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.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine