|Brothers Limbourg, The Raising of Lazarus, 1416|
For his 1996 debut 'X20', he bent the form of the novel to reflect the experience of its protagonist, Gregory Simpson, who quits smoking and decides to write something every time he craves a cigarette. In 'Damascus' (1998), the constraint is linguistic, with almost every noun in the book taken from The Times on the day the Maastricht Treaty came into effect (1 November 1993), making British people citizens of Europe.
This would mean very little if Beard's fascination with form wasn't mirrored by his desire to get to the bottom of things. He is less a teller of stories than a seeker after truth. How do we know a decision is the right one? What grounds do we have for certainty in any given situation? In 'Becoming Drusilla' (2008) he set out to learn the truth about his old friend Drusilla - formerly Drew - Marland, exploring the transsexual experience in a sensitive, personal, finely structured narrative that blended genres (biography, travel writing, history) with wit and verve.
So to his new book, 'Lazarus is Dead', which is I think his most interesting to date. The rigorous structure of the early novels is there, with chapters built around the number 7, but the writing has the easy flow of Beard's non-fiction books. Following the model of 'X20' the life story of the protagonist (Lazarus, the only person Jesus calls 'friend') is woven into a wider meditation on his role in Christian tradition, which sounds a bit dry but isn't - I finished the book at a sitting. What makes it so gripping is Beard's limitless curiosity. He wants to know what Lazarus died of, and what being fatally ill in 1st century Palestine was like. He wants to know what it's like when you childhood pal is hailed as the son of god. He wants to know what it means to die, and what it means to return from the grave.
|Giotto, The Raising of Lazarus, 1304|
|Rembrandt, The Raising of Lazarus, 1630|
|William Blake, The Raising of Lazarus, 1795|