“Do you want this?” Malgorzata asked me, thrusting a pristine copy of The Gospel into my hands.
“I absolutely do,” I told her, adding it quickly to the towering stack of books we’d already harvested.
I read it this past week, and while it isn’t D. H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died or Robert Graves’s King Jesus, it is way more impressive a book than I’d been expecting it to be (it seems pretty clear that pugnacious old Norman (1923-2007), while not going gentle into that good night, was, sad to say, running out of steam a bit by the mid 1990s (I hated his 2007 Hitler novel, Castle in the Forest, so much so I’m now going to have to reread it to get a better idea of why).
The reviews of the Mailer Gospel at the time were lukewarm to terrible. The book was apparently pretentious, sacrilegious, self-serving and theologically suspect—all the adjectives that critics hostile to Mailer’s writing have always hurled at him (with the exception of “sacrilegious” and “theologically suspect” which were of course new).
I found it otherwise. I liked the semi-biblical, rather starchy but noble drone of its autobiographical voice (the book is entirely “Yeshua ” or Jesus speaking) . The book is simply, obviously, inexorably structured: it follows the New Testament gospels—especially that of St. Mark. “While I would not say that Mark’s gospel is false,” says Mailer’s Yeshua, at the beginning of the book, “it has much exaggeration. And I would offer less for Matthew and for Luke and John, who gave me words I never uttered and described me as gentle when I was pale with rage.”
The book is essentially the gospel story fleshed out (the flesh made word) so that Mailer-Jesus shares with the reader his insights, his aspirations, his doubts (and there are almost too many of them) and his interpretations. Other characters do and do not come to life. His mother, Mary, for example, remains enigmatic throughout the book. His earthly father, the carpenter Joseph, however, is brought wonderfully to life: “Joseph used to say: ‘Where one plank is joined to another by a man who cares for the subtlety of the joint, the first piece will cleave to the second as in a marriage that is blessed. But boards joined by nails fall apart when the nail rusts; so, too, is marriage corroded by adultery’….”
“He would tell,” writes Mailer-Jesus, “how the Egyptians fashioned small chests of much delicacy out of no better wood than acacia, sycamore, or tamarisk. Such grains were fibrous and often knotty, and each surface had to be finished with paint and gold leaf. Yet this work of the Egyptians, although limited by their bronze tools, had proved more beautiful than our own, and Joseph even owned a small Egyptian chest whose dovetailed corners were a wonder to him” (Mailer’s research is showing a bit blatantly here, but I find his detailing compelling nevertheless).
The disciple Peter remains in the shadows. Judas Iscariot, however, is vividly present to us:
“The truth, dear Yeshua, is that I do not believe you will ever bring us all to salvation. Yet in the course of saying all that you say, the poor will take courage to feel more equal to the rich. That gives me happiness.”
“I hate the rich. They poison all of us. They are vain, undeserving, and wasteful of the hopes of those who are beneath them. They spend their lives lying to the lowly.”
“I hardly knew what to reply.”
Similarly vivid is the raising of Lazarus—which, in fact, is not ideally presented for any squeamish reader (‘the maggots have left me.’ His voice was like the small cry of a bird. Yet he was alive.”).
“In the morning when I said good-bye,” remembers Jesus, “he was weak and his spirit was low. I asked, ‘Do you believe?’ and Lazarus said “I am frightened of the things I saw when dead. Yet I try to believe.’ In his weakness, he still took my arm and said, ‘An angel came to me. All is not heavy.”
All is not heavy. I love “All is not heavy.” Pure Mailer, softened by Yeshua-Jesus.
Some of the novel is frightening. Some of it is lyrical and touchingly tender.
Here is Jesus ministering to a little girl who is grievously ill: “…I did understand that much unhappiness between husband and wife had laid a pall upon the girl. I could see that she lived in a house of many unclean feelings. No air was sweet in these rooms, and stale miseries that feed upon themselves were with us. Before I left, I told Jairus and his wife to fast, to pray, and to leave a flower each morning in a small jar by the child’s bed.”