For the past year, I have been working on a historical novel set in “Biblical times”, and during that time I have read many examples of the same thing. Some have been boring, others have been great and some have been mediocre*. This one, Robert Graves’ King Jesus**, is difficult to rashly categorise. Although bits of it are exciting and the book contains some great historical detail and interesting ideas, it is ultimately a little dry and often incredibly presumptive about the level of knowledge possessed by the reader.
Perhaps in 1946, when the book was published, the average reader of literary fiction knew the Bible and the history of early Christianity incredibly well. Nowadays, most people do not. I, having spent a WHOLE YEAR researching this time and society and period and the characters Graves’ book centres on, got lost a few times. I found myself floundering in seas of names and places I’d never heard before whilst reading a book about a topic I definitely know far more about than the average fucking person. I, of all people, was left scratching my head during scenes where Jewish scholars discuss ritual, or where Jesus and Mary Magdalene (here the leader of a female-goddess worshipping cult) offer opposing readings of the same source text. I was reminded, more than anything, of the dry as concrete scenes of Ulysses where literature’s most boring character, Stephen Dedalus, is allowed to discuss his overly-intellectual opinions with his boring fucking friends and colleagues.*** I’m digressing. There are a few scenes like this in King Jesus and I did not enjoy them.
The first section of the book, which is all about Graves’ theory/story that Jesus was the secret grandchild of Herod the Great and thus actually the rightful “king of the Jews” is fun. There is a lot of conniving, in Rome, in Jerusalem, in the temples and houses of the rich and powerful. The last fifty pages or so, too, are quite exciting, though it is a very straight rendering of the Passion (resurrection and everything) and a story I obviously knew. All Graves plays with in this section is having Simon Peter arrested and claiming, in the cells, that his name is Barabbas.
And this, really, is my central criticism of King Jesus. If you do not know who Barabbas is, the last sentence of the paragraph above has little meaning. The whole book is like this – knowing winks and nudges as Graves subtly alters the accepted Biblical narrative. Without understanding these, I imagine it would be very difficult to even begin to enjoy the book. I did get them, most of them, but I didn’t like the smug sense of superiority this awareness gave me. Either everyone reading the book is expected to know these things, or only few are. And I don’t want to feel part of a smug clique.
Robert Graves clearly researched the topic a lot, as I have, but he approached Jesus and his acts and message in a completely different way to me. Which is good, I suppose, but it’s also odd to see such a starkly opposed rendering of the same figure. They are very different characters.
King Jesus is not a bad book, but it was a bit of an effort in too many places, and though it is far superior to Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, it isn’t anywhere near as moving, immediate and emotional as The Testament of Mary.
* Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary was the best. I won’t list the others.
** It will almost certainly be the last, I’ve read enough, I feel like I have “god” on the fucking tip of my tongue and I’m worried people are going to start thinking I have an interest in “the soul” or religiosity as a personal choice. I don’t. I’m a fucking grown up.
*** Ulysses is a great, short, novel about Leopold Bloom RUINED by the appearance of a smug, intellectual bore. I love Dubliners, but find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses not worth the effort it takes to read them. Obviously, I’ve never read Finnegans Wake. I already know I’d hate it.