Late last year I saw a review for Richard Beard’s Lazarus Is Dead (2011) on John Self’s blog (here). John was surprised to find this book quickly become one of his favorites of the year. Knowing only what is recorded in the book of John, I was curious about a book focused on Lazarus, however it portrayed him. Consequently, I was thrilled to see Europa Editions publish the book here in the United States.
And I’ll second John (the blogger John, in this instance): this is a surprising book, and one of my favorites of the year. I think I expected some kind of spoof or anti-religious statement (“Lazarus is dead.”), and that’s absolutely not what this is (rather, I found it completely respectful of its biblical source, and I say that as a religious person). Or perhaps, if not a spoof, I expected some kind of interrogation into the life and death and life of Lazarus, and that’s only partially what this is. Mixed here are fiction, biography, scripture, art and literary history, peppered with humor — all coming together to form an interrogation on the nature of story-telling and authority. For me it is all of these things and an interesting story in and of itself.
A fan of the Oulipo (a group of authors who set up structural constrictions — sometimes simple, like retelling a simple event 99 times in a variety of styles, as Raymond Queneau did in Elements of Style; sometimes elaborate, like writing a whole book without ever using the letter “e,” as Georges Perec did in A Void— and then create a literary work within that frame), Richard Beard has set up his own structure here. The first section is “7,” and it contains seven subsections; the next is 6, with six subsections, and so on, each section representing one of Jesus’ seven miracles recounted in the Gospel of John (and bringing Lazarus visibly closer to death), until we get to 0 and begin counting back up to seven, bringing the book closer to Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
In the first half of the book, as we circle closer and closer to death, we learn about the past Jesus and Lazarus share. Beard posits, and presents as narrative fact (though fully aware that his standing is just as firm as any of a number of other guesses), that Jesus and Lazarus were friends from birth. Both were born in Bethlehem, under that star. When Joseph learned of Herod’s plot to kill all of the male children, Joseph told Lazarus’s father, so both families escaped to Egypt and eventually came back to settle in Nazareth (so, as surely as we have Jesus of Nazareth, we also have Lazarus of Nazareth). But then, what was once a firm friendship between Jesus and Lazarus begins to crumble, and Lazarus, wanting to get away from the small-town life, moved away to Bethany, a village just outside of Jerusalem, to sell sacrificial lambs to patrons of the Temple.
Well, now Jesus is back in his life, though they don’t visit one another. Lazarus hears that Jesus has turned water into wine at some wedding in Cana, and Lazarus begins to get sick. It’s a minor miracle, and most don’t believe it anyway; nevertheless, it has caught the attention of both the Sanhedrin and the Romans. A Messiah is most inconvenient. Lazarus feels it too: besides getting more and more sick with each miracle Jesus performs, his livelihood is threatened when people seek Jesus for healing rather than going the more traditional route of purchasing a pure lamb and sacrificing it at the Temple. It’s an annoyance in the life of someone who has deliberately moved away from Jesus: “His life is ordered, successful, unusual; he doesn’t need enlightenment.”
Beard presents such an interesting tone as Lazarus sinks to near decay. It’s most human. Lazarus’s sister Mary implores him to go to Jesus. Lazarus doesn’t want to go to Jesus, who didn’t seem all that special and who offended him greatly once in their youth; plus, what would this say to his business associates, let alone to the elders in Jerusalem who can make or break him. No. Lazarus will not listen to Mary. Martha, always more pragmatic, sees both points of view, but she’s also annoyed that Lazarus is suffering so while Jesus is off healing others, even bringing a few back from the dead. Beard intersperses these snippets of fiction with looks at scripture and even tidbits of the Lazarus tradition as shown through art and literature, going on to analyze these artifacts and either use them or discard them as he sees fit. It is important to note that while Beard creates this pseudo-biography, the book is set up in such a way that we question the foundation of the very story we’re reading. Lazarus Is Dead questions the story’s sources, from as far back as the Gospel of John itself to more recent “accounts” such as Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and even Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; then the book proceeds to rely on those very sources. Even assertions are sometimes doubted soon after they’re made; for example, the opening of the book:
Lazarus is dead.
There is no room for doubt. He died, he came back to life, but then he died again. If he were alive today, we would know. I think.
And questioning is an important aspect of the story. Lazarus, unsure why he has to die, wonders why Jesus is using him so. Mary trusts Jesus’ motives, but Lazarus and Martha are less sure. The questions don’t go away when we get to the second half of the book and Lazarus is back from the dead after four days in the tomb. If anything, the questions get even harder.
When Lazarus comes back from the dead, he is amazed. He knows he died and he knows Jesus brought him back to life. He may have stepped out of the tomb tentatively (as the stick figure does in the U.S. edition’s cover), but he wants to help. Then Martha makes him think:
‘I died and came back to life.’
‘Yes,’ Martha said. ‘But what for?’
Yes, Lazarus is back, but now what? Jesus has already left for Jerusalem (and Beard shows how humorous this book can be when, as he walks out to find Jesus, Lazarus hears a few women drawing water from the well complaining about a stolen donkey). Jesus left without a word, and even Jesus’ disciples seem to mistrust Lazarus. Worse, now the Sanhedrin is after his life — again; after all, it’s not much of a miracle if the person raised from the dead is, well, dead. And the Romans have their own ideas about how they can use Lazarus to quell any inconvenient religious uprisings. The story gets thicker
The second half of the novel shines as a friendship once lost begins to be rekindled, but with so many questions that never get answered. The book ends with Beard coming out and questioning it all again: “Lazarus may never have died.” This at once questions the legends concerning Lazarus’s second life and his second death, or his death in the middle of the book, or the title and the book’s opening lines: “Lazarus is dead. [. . .] If he were alive today, we would know. I think.”