Portrait of a young refugee artist in wartime New York
My Life with Goya, by Andrew Potok. New York: Arbor House. 304 pp. $17.95. This book -- funny, lively, sentient, and wise -- is about a young man, a refugee from the Nazi assault on Poland, coming of age in New York City during the war, training himself to be an artist. But it is more than that; it is proof of the sweet uses of adversity. Perhaps in this author's case, in which the adversity was the progressive loss of his vision, the word ``sweet'' is out of place, but he has certainly produced a sweetly wonderful novel.
Andrew Potok was an accomplished painter before his loss of eyesight, and his early years closely parallel those of his main character. Potok's first book, ``Ordinary Daylight,'' chronicles the effect of his encroaching blindness on himself, his family, and his art. And this affliction, though no harder to bear for an artist than for anyone else, called on him to find a new outlet for his creative talent. That new outlet was writing.
Potok writes at his home in Vermont, aided materially by a special computer that allows him to make out the letters, greatly enlarged, on an oversized screen. The computer also has a voice simulation device so that it can ``read'' back to him, with its mechanical voice, what he has written. It is a fortuitous and fortunate combination of creativity and technology.
``My Life With Goya'' captures not only the spirit of the young man, Adam Krinsky -- goaded, harrassed, and gratified by the desire to paint -- but also a whirl of characters: friends, relatives, and lovers, who help and sometimes hinder his efforts. Of all of them, none is more delightfully drawn than Adam's uncle Bolek, a bear of a man who narrowly escaped from his native Poland and is determined to make a rich life for himself and his nephew in the new land. Bolek loves America and its freedom, and New York and its commercial maelstrom. He is a furrier, and he works at it like an artist, all the time trying to draw the young Adam into work with him.
``In America,'' he tells Adam with zeal, ``there is nothing to hide, not in the real America.'' But Adam, despite Bolek's energetic desire to forget the past and his hatred of Europe, is drawn back to discover the fate of his parents, who did not make it out of the Holocaust. Bolek's practical wisdom tells him nothing can be gained from going back to the past, or even thinking about going back, and he tries to hide the horrors of Treblinka from Adam.
In his pursuit of a life as a painter, Adam meets many other artists, some joyful about their work, some morbid and despondent, some devoted to beauty, some single-mindedly political. His own hero is the Spanish painter Goya, whose uncompromising depictions of war amaze and intrigue him. In the ``Disaster of War'' etchings, Adam finds the true role of the artist, not only to depict and delight, but also to take a position regardless of the consequences: ``Goya dealt with it first by outraged moralizing; then, understanding that he himself was as capable as any man of involvement in the horror, he simply rendered it, without commentary. Finally his art became mad.''
The book resounds with the rapid cacaphonous dialogue of the great city, everything from the happy chatter of friends to the contentious but affectionate squalling of large and crowded families. Through it all, Adam, vacillating between stubborn single-mindedness and wide-eyed acceptance, learns the lessons of early life, the meaning of what he has inherited and assimilated from all the people and events that make him what he is to become as an artist. And from these lessons of survival, of the limits of human hatred and affection, of the process of endless regeneration, there emerges a valuable and essential American story.
Despite his diminished eyesight, the author has retained his ability to paint, perhaps not with oils, but certainly with words.