Kings, sheep, wars and concubines

Allan Massie has injected new life into the Old Testament. By Michael Arditti; King David by Allan Massie Sceptre, pounds 15.99
Having rendered unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's in his Roman novels, Augustus, Tiberius and Caesar, Allan Massie now renders unto God in his study of King David. Couched, like the afore-mentioned trilogy, in the form of fictional memoirs, it relates the story of the Old Testament's greatest hero from his anointing by Samuel to his succession by Solomon.

Massie keeps extremely close to the biblical account and his narrative is as spare and fast-moving as the books of Samuel and Chronicles. David, the all-Israeli boy, first seen tending his father's sheep, soon rises to prominence through his musical ministrations to King Saul, his love for Jonathan and his slaying of Goliath. After incurring the King's displeasure, he flees the court, gathers an army, defeats him in battle and ascends the throne.

The god-fearing King proves himself to be all too human as he falls for the beautiful Bathsheba and arranges for her husband Uriah to be killed. From then on, his world falls apart, with dissension at court, rivalry among the army commanders and, most painfully, strife among his children, when his son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar and is, in turn, murdered by his half-brother Absalom. Absalom's subsequent death leaves David old, isolated, loveless and with no heir but the wily Solomon whom he distrusts.

Such a bald summary gives a true flavour of a book whose virtues are predominantly narrative. This is a fascinating story excitingly told. Massie's models are Marguerite Yourcenar and Robert Graves; although only a few of his apercus (such as "Only clever men deny God, though stupid ones may forget him") come close to the insight of the former, and he lacks the wit and verve of the latter, who felt free to treat Suetonius with considerably less reverence than Massie does the Bible.

The figure of David continues to arouse strong passions, as has been shown by the city of Jerusalem's recent rejection of a replica of Michelangelo's sculpture as a gift to mark next year's 3,000th anniversary celebrations; for orthodox Jews, the statue's genitals are far too explicit. In a novel, David's sexuality cannot be quite so easily dismissed. Massie has an uneasy relationship with David's homosexuality, at times depicting it as noble and pure and at others as a mere after-battle work-out. The devoted love of his boy, Laish, is declared to be inferior to a tactical embrace with a fat, elderly mayor's wife who is "passive as dead meat".

David's attitude to women is far from exemplary: there is an unbridgeable gulf between his wife, the revered yet sexually unsatisfying princess Michal, and the many concubines (among them the unfortunately named Abishag) with whom he slakes his lust. He even admits to having forgotten the names of several of his wives.

The book's sensibility is as masculine as its hero, with its emphasis on action and almost complete lack of introspection. Much of the language takes on the rhythms of the King James Bible, though Massie should have avoided the direct comparisons he courts by quoting David's lament over Saul and Psalms 23 and 24 along with the contemporary tones of a phrase such as "a man with whom I could do business" to describe a Philistine king.

In spite of the fashionable lip-service paid to the fallibility of story-telling, this remains an old-fashioned adventure. What it lacks is any element beyond the familiar story, such as Joseph Heller found in his irreverent God Knows, or Dan Jacobson in his brilliant The Rape of Tamar, which devotes a whole novel to an episode described here in a few pages. Beside Jacobson's, Massie's David looks very thin; yet it remains a world away from Richard Gere's.