Book Review: The Secret Chord
by Geraldine Brooks
The story of King David in what Christians so charmingly refer to as the Old Testament is virtually Homeric in the magnetic attraction it exerts on creative types. And little wonder: the story has everything. An innocent (well, innocent enough) shepherd boy uses his humble slingshot to bring down the gigantic bulwark-warrior of the Philistines, becomes the favorite subject – and eye of suspicion – for a powerful and mad king, becomes king himself, slays thousands in war, beds many women, dances before the Lord and yet ends up estranged from Him … the tale of David is the most complex, compelling, and ultimately human story in a text by no means short of such stories.
Writers for centuries have responded to this story with variations of their own, from the wide-angle Cecil B. DeMille splendor of Gladys Schmitt’s 1946 novel David the King to the priapic energy of Malachi Martin’s more slender 1980 version King of Kings to Joseph Heller’s 1984 masterpiece God Knows portraying an aging King as a smarter, sadder, more eloquent version of every Philip Roth protagonist ever written. Writers have chosen to concentrate on David the lech, ordering poor Uriah the Hittite into the front lines of combat so he’ll be killed and David can move in on his widow, or David the warrior, defeating Goliath with nothing but a small stone (Michelangelo’s famous statue catches him in the almost post-coital moment of his triumph), or David the problematic son in tangle after deadly tangle with King Saul, or David the problematic father, presiding over the rule or ruin of his various children, or even David the gay icon, partaking of a love more wonderful than the love of women with his friend Jonathan.
It’s a rich fiction-heritage, and it naturally sparks a good deal of eagerness for a King David novel from Geraldine Brooks, the author of such first-rate books as March and Year of Wonders and her touchingly intimate People of the Book. Viking Press has spared no effort to make her latest book, The Secret Chord, a lovely thing, and the text itself is filled with the graceful prose that is this author’s signature.
And yet, it’s a curiously lifeless book. Brooks tells the familiar story from the viewpoint of David’s adviser and reluctant prophet Nathan (stylized “Natan” here, and many of other other cast members likewise have the names on their dressing rooms slightly tweaked – Avigail for Abigail, Batsheva for Bathsheba, Shlomo for Solomon, etc.), who relishes his role as adviser just about as little as he does his role as prophet; “When one becomes a sounding brass for the voice of the unseen,” he confesses, although he might as well be talking about David as the Almighty, “there is a price to be paid: the throbbing head, the darkening vision, the rasping breath, the falling fits and spasms.”
Natan has no illusions about the man he serves, and through Natan’s eyes we see a king who’s venal, petty, and politically insincere, as in the moment he’s told about the death of Uriah the Hittite, which he arranged:
David fell back on his great chair and covered his face with his hand. I had seen it done better. I thought then, as I stood there, of all the times I had witnessed him mourn over the deaths of great benefit to him. The butchery of Saul. The murders of Avner and Ish Boshet. The impaled sons of Merav. I had witnessed him rend his clothes even for deaths, like my father’s, that he had done with his own hand. I had seen him tear his garment so many times that it was a sudden wonder to me that he had an intact tunic to lay upon his back.
This David may once have been a lover of Jonathan, may have once had frustrated filial feelings for Saul, may for a moment have felt affection for any of his wives, but in Natan’s view he’s a thoroughly corrupt and corrupting figure, formidable in a variety of ways but egregiously flawed and self-absorbed, callous and conniving. Natan watches him throughout most of his life and sees the costs of his conceit in every decade and rank of loved ones:
David, who so often saw so clearly, who weighed men to a fine grain, was utterly blind to the failings of the men he begat. I had been by his side often enough through the boys’ youth when word came to him that one or other of the princes had abused his slave, insulted an elder or mistreated his mount. David would laugh and shrug it off and mock the complainant, inferring that he lacked the canniness or authority to deal with childish pranks. Then it would be seen, in subtle ways, that the king’s affection for such a person waned. He would be seated at the rear of the hall at feasts, or perhaps no invitation to the feast would be forthcoming. Courtiers who cared for their position noted this. Soon enough, the boys’ outrages went unremarked and unpunished. By the time they were nearing manhood, what had been mischief had become malevolence.
And yet … the bitterness never curdles into drama. The observer’s burning contempt never convincingly either narrows into hate or broadens into love. Instead, it’s as though Brooks is so reverential to the source stories from Scripture that she’s unwilling to do more than token tampering with them – or worse, thinks token tampering is the sum of her duties (although even so, in the quoted section above, those duties surely include not mistaking “inferring” for “implying”). But change is the very heart of the David story’s appeal, not only the changes he himself experiences (although where outside of Sophocles does a character from the ancient world change so much, and believably?) but also the changes worked by so many who’ve come to this story over the centuries. You take the David narrative and then you decide what you want to do with it, and what you do with it had better be more adventurous than changing the spelling of some names.