I imagine one of the reasons The Great Gatsby remains so popular today must be because it taps into something deep inside the human literary soul. A man rises from obscurity, wins all the battles (throws all the parties), and ultimately falls in a tragedy of his own making. How long has that essential plot been with us? The answer, as anyone who’s taken a world history course could tell you, is a very, very long time. Even today, several hundred years after the divinely appointed monarch became an anachronism in the West, we can’t stop telling stories about that great man, the king.
In The Secret Chord, Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks (March, 2006) goes way, way back into that tradition to bring us a novelistic retelling of the biblical King David, the man who killed giants, composed the Psalms and united the tribes of Israel into a kingdom.
Brooks’s David is a man of contradictions. “He could be a predator at noonday and a poet by dusk,” says Natan, Brooks’s narrator. He’s extraordinarily touched by the divine and a great hero to his people, but he commits many acts of brutality and benefits from even more to achieve his crown. Though his life (if he truly existed, it was maybe 3,000 years ago) was chronicled in a 2,500-year-old book, in Brooks’s hands David feels both timeless and fully alive, as charismatic and dangerous as any of our modern Chosen Ones. She presents a hero who “dwelt in the searing glance of the divine, but who sweated and stank…built a nation, made music that pleased heaven, and left poems in our mouths that will be spoken by people yet unknown.” Who doesn’t want to read about someone like that?
Brooks’s fifth novel takes its title from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and revolves around the famous tryst described in that song. David sees Batsheva (the names are spelled from their Hebrew originals) bathing on the roof and, overthrown by her beauty in the moonlight, commits adultery and a murder that bring about the near downfall of his dynasty. Woven around this thread is David’s whole life story, as recounted by his lifelong prophet, Natan.
The story doesn’t stray from its source material in the books of Samuel and Kings in any significant way. As a young man, David is pulled away from tending his sheep so he can be anointed the new king of the Israelites by the prophet Samuel. He slays Goliath, joins the court of King Saul, and loves Jonathan, Saul’s son. As king, he marries many women, fathers many sons, wins many battles. In punishment for the Batsheva affair, David’s horrid sons turn against him and each other, spurring several years of family and dynastic strife.
In Brooks’s previous novels, she has taken a very specific moment in history and turned it outward to examine a host of concerns. Here the scope seems both larger and more personal. The details of daily life in Iron Age Israel, outside of war and food, are sparse, as they have to be. There are few primary sources to consult when you go back this far. But the characters never feel foreign or unknowable. The story takes David’s faith and Natan’s prophecies at face value, but it never feels overly pious. Natan’s express mission is to make his king known to readers “as a man.”
There are times when Brooks’s decision to relate the entire story of a very eventful life in 300 pages feels like a series of missed opportunities. Natan recounts events from a distance — some scenes are related by other characters in dialogue, some are seen from afar in visions and others are recalled years after they happened. We get moments in summary that cry out to be part of a living, breathing scene. Take this line: “I was at the audience, and I sensed his manipulation, but I did not grasp where it was leading.” A different novel might spend pages leading up to this kind of realization; The Remains of the Day makes an entire book out of it. Later, distraught by David’s hand in Uriah’s death, Natan takes to the desert. While wandering there, he has visions of how the remaining years of David’s life will play out. For all this, arguably the most key passage in the book, we get two pages.
Natan is a prophet, a true seer. As such, he takes a vow of celibacy and lives apart from other people. “The truth is, the people abide my kind, but no one loves us,” he realizes at age 10, after his first vision. “We grow used to the turned shoulder, the retreating back, the bright conversation that sputters to a murmur when we enter a room, the sigh of relief when we leave it.” And so what other way, he might ask us, would a man such as him tell a story such as this? The form suits the storyteller. Still, at times I couldn’t help but wish for the “simple joys and intimacies” Natan holds himself apart from.
In their place, we gain a breadth of knowledge that lets us see how everything is connected. We understand how being unloved as a child makes David too permissive with his own children; how after being so blessed during his rise to power, he can callously abuse that power later in life. It’s rewarding, to feel like we know this man as well as Natan does. The book holds both coming-of-age tale and classic tragedy.
Fans of Brooks’s previous books may be surprised by how overwhelmingly male The Secret Chord is. All of her previous novels have central female characters. The Secret Chord stays firmly focused on David, Natan, and, later, Shlomo (Solomon). This is not to say an author must always write the same kind of book or isn’t free to choose her subjects. Several women do appear throughout the story, most notably David’s famous wives Mikhal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and all live and breathe as characters in their own right. But for the large majority of the book, we’re in a men’s world of war, chieftainship, and brutality.
Brooks’s past books are mostly about ordinary people who push against the circumstances of their time to make their lives extraordinary. The characters in The Secret Chord are extraordinary from day one and spend the rest of their lives struggling to maintain the great responsibility that comes with it. But Brooks treats these characters with the same good will and strong narrative she did with the others. David can be quite harsh and misguided, yet enthralling and charming for all that. Natan’s outsider status may place him in kinship with the women of Brooks’s other novels, and he draws our sympathy with his clear-eyed confessions.
Is it escapism to read about such a powerful figure when most of us lead lives of quiet inconsequentiality? Or is reading this book a way to hear that ancient chord in the chorus of literature, linking us to humanity throughout the ages?