Friday, 26 August 2011

Richard Beard: 'Lazarus is Dead'

Brothers Limbourg, The Raising of Lazarus, 1416
Richard Beard is an unusual kind of writer, and an extremely unusual kind of British writer. In fact he ought to have been French, or Eastern European. He handles words with a poet's care and, though his outlook is essentially comic, he is rigorous in his approach to subject and structure.

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
The historical evidence for Lazarus's existence is, well, non-existent, the Biblical evidence scant. Yet Lazarus has been portrayed in words and pictures countless times, and it is this evidence - a kind of collective imagination - that Beard draws on, sharing the views and versions of writers, painters and film-makers across the centuries. A rather dull review in The Observer last week failed to get the point, trying to read 'Lazarus is Dead' as if it were a conventional novel rather than a thought-provoking, moving and literate exploration of a world-famous character who may, or may not have existed.

Rembrandt, The Raising of Lazarus, 1630
I've found some of the paintings Beard mentions in the text, and one or two others that he doesn't. An illustrated edition would be a treat. But what on earth, I find myself wondering, will he write about next?

William Blake, The Raising of Lazarus, 1795

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