By Michael Arditti Arcadia Books, 286pp, £16.99/$24.95
The Bible is said to be the world’s bestselling book, and it is also the world’s most teasing one. It tells us so much, yet it always leaves us wanting more. Perhaps because the biblical authors had a different set of priorities to ours, and their audiences cared much less about the things that fascinate us, all the best bits got left out. So, it is with great joy that the reader will fall upon Michael Arditti’s latest novel, which, ironically for a work of fiction, tells us what happened, or rather what we may think ought to have happened.
The subject is King David’s wives, told from the point of view of the women themselves. They have only walk-on parts in the Books of Kings, and their motivation is often left frustratingly blank, or the few clues we are given are ambiguous. Was Bathsheba an ambitious seductress who deliberately set her cap at the king? Did she then engineer the accession of her son at the expense of his brothers? Or was she rather a tool in the hands of wily men, cast aside when her usefulness ended? Both interpretations fit the biblical text. Suffice it to say that Arditti, aware of all the interpretations, forges one of his own, and his Bathsheba has, by the last page, a tragic grandeur.
The villain of the piece is the great hero of the Hebrew scriptures, King David himself. He is quite simply the most awful man, who will not hesitate to sacrifice others to his own self-interest. But it is worse than this: he is vain and cruel, and inflicts needless pain in his insistence on custom, such as lying with the concubines of his predecessor, which entails no less a monstrosity than sleeping with his own mother-in-law.
By contrast the women, who have such transitory roles in Scripture but who are centre stage here, are altogether more worthy characters. However, as women, they only have prominence because they have been noticed by the king. Marriage to a monster is the price they pay for their enduring fame, such as it is. What irony, for it is clear that Abigail and Michal, Saul’s daughter, are more interesting, more heroic and more capable than David. If only the world were ruled by women! David clearly senses this, as he cannot leave Michal be, but reduces her to misery as her very existence is a reproach to him. As the ending makes clear, there was only one person he ever really loved, and that was not Michal but her brother Jonathan. Yet history is a palimpsest of rewritings. This is the sense that we have at the ending. And who is responsible for that final recension?
Why, Solomon of course, who promises to be even worse a character than David. As Arditti has now tackled the great domestic drama of King David, and summoned up for us the claustrophobia of his harem, all far more interesting than any of his battles with the enemies of Israel, one hopes that the author (who clearly has a gift for sifting through the Bible) will move on to some of the other memorable characters in the Hebrew scriptures. Jezebel awaits. She was a powerful female ruler, one of the few in the scriptures to have the title queen. And she too has been traduced, perhaps, by historians. Meanwhile Michal, Abigail and the other wives of King David, having waited for centuries – in Michael Arditti they find a worthy scribe.
Fr Lucie-Smith is a moral theologian and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald