Monday, October 19, 2015

The Secret Chord

Geraldine Brooks's latest book, The Secret Chord, is about none other than King David, from the Bible.  Yeah, this David:
Side note for Art Talk: What's your favorite David sculpture?  Most people are going to say Michelangelo, right?  But, don't forget about this bonkers sculpture by Bernini, which is possibly the sexiest sculpture ever?
But, if I'm being honest, I have to say my favorite is Donatello's David, which is beautiful, a triumph, a homo-erotic masterpiece if one ever existed, and hilarious.  I mean: That hat!
Donatello wins everything

It's been a long time since I studied King David (like, back in Vacation Bible School from my Lutheran youth) I ended up reading this book pretty much side-by-side with the chapters about David in the Bible (1st and 2nd Corinthians and 1st and 2nd Samuel, mainly) to remind myself what was authentic.  Brooks does not stray far from the original scripture, filling in, as she does in her marvelous way, the details of the story.

David's an slightly unusual story - there's little-to-no evidence today that he actually existed, however, even Brooks stipulates that it's unlikely he's merely metaphorical because he's such a flawed character. In the Bible, God loves him, which is why he goes from being a lowly shepherd boy to king of Israel.  In many sects of Christianity he's seen as a kind of parallel to Jesus Christ, being from Bethlehem, becoming a king from a low position, and loved by God etc.

The story is mainly told from the perspective of Nathan, the seer (who also was meant to have originally told 1st and 2nd Chronicles).  Nathan worked for David, because he had a vision (after David and his men killed his family) that David would eventually be king.  Nathan's visions are legit and David keeps him as a kind of advisor.  Nathan interviews people in David's life in order to write his biography.

One of the first people Nathan talks to his David's brother, who talks about how David slayed the famous giant, Goliath.  Just luck, according to him, but the way he tells the story is extraordinary:
David slings another stone, and Goliath can feel  the breeze as it passes. He dodges out of the way of it, and he's in all that armor, so he stumbles, and everyone laughs at him - his own and ours both. David's the only one not laughing. He's in some kind of a state, trumpeting away... ' this very day the Name will deliver you into my hands'- and more of that style of thing- it just poured out of him- the kind of high-blown words your kind comes out with: 'All the Earth shall know there is a God in Israel...' Not the kind of thing you expect out of the mouth of a shepherd boy.
Things really get crazy in the story of David when he takes Batsheva as a wife.  Brooks has a wonderful way of flipping traditionally male stories into the story of the women supposedly standing on the sidelines (March, for which she won the Pulitzer, is a great example, of course).  I had a great hope that any page the POV was going to switch to Batsheva or some other woman, but that doesn't happen.  The story of Batsheva (Brooks uses the Hebrew spelling for names/places) goes like this: Batsheva's is the wife of Uriah - David's general. While he's at some war, she's taking a bath on her roof, David sees her and sends for her, she gets pregnant.  David sends for Uriah and tries to get him to go home and have sex with her real quick, but for various reasons he won't.  So, David sends Uriah back to war with a note for another soldier that says, send Uriah out on the front lines, and don't help him.  Naturally, he gets killed, and David marries Batsheva.  Somehow throughout history, Batsheva has come to stand for a sort of wanton, beautiful femme fatale.  In Brook's hands, Batsheva explains that she was on her roof trying to find some privacy when guards came from the king to collect her, what choice does she have but to go.  Roofs, by the way, are historically the only place where women in closely monitored cultures could enjoy relative freedom & fresh air.
Jan Massys 1562
There are, by the way, a lot of hilarious painting of poor Batsheva taking a bath while creeper David looks on from a distant window.

After the Batsheva incident, David's family life really goes to shit with his many wives and many children.  Nathan makes some predictions that David's kids are going to be nothing but trouble. One of his sons rapes his half-sister, Tamar.  Then another brother kills the rapist.  Then eventually that brother tries to overthrow his father and probably has sex with all of David's concubines up on his roof.  Meanwhile David's like, "Boys. What are you gunna do?"

So, a book that sends me to secondary sources, trolling Google images and figuring out Hebraic names and places?  What could be better?  Told with Brooks signature insight and beautiful prose, The Secret Chord is a fascinating read that tells an ancient story in an extremely accessible way.

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