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Times Literary Supplement: "[Beard's] essayistic digressions temper the mythic luminosity of his subject, contributing to the poignancy of his imagined 'biography.'"

Date: Aug 19 2011

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When the ailing Lazarus of Richard Beard’s new novel is asked what his friend Jesus is really like, he replies, “slow at climbing.” Beard imagines a brotherly, and hence complicated, relationship between Jesus and Lazarus, going back to their childhood in Nazareth when the two boys could superficially be told apart. They differ in temperament, however, with the boy Lazarus being the leader, the more athletic and adventurous. Young Jesus, by contrast, is watchful, studying Lazarus and learning from him. Essayistic commentaries on the carious cultural appropriations and interpretations of the story of Lazarus are interwoven with cinematic scenes of the boys’ adventures scaling roofs and falling from trees. The form of the novel is like a documentary that alternates talking-head expertise with dramatizations which recall a Hollywood buddy movie. After one escapade, Lazarus and Jesus lie side by side, panting, “their hair wet with rain.” One of the narrator’s wry remarks could be the tagline of a film poster: “This is not a friendship without difficulties.”


Beard’s project is to exhume the importance of Lazarus as a forgotten Messianic contender. He points out that for churches that follow the Byzantine Rite, Lazarus Saturday is a holy festival held eight days before Easter. For this one day, “Lazarus is the equal of Jesus.” It is, after all, impressive to return from the dead, and surely testament to his own powers as much as to those of his friend who is weeping by the tomb. In this revisioning, Beard exploits the compelling scenario of the under-sung sibling, which taps into our sense of injustice and our awe at the workings of destiny.


Beard’s adult Jesus, an appropriately aloof presence, is portrayed as the shrewd promoter of his own divinity. Through an increasingly spectacular sequence of miracles that culminates in the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is learning the craft of public persuasion. The ethics of such showmanship are of course dubious, since Lazarus’s sufferings are part of the impressiveness of Jesus’s ruthlessly delayed intervention. Jesus raises two others before Lazarus, all three of whom are “prototypes” for his own return. As Beard writes of resurrection, “Jesus is testing the limits of the form.”


Something similar might be said of Beard himself. This hybrid book’s numerous, explicit references to theological and literary treatments of the Lazarus story—including works by E. P. Sanders, Karel Capek, Robert Graves and T. S. Eliot—are diligently italicized with the year of publication appended. Any reminder that the New Testament is open to interpretation by a disharmonious choir of voices is itself a moral act, but it does present a technical challenge to Beard’s affective power when the fictional landscape of the Galilee is thus fissured with references to modern scholarship. The main story is told in the present tense, yet its form continuously reminds us of the archaic nature of the material. There are journalistic descriptions of present-day tourism flourishing around the supposed site of Lazarus’s house, in which Coca-Cola machines and wheelchair ramps intrude, superimposed from the future, on to the stage where the novel’s drama is enacted.


It is miraculous that any dramatic or emotive power survives the weight of all this history, especially given the anachronism in Beard’s undisciplined narration. We learn, for instance, among the sand and olive groves, that Lazarus’s “B-lymphocites are unable to protect him” and that “malarial sporozoites” are attacking his internal organs. The writing may appear glib but the work succeeds because, overall, Beard is to be taken seriously. He can stir emotion quickly and simply with descriptions such as that of a beggar “smiling the red of his gums.” When Lazarus and his companions rush to the Last Supper to ward Jesus, they find and empty table and we are told that “Martha stacked the plates.”


The literary machinery of biblical stories is so refined and, after 2,000 years in print, so resonant, that any modern retelling must be formally experimental. If Beard had played it straight, the novel could easily have been at the mercy of kitsch. Instead, his essayistic digressions temper the mythic luminosity of his subject, contributing to the poignancy of his imagined “biography” by showing that Lazarus persists, albeit over-shadowed, in the collective imagination.


--Laurence Scott