“The Secret Chord,” by Geraldine Brooks, Viking, 302 pages, $27.95
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Writing a romance about King David is a daunting endeavor. First, there is the awesome challenge posed by the Book of Samuel, whose majestic and timeless narrative is a tough act to follow. Second, there is the mythic aura of David whose manifold attributes still dazzle after three millennia in their sheer abundance, variety and grandeur. And third, there is the legacy of David himself, whose Psalms are unmatched through the ages not only for their confessional poetry but their personal revelation of character.
Moreover, how is one to grasp hold of a character whose divine gifts are so boundless as to be dizzying and whose flaws so profound as to be abhorrent? To be sure, the life of David has filled volumes over the ages: midrashic, aggadic, folkloric. For the most part, this appraisal has assumed the aspect of criticism, whether hortatory, explanatory, hagiographic or analytic. In our own time, we have biographical forays by the poet Robert Pinsky (“The Life of David’’) and the journalist Jonathan Kirsch (“King David”), or biblical translations with insightful commentaries by such scholars as Robert Alter (“The David Story”) and Everett Fox (“Give Us a King!”).
Fiction, however, has proved more obdurate in capturing a character idolized and distant, beloved and elusive, sealed off in the majestic iconography of Michelangelo and Donatello or the Great Masters. Not that there haven’t been recent efforts. In “God Knows,” for instance, Joseph Heller chose to bring the story down to earth by treating it as farce, with David as a Borscht Belt comic, riffing on the price of kingship. But Geraldine Brooks treats the tale as tragedy. And, in so doing, the Pulitzer-winning author has succeeded in humanizing a mythic figure, breathing life, emotion and literary resonance into a midrash that transforms David the King into David the Man.
She has does done so by artfully selecting as her narrator Natan the Prophet, truth-teller to the king, who will also tell us the truth about the king. This Natan is not merely chronicler, but companion, counselor and conscience to David. He will also function literally as court reporter and, in the way of prophets, bear witness to the glories and failings of his royal master. But Natan is very much an actor in this drama as well as a narrator. In fact, he is mustered into David’s service early on when David, still a bandit fleeing from King Shaul (Brooks uses Hebrew names throughout), attacks the young Natan’s village and dispatches its inhabitants, including Natan’s father.
Not an auspicious beginning for a lifetime of dedicated service. But David spares the lad’s life when Natan, in the throes of his first prophecy, foretells a glorious destiny for him. It is a tribute to Brooks’ artistry that she entices us to suspend disbelief and enter into an arcane, archaic world which she makes palpable. While adhering to the outlines of Scripture, her tale remains earthbound.
Natan’s prophetic seizures are confined to “only those matters that roil the heavens.” He is, in fact, reasonable, temperate, astute, more akin to a Greek stoic than a thundering Hebrew prophet. But it is this recalibration of ancient stereotypes that provides one of the small pleasures of this book.
Scholars have ascribed the chronicle of David to a near-contemporary court historian – a history that predates Herodotus, as Brooks reminds us. It is the imagined annals of this anonymous court historian that Brooks invokes in her novel.
The story begins with a David in middle age, now a secure and powerful ruler, retired from warfare and restless. His courtiers seek to distract the restive king by having him record his triumphs for the royal archives. But David turns the tables and, in an act that is either perverse or penitent, assigns Natan to delve into his past by gathering candid testimony from several family members.
Flash forward 3,000 years. We are now in the realm of Thompson, the reporter in “Citizen Kane,” interviewing everyone Kane ever knew “to get the human angle” on the storied mogul. The analogy is not far-fetched in that the protagonists of both the movie and the novel are depicted as isolated boys — David despised by his father and older brothers – who seek adulation as solace for the love they lacked at home. David even has his “Rosebud,” a lyre that he learns to play as consolation in his lonely shepherd vigils. He will eventually have many harps but the notes struck on his first instrument will echo through his life.
The people who bear witness to David’s early years are his mother, Nizevet; his brother Shammah and his first wife, Michal. Each is imaginatively drawn and each will suffer through David. Nizevet is cast aside briefly for a younger woman by her husband, Yishai. The theme of Leah and Rachel in the bed chamber is invoked here.
Yishai, embittered by carnal trickery and ashamed of his own lust, disdains his issue and sends David to tend sheep. But God has other plans. Providence, in the form of the prophet Shmuel, appears at Yishai’s doorstep, anointing the scorned youngest son at the expense of his older siblings, a leitmotif with legs.
The resentful Shammah embodies the antipathy of David’s older brothers who are serving with King Shaul’s army, facing the Philistines and Goliath. The youthful David’s ploy in felling the giant is resented by his brothers, not least because it enables him to vault over them and win a place in Shaul’s court and in his heart, before losing favor with the maddened king who comes to see David as a usurper, a paranoid presentiment that will prove all too true.
The third witness is Shaul’s daughter Michal, who must share her love for David with her brother Yonatan, a rivalry in which she is a poor second. Both brother and sister defy their father to protect David from Shaul’s wrath. For her pains, Michal is abandoned by David and consigned to a forced marriage by a vengeful Shaul. The ironies of this union with the devoted Palti, whom Michal comes to love, will end in sorrow and gall for the fated couple when the enthroned David demands his wife back.
Even the oft-maligned Batsheva is reimagined in a scenario that does little credit to David. Rather than a seductress, she is presented as more sinned against than sinning; she is drawn as a fully developed character: resolute, intelligent and determined. Brooks makes it clear that Batsheva’s offspring, Shlomo, will inherit his wisdom from both parents. It is Batsheva’s resourcefulness in gaining the throne for her son that provides the final act in this drama. Her ally in a palace intrigue to keep the crown from the hands of Shlomo’s grasping brothers is Natan, who now serves the interests not of the king but the kingdom.
Natan devoted his life “to defend David from his own human entanglements, and the weaknesses they engendered.” The faults were many: Brooks’ David is a murderer, an adulterer, a usurper, a traitor, a schemer, a rapist, a brigand who pillages and plunders leaving no witnesses, a ruthless opportunist who benefits from the misfortunes of friend and foe alike, as in the slaying by the Philistines of Yonatan and Shaul, which elevates him to the throne. David strews death around him but at a prudent remove.
He justifies his iniquities with the rationale that he is acting in the service of God, and thereby he will do “Whatever it takes. What was necessary.”
David is also a brave warrior, a natural leader of men, enamored by women, a poet and musician of genius, a monarch beloved by the people, a master architect, the founder of Jerusalem, a centralizer, an empire builder, a passionate believer in Israel’s God, and the man who forged 12 feuding tribes into a single nation whose kingdom would be the source of messianic longing through the ages.
Yet for all David’s success, he is a failure as a father. As he ruefully asks: “What good to forge a kingdom . . . and then to fail at this most basic task.” As punishment for sending the loyal Uriah to his death to prevent him from learning that the king has impregnated his wife, Batsheva, David suffers four-fold retribution. His sins will be remitted for a time, but not forgiven, and nemesis stalks his household before overtaking him.
He will lose Batsheva’s baby by their illicit coupling — Shlomo will be a replacement child; his son Amnon will become a feckless rake who rapes his half-sister Tamar; her brother Avshalom will revenge the insult by murdering Amnon. And Avshalom, David’s favorite, will subsequently rebel against his father and die hideously in battle, leaving the bereft David to ask piteously: “Is my boy Avshalom safe?” and then fall to keening with the famous lament: “Oh, my son, my son Avshalom! If only I had died instead of you!”
One of the challenges of a novel that borrows directly from history, Scripture or myth is to make us forget that we know what’s going to happen. Or, rather, to invest the tale with such artistic embellishment that it feels as if we’re hearing it for the first time or – that whatever the inevitable outcome, the contingencies that determine it will somehow alter based on the development of character and plot.
Brooks has handled this problem masterfully, sculpting the foundation stones of the Book of Samuel to shape her own literary edifice. As in Scripture, she presents David through his deeds rather than his thoughts. It is a testament to her skill that although we see him at a remove – through the voice of Natan and the witness of others – we perceive him vividly.
Another pitfall of the historical novel is the use of language so that it is neither archaic nor anomalous. Brooks’ talent in this regard, brings to mind Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian” or Mary Renault’s “The Bull From the Sea.” To be sure, David’s story is a tale oft-told but, like a harpist of old, Brooks has found a way to find new meaning in an ancient song.
Jack Schwartz formerly supervised the book pages of Newsday and is the author of “The Fine Print: My Life as a Deskman.”