Amongst the poems in Carol Ann Duffy's collection The World's Wife, one of my favourites (except they are all my favourites) is Mrs Lazarus as she grieves for the loss of her husband, rents the garments, howls at the moon, clears out the clothes, does the 'Stations of Bereavement' and remains
'faithful for as long as it took. Until he was a memory.'
So Mrs Lazarus is over it only to have Mr come back again and she is not pleased to see him.
So this was ringing around in my head as I picked up Richard Beard's novel Lazarus is Dead, The greatest story about second chances ever told and I had no idea what was in store, the first sentence gave me a clue
'Lazarus is dead.
There is no room for doubt. He died, he came back to life, but then he died again. If he were alive today, we would know, I think.'
I was also to be pitched into a triumverate of coincidental confusion because you wouldn't have thought there were that many books with the names Cassius and Absalom in them, but if you happen to be reading The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje and Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton at the same time which I was, then you will find one of them in each, and both in Lazarus is Dead.
Religion would not be my normal fare in reading so I'm a bit wary here, this is the story of Lazarus, but is it?
Because if we are honest just how much do we really know of this man apparently living with his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany (expect some minor Mary confusion too) yet great credence is placed on the raising of Lazarus.
In Richard Beard's fiction Lazarus a rather dodgy salesman of lambs for slaughter in the temple and a childhood friend of Jesus; a childhood and an adult life for both which Richard Beard builds from the smallest biblical quotes supplemented by literary and artistic references into a 'genre-bending' combination of fact and fiction, and it's not even faction, because the cast-iron facts seem so scant when presented like this.
All of which leads on to this amazingly witty and for me clever interpretation, perhaps a presentation of an alternative truth, and all told in rather clever way that utilises the number seven intriguingly too. Oddly, the best comparison I can make regarding the structure of the book is to that same sense you have when reading Cloud Atlas...that you are drawn in and along as David Mitchell takes you to the summit of a mountain and down the other side with his novel; Richard Beard, creates the same sense of expectation starting with chapter seven, moving down to chapter zero and then back up to seven again, and of course you know exactly what's coming next.
The novel is woven around the lives and stories we think we know, but cannily and imaginatively from a very different perspective. Not unlike Carol Ann Duffy's approach in fact and this may be what made this book so clever for me.
Slowly and inexorably Lazarus's symptoms gather and propel him towards his first death... his eyes are pink and watering, he has a cough and headaches, there is a fetid odour to his skin that can clear the room, he has fatigue and night sweats, a raging thirst and a rash. It was all enough to get the nurse in me busy, diagnoses flitting in and out of my mind to the point where I was half-tempted to betray my SRN.RSCN.RHV and type it all into wrongdiagnosis.com to see what differentials it came up with.
Except wrongdiagnosis.com always tells you you have systemic lupus erythematosus no matter what symptoms you type in.
I hovered around diabetes for a while ... so supposing he wasn't dead, just in a coma, and then I bought into Richard Beard's hints about the most prevalent diseases in Israel at the time, TB, smallpox, shigella and malaria and then there was the rash, well there is little doubt that was .... I won't spoil it for you.
There are really interesting moments here too, the suggestion that the reknown of Lazarus had been obscured by 2000 years of Jesus, but in fact the resurrection of Lazarus had preceded that of Jesus as had the resurrection of Jairus's daughter.
Hints at the denial within the church of the reach of Lazarus for fear it would distract from the 'more important resurrection'.
The people who I may have expected to be kind and caring are quite the opposite in Richard Beard's fiction. Joseph and Mary not at all likeable and Richard Beard makes use of biblical quotations to extrapolate this, all sufficient to make me rethink some assumptions, and then to think about how I had reached them in the first place. All of which made the book doubly fascinating for me as I pondered the 'truth' versus the 'storytelling' within this book and the wider sphere.
A moment for thought about storytelling and authorship...
'Remember that a parable is fiction, and Jesus can determine every element in his story.'
Richard Beard, popping in and out of his fictional narrative, offers occasional moments of seemingly non-fictional suggestion too, a new approach, imaginative representations as a source of data, trusting the historical human imagination and the patterns that emerge, and with reference to paintings and other sources.
Back to the fiction and Cassius, the Roman spy wants to create a new religion around Lazarus and his resurrection, to manage religion rather than repress it in order to
'distract the people from rebellion, keep the children out of trouble and men in bed with their wives.
Lazarus will be the son of god, and Lazarus will belong to Rome.'
But of course unbeknown to them both something is about to happen that will thwart those plans.
This most certainly is a genre-bending book and an exciting one too. For me it was about the boundaries of fiction and storytelling and how far they can be stretched in every direction rather than about questions of faith or theological argument, but I can only guess at some of the questions Richard Beard is likely to be asked in the weeks after publication, and I think he knows it too as he says here
I am sure that a re-imagined bible story is difficult to classify, and can engender a kind of panic. The default assumption is that if a modern novelist re-writes a Christian story he must be mostly against... Everyone should get to the stage of not believing in god. That’s the easy part, and also not the end of it.