Page 156 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
still get a big treat out of that. Sarah is almost real in her
generous, high-spirited good nature and rivalrous female jeal­
ousy. And Abraham, of course, is ever up to the mark, obedient,
fair, judicious, and brave, always the perfect gentleman and intel­
ligent patriarch. But where’s the action once you get past Isaac
and Hagar? Jacob stands up as narrative in a primitive way, and
Joseph is pretty lively as the pampered, late-born, bratty favorite
of his doting father”
(GK,
p. 5). O f all the Bible’s personalities,
however, the best character for a work of fiction is— according to
Heller’s King David — the Bible’s King David. “I ’ve got the
poetry and the passion, savage violence and the plain raw
civilizing grief of human heartbreak. . . . My psalms last. I could
live forever on my famous elegy alone. . . . I’ve got wars and ec­
static religious experiences, obscene dances, ghosts, murders,
hair-raising escapes, and exciting chase scenes. There were chil­
dren who died early”
(GK,
pp. 5-6).
This last sentence, alluding to fathers bereft of their sons, is
capital. Its pathos requires close and extensive examination and
will receive it subsequently. For the moment, however, let us
dwell on that part of David’s persona that is artist. In painting a
portrait of King David, Heller insist that what he is doing is cor­
recting the errors of non-Jewish artists. He has his David com­
pare the portrait of himself found in Heller’s novel with the por­
traits done by other famous artists, for example, Michelangelo
and Donatello. “What we have from Michelangelo, I ’m afraid, is
not David from Bethlehem in Judah but a Florentine fag’s idea of
what a handsome Israelite youth might look like if he were a na­
ked Greek catamite”
(GK,
p. 177). What Heller is claiming here is
that his work constitutes Jewish art.
Does his claim hold up? Greek and Roman literature are much
on Heller’s mind in the novel. He compares his story to that of
Homer, the quintessential Greek poet. “Homer was really not
much good at building a story, was he?”
(GK,
p. 130). The title of
Chapter 5 is “Arms and the Man,” after Vergil. Heller does
recognize, however, that poetry produces the same effect for a
Jew as it does for a Greek. The purpose of poetry — that is trag­
edy and comedy — is catharsis, the purging of the soul. This is
what Heller’s King David says about the composition of his “fa­
mous elegy”: “Once again the creative act had a salutary effect
upon me, for I was drained of grief when I finished and of all pity
and fear. My beautiful and famous elegy was a catharsis. I must