Dear Geraldine Brooks, Thank you for The Secret Chord. Your retelling of the life of King David interested me because I was eager to see how you, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist http://geraldinebrooks.com, would portray David, already the subject of many bios. My own next project will probably be a memoir, and I suspected that your treatment of David’s life had much to teach me about how to describe my own. I was right. Your use of Natan the prophet as storyteller is a brilliant way of capturing David’s exploits in words. The way you made Natan himself not only a trusted narrator but a full-fledged character in the drama of his king makes the story of David’s life credible and gripping.
According to Natan, voicing the future in the name of God is painful and tiring work. When he is about to deliver a message from the deity he experiences crippling nausea and headaches and often loses consciousness. His body and voice are, it would seem, no longer his to control. To keep himself fit to serve his king and his god, Natan lives a life of celibacy, vigilance, and moderation. So our narrator is not a warrior or a lover or an aspiring king but rather a prophet, a teacher, a scholar and a diligent and thorough biographer. David trusts him and so did I. As I read, Natan’s voice was the one I cared about most. It occurred to me that I need a Natan to help me tell my own story! Otherwise how can I make readers heed my voice and care about me and my life which, compared to David’s, was and is uneventful.
The David Natan reports on was not the one I learned about in Sunday school. That David was a sheep-herding boy-poet skilled with a lyre and a slingshot who grew up to be a fearless warrior, a gifted psalmist, and a beloved king. No. Natan tells us of a David, outcast and abused as a child, who becomes a shrewd and ruthless general, and an ambitious and wise but sometimes folly-prone human king not unlike some of the leaders we admire or deplore today.
I keep telling myself that even though I am not a warrior or a queen or a best-selling writer, I too, have lived through tumultuous times, the second half of the Twentieth Century as well as the beginning of the Twenty-first. Natan used David’s epic story to make us see what life was like for women and men in biblical times. The phrase “biblical times” once made me think of robed people in the desert either getting a tablet of instructions from Charlton Heston or being crucified. Likewise I associated the word tribalism with certain outdated cultural practices and the current United States Congress. In David’s era, each tribe was an extended patriarchal family whose men were expected to defend it from attack and attack others to extend its reach. The king’s power was absolute. He inspired rivals including his own children. Thanks to your research, I now understand how and why fratricide, incest, infanticide, rape, murder, adultery, and theft all figured in David’s life.
Such a life should not go undocumented, right? You see to it that Natan convinces David to leave behind a written account of his story and, of course, the king chooses the prophet himself to write it. You also see to it that David gives his biographer the names of people to interview about his early years and grants them permission to speak the truth. Natan takes us on these interviews and so we “see” David’s mother, his oldest brother, and his first wife, through Natan’s eyes and “hear” their stories through his ears.
Natan also hears from David’s other wives. According to Batsheva she is not the siren I learned about in Sunday school. She bathed on her roof not to tempt the king but to escape the leers of injured veterans her husband had invited to their home and given work. David sent soldiers for her, repeatedly and brutally raped her, and tossed her aside. She lived in fear of being stoned to death should her first husband, one of David’s generals, discover that she had dishonored him. David goes so far as to have that first husband killed. Batsheva also offers insight into how self-serving Natan’s attempt to defend David is, thus making the prophet human too. After calling David a monster, she tells Natan that “…you choose to look away from the truth. You let your love for him blind you.” So much for our “reliable” narrator!
Because I am considering how to credibly present the significant people and events in my own life, I especially appreciate how you created a seemingly unbiased narrator only to expose his bias in the end and add yet another layer to your rich story. Can I be unbiased in recounting my own life story? Or, better yet, can I devise a different way or voice to reveal it? And is my comparatively mundane life worth documenting in the first place? Will it have meaning to others? Does that matter to me now?
Not so much. Lately scenes from my own life are replaying in my head. I usually put the characters and scenes that persist in my head into books. So now I find myself eager to capture my own memories on the page. Years ago, near the end of my teaching career, I wrote Going by the Book, a memoir about my seven year apprenticeship as a teacher. So now as my seventy-sixth birthday approaches, it seems appropriate to describe my lifelong apprenticeship as a writer. Like David, I need a plausible perspective, narrator, or voice to help me do this. And, Ms Brooks, your story reminds me of that. You made the relationship between David and Natan become part of your narrative and by doing so gave both men the depth they need to be interesting and credible. Thank you.