Robert Alter (Editor): The David Story
Talitho Press, ISBN 0-7388-0732-X (Hardcover); 0-7388-0733-8 (Paperback)
It's always a bold move to treat the Bible as literature. Edghill goes even further and tells the story of King David from the standpoint of a minor character -- Michal, David's first wife -- vastly expanding on the biblical account. This angle allows Edghill to portray with dialogue and attributed thought the passionate emotions these controversial individuals might have experienced. However, the author muffs several opportunities, as though she lost her nerve at critical junctures.
Let's start with the prologue. The middle of the book provides numerous passages that could provide a tantalizing glimpse of the drama to follow. Instead, Edghill selected something entirely too subtle to snag most readers. Readers will forgive any number of sins if they can look forward to excitement later in the book. Edghill's prologue doesn't make the necessary promise. Indeed, the first 42 pages should have been a three-to-four paragraph flashback. The real story starts with Michal's wedding to David. Even then, the book doesn't move into high gear until the death of Michal's second husband, Phaltiel, some 100 pages later.
However, Edghill's strong writing and imaginative storytelling skills keep the reader engaged -- especially since the story concerns David, one of the most fascinating and manipulative individuals in religious history. In Queenmaker, Michal's youthful infatuation gives way to indifference toward, and even hatred of, her arrogant spouse. Ultimately, she finds love in an unlikely source, and comes to realize that despite David's ill-used power over her, she is the triumphant one.
Alter's book, The David Story, adds an important dimension to Edghill' story, especially when Edghill's necessary expansions raise a red flag in the minds of Biblical purists. And comparing the two books proved interesting and instructive for this reviewer.
In contrast to Edghill's well-imagined fiction, the well-known and respected biblical scholar Alter presents a thickly annotated translation of the biblical passages relating to David's life and reign. Readers seeking a quick and easy biographical sketch of David and his court won't find it in Alter's scholarly treatise.
But Alter's note to the reader shows a style worthy of greater exposure. Anyone who compares ideological stances to "so many varieties of potatoes" commands my attention. Alter also dissects David's deathbed speech to Solomon, removing what he considers the interpolations of "the Deutoronomist." What remains is, as Alter notes, worthy of a Mafia don intent on revenge from beyond the grave.
Almost as if he supports Edghill's decision to focus on Michal, Alter notes that Michal is the "only woman in the entire Hebrew Bible explicitly reported to love a man." Alter also points out that the Bible never deals with David's feelings for Michal. Edghill has him manipulate her, using her status as the previous king's daughter for his own ends.
Alter further emphasizes that the Bible gives the reader little information about Michal and her second husband, Paltiel (Phaltiel in Edghill's book), but notes that when David retrieved Michal, Paltiel walked behind her litter, weeping. Alter considers this a moving incident replete with possibilities. Edghill rises to the occasion, making the incident central to the story and wringing every shred of drama from the Bible's spare account.
Alter's book describes where Edghill must devise. For example, Edghill invents Michal's role as David's confidant. Edghill also changes the standard interpretation that Bathsheba bore David two sons, the first of whom died. Indeed, Edghill seems to mute the passion between David and Bathsheba in order to keep the focus on Michal -- a risky decision in terms of the dramatic possibilities of the characters and situation.
The most significant divergence between the novelist and the scholar, however, centers on the incident involving David's son Amnon and his half-sister Tamar. Edghill portrays it as forbidden love; Alter insists it was rape, explaining his interpretation of the individual words to show that what Amnon felt was lust. The differing viewpoints here subsequently cast the two authors in opposition on other key points, such as Absalom's murder of Amnon, and his subsequent death at the hands of Joab.
But both books offer elements to delight any eager reader: romance, passion, murder, intrigue and a varied host of rivalries. Depending on your tastes, you should be happy reading one, the other, or both.
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