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
Saturday 12 August 1995
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.
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 2 What color is The Dress, white and gold or blue and black? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
- 3 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 4 'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
- 5 Madonna claims jokes about her age tantamount to racism: 'No one would dare to say a degrading remark about being black'
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Wolf Hall finale, review: Simply brilliant TV
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Blade Runner sequel: Harrison Ford confirmed to return with Denis Villeneuve directing
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
Oscars 2015: Birdman beats Boyhood as Eddie Redmayne and Patricia Arquette win big - as it happened
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East