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The Tablet (Novel of the Week): "What an extraordinary book this is—ingenious and gripping in all the best ways."

Date: Dec 31 2011

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What an extraordinary book this is—ingenious and gripping in all the best ways. Before reading it, I thought that it must be touched with the zeitgeist of novels like Jim Crace’s Quarantine, about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, or Ann Wroe’s biography of Pilate, but it’s much more its own animal, shifting and changing position. The tone is equally-elusive, moving from a journalist’s objectivity to subtle, wry satire. The speculation around the premises on which the Man Booker Prize is established—should it highlight the newest work (and cloud of older books) by an author without enough honour in his land, or promote a brilliant newcomer, or support the bravely experimental, or stick to the weightily literary, or go for comforting readability?—seems apposite here. I cannot think why Lazarus Is Dead wasn’t at the top of the shortlist, the bookies creeping hopelessly away from its starry aura. I cannot think of another book which fulfils pretty well all those criteria, and, if you think that the first and second are in conflict, I would say that Richard Beard is a newcomer to me, and that I am going in search of his older books now.

This is the story of the biblical Lazarus. Beard hardly had much to work on: the eleventh chapter of St John’s gospel is it, in terms of the facts. The essence of a good researcher, I suppose—perhaps the essence of a good journalist—lies in the ability to sniff out the last smear of a factoid which can be added to the small pile of verifiable truth; the essence of a good writer lies in the imaginative ability to spin a great fizzing ball of gold out of that small pile of straw.

Both are employed here. Beard uses every word in John 11 as the skeleton of his tale. He also travels about the New Testament collecting supporting information, such as where Jesus was at relevant moments; what the Sanhedrin was up to; the putative backstory. But the most striking aspects of all this collecting are the other sources he ransacks, and the place given to the pile of the straw within the novel.

He must have read every book which mentions Lazarus (Norman Mailer, The Gospel According to the Son; Eugene O’Neill, Lazarus Laughed; Yeats, Calvary), and looked at every painting (Castagno’s The Last Supper, the Très Riches Heures). Many of them, especially the books, are invoked here, as though they carried the same evidential weight as the Bible. And the collected references alternate with the onward narrative flow, so that Beard’s inhabiting of the characters of Lazarus, Mary, Martha and Jesus, and his realisation of this short anecdote as a large, complex drama, are underpinned by passages which appear to give validity (or alternatives) to his exegesis.

The result, which posits a theory for Lazarus’ place in the divine scheme of Christ’s coming, examining and testing the theory and offering diverse variations on the different viewpoints, is both exhilaratingly fresh and mordantly ironic. It’s also a tremendously good read.

--Lynn Roberts