Drama of bib­li­cal pro­por­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven was found­ing editor of Quar­terly Es­say.

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.

Geral­dine Brooks

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