Lazarus is Dead
by Richard Beard
Europa Editions; 272 p.
Over the span of sixteen years, Thomas Mann penned what he thought of as his greatest work: a four part novel entitled Joseph and His Brothers which retells the biblical story of Joseph in Egypt. That few (if any) of us ever heard of these novels attests to the irrelevance of the Bible to our literary consciousness. Yet authors have long made use of the Bible in one way or another: Dostoevsky made heavy use of Biblical themes and allusions in many if not all of his books, and Melville famously used the story of Jonah in the form of a sermon as the backdrop for Moby Dick. Today the Bible appears sporadically in contemporary literature: Marilynne Robinson relies on it often, but for the most part it now stands as an exotic text.
Richard Beard, in his new book Lazarus is Dead, makes a compelling case for the relevance of the Bible to literature. Lazarus, in case you forgot (or, like me, never learned the New Testament), was raised from the dead by Jesus as written in the Gospel of John. Yet, as authors throughout the centuries note, the story of Lazarus is far from a simple story. Lazarus, out of all people in the Bible, receives the epithet of “friend of Jesus.” Even with this friendship, Jesus hears of his friend’s sickness but waits two days before he visits. When he visits four days after the death of Lazarus he resurrects his friend and leaves him again.
The Bible only provides hints at the complex relationship between these friends, and commentators, writers, artists, and musicians throughout the generation have attempted to create their own narrative through the Biblical ambiguities. Beard finds himself in a long line of illustrious artists including Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, and T.S. Eliot. Classically, the story and image of Lazarus have carried so much power and weight because people associate Lazarus with resurrection. Yet Beard, sensing the human drama in the relationship between these friends, crafts a masterful story which fills in the holes in the story through a focus on the tension between human desires and religious destiny. Here Beard captures the character of Lazarus right before he describes his resurrection:
He sold blemished lambs at the temple. He cheated shepherds and made compulsive visits to a prostitute. He was insensitive and self-important, he was beloved and he was dead.
This piece aptly displays Beard’s talent and vision. He takes a dry Biblical character and resurrects his own Lazarus. The Bible, especially in the New Testament, lacks dynamic characters and characterization, instead focusing on moral lessons. In that one sentence, “He was insensitive and self important, he was beloved,” Beard changes everything about the story. Now we see a flawed human, not a god, or a divine object, or a resurrected relic. (Beard explains that many lesser known traditions saw Lazarus as divine in some sense because of the resurrection. Certains sects treat Lazarus as a saint, while legends abound in these cultures as to the complementary greatness of Lazarus, Jesus’ only named friend. Beard uses this esoteric tradition to depict Lazarus’ return from death as burdensome because of the public clamoring for a divine dispatch from the land of souls.)
Jesus and Lazarus, in Beard’s version, grew up together. Lazarus, more outspoken, charismatic, and rebellious, foresaw a great future from these two ambitious friends. Beard uses their childhood friendship for much of the humor and irony in the story. Time and time again people obsessed with Jesus ask Lazarus, “What is Jesus really like? You’re his friend,” and each time Lazarus replies, “Slow at climbing,” or, “Hopeless at swimming.” Beard here captures the complexity of a religious figure in which we deign to “know” but don’t know in any human sense of a relationship. When we forget the humanity of our religious figures, when we move into idolatry, we lose much of their beauty, Beard contends.
Tragedy then tears them apart. Lazarus’ little brother Amos follows the two older boys around and attempts to do everything his older brother does. One day, while swimming, Amos follows Lazarus into the water only to drown. Lazarus attempts to save his brother and Jesus, unable to swim and as yet unable to perform miracles, stands idly by.
The friends grow apart, separated by the trauma and Jesus’s inaction, as they grow into disparate lifestyles. Lazarus provides blemished sheep to the Temple service (which according to law cannot use blemished sheep), while Jesus spends his day studying, learning scripture and engaged in devout prayer. When Lazarus falls sick, he rejects any suggestions to elicit the help of his old friend. Instead, he suffers through the rest of his days emitting the noxious smell of decay. He dies unceremoniously and then awakes from the dead at the behest of Jesus, only to find a resurrected life even more complicated than the first go around.
Beard uses these tensions to craft a pitch-perfect tone of world-weariness, humor, and a thread of hope. He gives voice to the unvoiced character of Lazarus and thereby rests the story back from the focus on Jesus. In fact, in a brilliant move, Beard removes all voice from Jesus. Jesus never speaks once, which is perhaps both a respectful technique, but also a statement. So much of the Bible focuses on Jesus and his disciples’ reactions to Jesus. We hear nothing of those not involved in a central manner. We get but one perspective, the perspective of Christ in his moral grandeur. Beard, in robbing Jesus of his voice, appears to say, “We’ve heard enough from Jesus, let’s see what others have to say.”
Part history, part novel, and part religious reflection, Beard amalgamates scripture, commentaries, and his own essayistic asides to create a thoughtful, moving, poetic, and aching portrayal of an attempt to grapple with basic religious questions, with a focus on theodicy, both on the part of Lazarus the character and Beard the narrator.
In a sense, I can understand how some might see this as a subversive text. Beard retells a beloved tale of a character that many see as St. Lazarus. He, like most of our generation, doesn’t view the bible as divine. Despite this, Beard through reinvigorating this classic tale with humanity, with contemporary relevance doesn’t subvert, but supports the continued relevance of the bible as a religious text, even if not divine. He makes a case with each page of this small but compelling book for a re-engagement with the most famous and foundational text of our culture not through a recycling of traditional moralistic stories, but through an embodiment of the details left out: of what friendship with a purported messiah looks like, of how to forgive a God for inaction, of what friends might talk about after one resurrects the other (Hi?). It is a wholly original yet deeply rooted effort full of insight and beauty that deserves our attention.