I wrote one myself indeed, some 25 years ago, narrated by David in his old age, so I was especially curious to see how Michael Arditti would address the challenge. He has done so ingeniously, disturbingly and triumphantly. Though faithful to the narrative given us in the Books of Samuel, he presents it through the voices of three of David’s many wives, each from her perspective casting a different light on him.
The first is Michal, daughter of Saul and sister of Jonathan. She is originally entranced by the glorious boy David and determined to marry him in defiance of her distrustful and jealous father Saul. She will help him escape when Saul seeks to kill him. Even then, however, she has seen what she should not have seen and this will colour and corrupt her view of him until love turns to bitter hatred and finally contempt. The second is Abigail, an older woman, wife first of the landowner Nabal, who fears David and whom she detests. She will be the most loyal and loving of David’s wives, the one for whom he can do no wrong.
The third is Bathsheba whom David first sees washing her body on her terrace, desires and seduces though she is already married to the Captain of his Guard, Uriah the Hittite. David is guilty of many deaths, but the one contrived for Uriah is the meanest of them. Bathsheba will become his most powerful wife, mother of Solomon, the priggish son David has never cared for, who will nevertheless succeed him and, as the last pages of the novel show, will, to his mother’s horror, prove himself as cruel and pitiless as his father.Arditti distinguishes these different voices with great skill as he traces the course of David’s journey from marvellous boy to ruthless fighter and cruel tyrant. The moral disintegration of his character is paralleled by his physical deterioration as the beautiful boy becomes an ugly, disgusting and still lascivious old man.
Arditti offers a terrible and wholly convincing study of corruption: of egotism, self-righteousness deriving from his certainty that he is the chosen of the Lord, and the exercise of absolute power. David’s is also a tragic story, one in which only Abigail of his women can continue to see the boy surviving within the degenerate dictator.
This is a wonderfully rich novel. Arditti brings Ancient Israel to life – far more thoroughly and with richer imagination than I even attempted. He makes a strange and distant culture vivid and immediate, in all its beauty and horror. His David undoubtedly believes himself to be the Chosen of the Lord, therefore one to whom everything is permitted. It has always been obvious that the powerful but self-doubting Saul, rejected, if we are to believe the prophet Samuel, by the Lord who had chosen him as the first King of Israel, is a tragic figure, but it takes an acute and generous understanding to reveal David as tragic too.
“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as the historian John Dalberg-Acton wrote. David is hero and villain, victim of his own triumphant success. In almost his last act he decrees his last revenge, to be carried out posthumously; and it is almost his meanest murder. The entrancing boy of the early chapters scarcely survives in memory. Israel has become a chamber of horrors.I thought – and still think – my King David rather a good novel. Arditti’s is however a richer and better one. ■