Drama of biblical proportions
Peter Craven The Secret Chord By Geraldine Brooks Hachette, 382pp, $39.99 (HB)
Australian-born, US-based Geraldine Brooks, who started her writing career in journalism, has had staggering success as a novelist. Her 2005 second novel, March, which imagines the life of the father of Little Women creator Louisa May Alcott, won a Pulitzer prize.
Since then she has written grand-theme novels such as Caleb’s Crossing that have made The New York Times bestsellers list and offered their readers the satisfactions of spectacular writing in the manner of the Hollywood epics of the late 1950s and early 60s. Ben-Hur- style stuff, full of the grandeur and colour and silken tackle of history.
It’s not a crime: Brooks’s countrywoman Colleen McCullough did a mean trade in Roman erudition and chicanery, and who can quibble with the idea of a fiction that marches to a grand beat amid purple sunsets and soaring prose?
Brooks is no master of narrative and her prose aspires to sumptuousness without being precise. Her new novel, The Secret Chord, may well be to your taste but it won’t stand up to critical scrutiny.
This is a novel about King David, he of Goliath and the house that you-know-who was born to. The king of Israel whom Saul tried to kill with a javelin when he was playing his harp, who loved Saul’s son Jonathan and in the days of his kingly glory had a man killed in battle so he could grab hold of his wife Bathsheba. Whereupon the Lord turned against David. At any rate he punished him by allowing his son Absalom to rebel against him.
Bruce Beresford’s 1985 film King David is said to be one of the greatest flops in Hollywood history. I wonder if it’s because the story of David, as we have it in the books of Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, is so dramatic it defies further dramatisation?
I remember listening spellbound to Richard Burton doing the death of Absalom — was it on the David Frost show or an early Michael Parkinson? — recalling from memory the whole passage from the deep well of his Welsh chapel childhood. Over and over, with a rising, understated panic that did not need Burton to make it plangent, the king waiting for news of his rebellious son’s fate asks if the young man Absalom is safe:
“... the king said unto Cushi, Is the young man Absalom safe? And Cushi answered, The enemies of my lord the king, and all that rise against thee to do thee hurt, be as that young man is. And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’’
It’s worth remembering that David was not only the ancestor of Jesus on his mother’s side, but the tradition ascribes to him all that stuff about yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, yea though we remember Zion, I look up into the hills from whence cometh my help.
David is not only the great tragic hero of the Old Testament, he is also the great poet, the speaker of the greatest poetry of the Old Testament and by extension the New. David’s Psalms are the foundation of the lyrical poetry of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
So who would have thought it? Brooks, born a Catholic in western Sydney, is now not only a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, but a convert to Judaism, though apparently she draws the line at God. She’s a cultural Jew (which one might have thought we all were).
It’s worth belabouring these matters because David is one of the biggest figures in any canon, sacred or profane, and, of course, he is transgressive (which is what makes him tragic), which led John Henry Newman, that great English convert to Catholicism, to say he was guilty of “treachery” and “adultery”.
Brooks brandishes her cultural Hebraism in the weirdest way by announcing at the outset that Saul will be “Shaul”, Samuel “Shmuel”, Solomon “Shlomo” and so on. This seems needlessly mad, though in practice we simply substitute the familiar for the unfamiliar, reading Natan as Nathan, Yonatan as Jonathan, Avshalom as Absalom.
Brooks’s attempt at defamiliarisation is too big an ask in a world where the King James Bible has gone before her. And there’s a sense in which that’s true of her whole endeavour. The Secret Chord is a colourful costume drama, full of bits of recapitulated biblical music and plenty of dramatic incident, but by necessity it lacks that stark and eerie quality of the David story in the Bible that is a bit like a documentary made up of fragments of epic and lyrical poetry as well as a tragic drama in some of the greatest free verse ever written.
None of which is to deny this is a grandly conceived, high-colour mythico-historical reconstruction that may delight anyone who wants a sword-and-sandals epic that recalls the rugged beauty of the Holy Land and the terrible things that have always been done there.
If your taste is for biblical cinema of the mind that may translate into, say, an impassioned miniseries (and perhaps be transfigured in the process) then The Secret Chord may well be your cup of glory and abomination.
The structure is certainly seductive enough. Nathan, the man possessed of prophetic powers who on the horrific occasion of his first encounter with David goes into a trance in which he announces how the giant killer will come into his kingdom, sets about interviewing the various figures who have been intimate with David’s rise to power.
He talks to Abigail, David’s wife, then to his first wife, Mikhal (Michal). Mikhal is the sister of Yonatan (Jonathan, whose love surpassed the love of women) and she is a woman with long dark hair and natural beauty though the light has gone out of her eyes. She adored David and allowed him to have sex with her the same way he did with Jonathan. And he would come to her wet with the sweat of his tumbles in the hay with her brother. She was always ‘‘your sister’’ not ‘‘my wife’’ when the two male lovers talked. This is done with a real edge of drama and with an imaginative largesse.
Elsewhere The Secret Chord (with its title from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah) sticks to the foothills of the David story. Brooks gestures to the heights, she amplifies her awareness of the mountains, but she is never going to climb them, or equal them, or look down from them.
Milton’s Paradise Lost is a bit like a lost chapter of the Bible writ epical. Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers amplifies the extraordinary romance-like quality of that last part of Genesis to make it like one of Shakespeare’s late plays and brilliantly inhabits a Biblical idiom.
Brooks cannot match these masterpieces though the brutality and the grandeur of the original clings to her epic novel like a mist that keeps hinting, ever more insistently, at a work of immeasurably greater power and glory from the dark heart of the backward abyss of time.