Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard

I want to blog only in grand runs, posts daisy-chained together by a theme or place or time or whatever else, attacking one or a few books for a while so that out of a few hits I can land one or so and feel good about it. But if I keep waiting to get organized enough for that I’ll miss completely telling you about some of what I read in my long quiet months that I do want to write about.

Richard Beard’s 2012 novel Lazarus Is Dead is one such. I read it for a very simple reason: I was looking for a Europa Editions title that wasn’t translated from a language I read. If you haven’t been with me long enough to know that’s how we pick out books over here, there it is. The front-cover blurb was from Philip Hensher, which can’t hurt, and taught me that Beard was “one of the most ingenious, resourceful and entertaining novelists in England.” I can’t exactly vouch for the superlative, but Lazarus Is Dead is ingenious, resourceful, and entertaining.

It tells the story of Lazarus, but not, of course, quite the story you already know. Oh, the main points are all the same—there’s just a lot more added in. Beard embroiders the biblical tale, fleshing out the narrative and openly speculating about history, exegesis, and the meaning of the Lazarus story. There’s romance, there’s intrigue, there’s a thriller element complete with Roman spies. It’s titillating, it’s disgusting, and it’s genuinely thought-provoking. Just as Judas can be seen less as betraying Christ and more as fulfilling what the story had to be, Lazarus too is a stepping-stone on Jesus’ road to messiah-hood, an actor in a different scene of the same play.

If words like “contrived” and “pomo” come to mind, I’m not surprised, but Lazarus Is Dead doesn’t fall into the usual traps of preciousness or precocity. By the end it comes to feel like nothing so much as the highly engaging story of “the only named friend of Jesus”—that is, exactly what it purports to be, speculative and exciting and tragicomic and uncertain.