Saturday, 24 March 2007

God knows by Joseph Heller

God knows by Joseph Heller

This is a most enjoyable book, retelling the stories of King David – yes that David, the slayer of Goliath, the psalmist, the singer to mad King Saul, the war leader, the mourner for his rebellious son Absalom, the adulterer with Bathsheba, the father of Solomon and so forth.

The opening sentence is typically arresting: “Abishag the Shunammite washes her hands, powders her arms, removes her robe, and approaches my bed to lie down on top of me.” Look it up in the first book of Kings, chapter 1.

It is told in typical Joseph Heller style, with no linear chronology, and a seemingly haphazard order. But it all makes perfect sense. The reader is never baffled or confused – except to keep track of the many, many characters in the book. It brings the bible story alive, with abundant imaginative additions. It mixes King James bible sentences with modern English in a fizzing, amusing style. Heller also likes to use non-chronological information, such as David’s piercing critique of the Michelangelo statue of himself. Or his wish to send a wire, but then being reminded that the telegraph hasn’t been invented yet.

I like Heller: he is entertaining, erudite and profound. This brief paragraph may convey those three qualities: “The fault, I know, was not in my stars but in myself. I’ve learned so many things that have not been much use to me. The human brain has a mind of its own.”

If anything, this book ranks higher in my estimation than his most famous book: ‘Catch 22’. Maybe I should go back and read ‘Catch 22’ again to make a fair comparison. Another excellent book of Heller’s I would recommend is ‘Picture this’, which brilliantly combines the stories of Socrates and Rembrandt, with shewd observations on historical parallels between the wars of ancient Athens, Golden age Holland, Eighteenth Century England and Twentieth Century America.

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