brown, and it enclosed the rear of the bed completely so that not even the metal legs of the bed could be seen. (he wonders what had happened, he goes out, asks people around)
When I came back, the curtain was still drawn around Mr. Savo’s bed, and Billy was awake. (the conversation between two boys about that curtain and Mr. Savo)
All that day the curtain remained around Mr. Savo’s bed. Every few minutes, a nurse would go behind the curtain, stay there for a while, then come out and walk back up the aisle. I kept watching nurses go in and out of the curtain around Mr. Savo’s bed.
As you see, that light brown curtain became a hero of this chapter…
The author also uses a lot of inversion in his scenes and syntax, as well as brilliantly applying antithesis — two vastly different boys with the similar background, two families believing in the same God, two opposing areas in New York, two minds: phenomenal and traditional, two ways of feeling and processing of emotions and experiences.
The simplicity of syntax and vocabulary allows us to be immersed within and enjoy the vivid discourse of this work. The author is not trying to create new words, meanings, or images. This book is about life, and it delivers.
To conclude, I would like to remark that the essential theme in this story is the meaning of human life. Living is embracing life as it comes and doing as much as you can to feel fulfilled. Existing is survival. Living is choosing happiness; existing is being right here and right now physically.
So, are you really living or just existing?
Because a fly also lives…