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The Complete Review: "Successful both as a fictional treatment of a familiar story and an entertaining gloss on how that story has been seen and shaped."

Date: Sep 20 2012

Among all the tricks ascribed to Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead (after four days, by which time he'd gotten kind of smelly -- "Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days" (John 11:39)) is among the most impressive; nevertheless, it begs several questions. Why do something as creepy as that ? Did folks get too drunk off that whole water-to-wine deal to be properly awed by what Christ had done, so that he felt he had to really blow their minds ? And, if you can raise the dead, why not raise a lot more ? (Sure, sure, there's that whole 'Dawn of the Dead'/army-of-zombies worry, but Lazarus seemed to turn out okay.) And, indeed, why Lazarus ? Sure, Jesus considered him a buddy, but was in no rush to get to him when he was ailing. True, when Lazarus died, "Jesus wept", which he apparently was not prone to doing, but then it was one big Heulfest there (Mary was weeping, the Jews were weeping ...) so he might have just gotten carried away by the moment.

Richard Beard tackles all this in LAZARUS IS DEAD -- a book that, in the American edition, is described as 'A Novel' on the cover and 'A Biography' on the interior title-page. Fair enough: Beard has written a work of fiction, but a great deal of the material is also biographical in nature -- taking the term 'biographical' to be even more loose than biographers generally admit to. That's part of Beard's point, too: there's very little documentary material about any historic Lazarus -- basically the few Bible verses are all you have to go on -- and yet Lazarus has proved to be an enduring figure, resurrected not only in original form but in a vast number of works of literature and art over the centuries, to the present day.

As Beard notes:

In the informal record Lazarus is everywhere. He appeals strongly to the imaginative mind, a recognisable figure on frescoes and marble reliefs throughout the ancient world. He and Jesus are the two main characters most frequently depicted on the monuments of the Christian necropoli in Rome.

Or, as he puts it more forcefully later: "Lazarus is indestructible". It's a hell of a story, with a hell of staying power -- too good to kill, apparently, despite its inherent silliness (which is surely part of what attracted Beard to it).

LAZARUS IS DEAD has a carefully planned-out structure: its sixteen numbered chapters run from seven down to zero and then from another zero back up to seven (yes, there are two chapters "0.", the nadir reached with Lazarus' death). Each chapter is further divided into however many sections the chapter-number dictates (i.e. both chapter fives have five numbered sections -- though, again, the order of the numbers is descending in the first one (5,4,3,2,1) and ascending in the second ...); the "0."-chapters have no sub-sections (but otherwise resemble the "1."-chapters, with a single entry).

Beard describes Lazarus' life (and death, and second life ...) in novelist-fashion: he invents a great deal and puts words in his characters' mouths. It is a specific view of Lazarus, taking into account the scanty 'evidence' (if one can call the biblical verses that) and historical circumstances -- but Beard is also willing to consider other interpretations of Lazarus and work them into his own. He repeatedly turns to other takes of the character and considers them as well, making for any interesting fiction-commentary hybrid.

Pointing to the parable recorded in Luke 16:20-21, Beard considers why Jesus uses the name 'Lazarus' for the beggar covered with sores:

Jesus rarely names the characters in his parables. Here he makes an exception, and chooses the name of his only identified friend. This Lazarus, too, the one in the parable, is sick and dying. Coincidence ? Remember that the parable is fiction, and Jesus can determine every element in the story.

So too Beard -- even as he ostensibly relies on whatever 'authority' there is surrounding the Lazarus story (and later (re)interpretations)): as Beard's carefully structured work suggests, he is the one making all the choices, determining (very carefully) every element (beyond the vaguest of outlines that the biblical tale offers).

The Lazarus-story is an extreme case -- a fictional story (sorry, but Jesus did not resurrect a smelly corpse back in the day) that's been dressed up and treated like history -- but the fundamentals are much the same for what is considered actual personality-based history. Beard shows -- in his own work, and in the many variations appearing over the years -- how easily this can be manipulated, the novelist (or historian or biographer) able to shape the 'record' practically any way s/he likes.

Along the way Beard also tries to get at some of the reasons why this particular story has been so enduring -- though arguably he is not nearly critical enough about the whole resurrection-premise nonsense.

It makes for an entertaining version of the biblical tale, with Beard imagining Lazarus' life and suffering in great detail, as well as the consequences of the 'miracle' -- and also the lasting appeal and different takes on the Lazarus story. LAZARUS IS DEAD is quite successful both as a fictional treatment of a familiar story and an entertaining gloss on how that story has been seen and shaped over the centuries.

--M.A.Orthofer