Michael Arditti’s latest novel takes the biblical tale of David and Goliath as its starting point
23 July, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
Details from Pierre Puget’s David contemplant la tete de Goliath
THE story of David, the sweet-singing shepherd who took down Goliath on the battlefield for King Saul with a stone from his sling shot and went on to become King, is a load-bearing pillar of the Old Testament.
Novelist Michael Arditti, who is based in Primrose Hill, has taken the life of David as a starting point in his latest novel, The Anointed, and brings a fresh and insightful interpretation of a fundamental text in the history of modern thought.
He tells the story of David through recreating the voices of three prominent wives. Michael has built a reputation for his novels that consider the Bible through the prism of time, bringing alive the stories in a manner that makes them understandable by focusing on the reality of the people involved.
In this deeply rich, descriptive and approachable text, an ancient story is retold and offers for those uninitiated in biblical scholarship greater understanding of a story that has influenced world literature.
“The Bible is, of course, the most widely read book of all time, and David receives more mentions in it than any other figure but Jesus,” says Michael. “Yet who exactly was he? Although a fragmentary inscription on an ancient Aramaean tablet, discovered in 1993, has finally provided historical evidence of David’s existence, the documentary evidence in the Books of Samuel offers the only full picture of it – and a very contradictory picture it is.”
Michael begins by giving us a fresh angle on the story of how David, a shepherd boy, took up a challenge on behalf of King Saul on the battlefield and using his sling shot, aimed a stone right between the eyes of the Philistine champion, Goliath.
This story is related by King Saul’s daughter, the 15-year-old Michal. As David becomes inseparable from her older brother Jonathan, she falls in love with David and decides she must marry him. The trilogy of David’s life through Michal and then two other wives, the widowed Abigail and Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, create a shocking picture of a world where violence and political intrigue is set against a God In Heaven who must not be offended, and where humans behave abominably towards each other – excusing their immorality on sex, race and status, a lesson we have yet to learn from.
Having a character of David’s stature gives Michael’s story ground to cover – there is relentless drama and relentless tragedy.
“He commanded King Saul’s armies, then not only rebelled against the king but allied himself with the Philistines, leading scavenging raids into Judean territory,” says Michael. “He reputedly wrote the Psalms, among the world’s finest devotional poetry, and founded the holy city of Jerusalem, yet God considered him too sinful to build the temple. He defeated Israel’s enemies and fortified its borders, yet he was unable to control his own children, with one of his sons raping his half-sister and another leading a revolt against him.”
He adds he believes the only other figure from the ancient world that approached David in richness and complexity is Odysseus.
“It’s no coincidence that they took on their basic literary form at around the same time,” he says.
He believes David’s influence has been greater on Western culture than the Greek myths – and the more he read about David, the more he wanted to write a novel about his life.
Michael took the decision to write from the viewpoint of his wives because he felt it would provide an interesting voice as narrator, and partly in light of other novels about David. They include Joseph Heller’s God Knows, “in which David, sounding uncommonly like Woody Allen, relates his story while complaining that Michelangelo portrayed him as uncircumcised,” says Michael, “to Eric Shaw Quinn’s The Prince’s Psalm, a torrid account of David’s love for Jonathan, Stefan Heym’s The King David Report, which turns David’s story into a veiled commentary on the author’s life in totalitarian East Germany, and Alan Massie’s King David, a beautifully measured biblical portrait.”
His narrators emerge from the shadows and offer a remarkable, fresh, provocative and perceptive insight into the timeless story of David, and through that, an enjoyable, contemporary consideration of a key biblical text.
“Focusing on the women enabled me both to offer a new perspective on David’s story and to remedy an imbalance, indeed, an injustice,” he adds.
“From the Patriarchs to the Prophets, the Old Testament largely describes the deeds of men. With a few notable exceptions, the women, if mentioned at all, are either wicked seductresses, like Jezebel, Delilah, Athaliah and the mother of them all, Eve, or selfless matriarchs, like Sarah, Rachel and Hannah. I knew that there had to be more to the women in David’s life than that.”
• The Anointed. By Michael Arditti, Arcadia, £16.99.