Review | The Anointed by Michael Arditti

David and Goliath (1599), Caravaggio

Patrick Maxwell

Doubting David

For contemporary fiction to stay pertinent in the twenty-first century, it must continue to do what great novelists have always striven to do: challenge, interpret, and risk offence. Michael Arditti’s new novel The Anointed challenges the ultimate orthodoxy, the Bible – in particular, the ancient tales of the Old Testament, which have endured for thousands of years, despite their capriciousness and morals archaic to the modern reader.

The Anointed retells the story of King David, espoused by the Bible as a heroic fighter, who, although a mortal, had the blessing of the Lord in his victories. Set contemporaneously in Jerusalem in the 10th century BC, Arditti’s version of the well-known biblical tale is told from the perspective of David’s three wives, confined to the harem and kept in constant subjugation. Arditti depicts, without gratuity, the violence, exploitation and cruelty that pervade the lives of these three women.

Michal, Abigail and Bathsheba understand that to marry David is to join an important dynasty. Yet their fate is not in their hands; they are subject only to the desires of their husband, desires which grow increasingly unpredictable. When the glory of his heroism after defeating Goliath fades, David becomes a tyrannical ruler, as his predecessor Saul was and his son Solomon is to be.

Arditti portrays David as brutal and vicious, and the women subordinate. Michal’s dreams of life under David are sharply rebuked by her mother before she gets married: ‘Your body is no longer your own’. Michal is ‘startled’, but wonders ‘when my body had ever been my own.’ In marrying, she follows her elders’ wishes. Michal gives up what remains of her personal freedom to become her husband’s chattel. Yet ‘the depth of [her] desire for him shocked and even frightened’ Michal. David’s seemingly irresistible qualities – virtuosic musician, war hero, charmer – endure, even as the idealism of his youth slides into despotism.

Arditti’s characters are realistic. They feel like living, breathing people: historical as well as biblical. They are neither overly archaic in nature, nor prosaic in Arditti’s effort to transport antiquity into the present day. Narrating in the first person, he depicts all three women as independent of one another. They each react differently to David’s brutality, even though their intentions for marrying may be similar. The wives are no Lady Macbeths, enticed by power before setting into motion the bloody consequences of their paranoia. They are enticed, certainly, but come to realise David’s cruel motives. Arditti explores this realization and their unfolding reactions, either through Michal’s rebellion, Abigail’s gentle platitudes, or through the near-obsequies of the betrayed Bathsheba.

In the Bible, the tale of Bathsheba is almost tokenistic, highlighting what seems to be a single blemish on the reputation of the otherwise brilliant figure of David. Arditti removes the veil of devout orthodoxy with a vivid and challenging narrative that weaves impressively through the events of David’s reign, and presents an astute, more accurate portrait, both politically and psychologically, of a deeply flawed leader and his determined wives, hindered by their subjugation. The vitality of the characters comes through their struggles against the oppression they are under in a male-dominated society, and the narrative’s pertinence springs from its reclaiming women’s perspectives.

Arditti’s title speaks volumes of the society in which he places his characters. Although David does not inherit his crown, it seems that he is anointed by God; that the times he lives in give him the power to dominate those he desires. Like tyrants before and after him, his position gives him the ability to violate the rights of those surrounding him and wield violence to achieve his ends. Abigail observes: ‘He looks at me knowingly, and I see what it means to be favoured by the Lord.’ David’s meretricious nature shadows the violence and inner conflict of the king, whose power and strength elicit both attraction and envy from all who surround him.

The problem of The Anointed is one all historical novelists face, especially when dragging hallowed texts like the Bible into contemporary historical fiction. The language of the three women is modernist in tone, while maintaining the formalities of Biblical accounts. Arditti’s language is rarely distracting, but there are times when this uneasy combination seems unrealistic. Jonathan talks in one moment of David’s ‘unstinting devotion’ towards him, then claims ‘If anyone has torn the crown from my head, it’s you!’. This unlikely language does not fully capture the emotion of Jonathan’s words in context. Nevertheless, Arditti does manage to capture the travails of the ancient world, as in the masterful opening paragraph of the novel, where Michal sets the scene:

I heard him before I saw him, strumming his lyre, the notes flowing through his fingers as smoothly as sand. Merab and I listened from the safety of the courtyard. Mother had forbidden us to enter Father’s chamber when he was possessed by the evil spirit. Unsure what an evil spirit was, I pictured a Philistine god with a long, scaly tail, who could be caught as easily as a carp in the Sea of Chinnereth.

So much is covered in this small section, and in such brilliant prose. The hyperbole of the ‘Sea’ and the ‘Philistine god’ adds to the mystery as King Saul is left ‘cowering in the corner’, ‘possessed by the evil spirit’, all in the background of David’s music. Arditti manages to keep an impressive balance between the broader events of the Biblical text and the details and complexities he puts between his characters. He performs the novelist’s role: filling in the details that bring the events to life on the page, expanding that narrative to shift our view of David to his evidently monstrous character. It is a finely poised novel; poignant yet exacting, fueled with momentum, driving the lives of the characters inexorably onwards.

Arditti succeeds in what must be the primary mission of his work: to enliven debate, navigate controversy and challenge his readers to interrogate David’s heroism. Writing historical fiction that ‘adheres strictly to the sequence of events in the Books of Samuel’, as the author puts it, does not stop Arditti from showing the balefulness of religious orthodoxy, of tyrannical rule, or of the subjugation of those in the king’s harem.

Karl Marx, himself a challenger of religious and political orthodoxy, was fond of the Latin maxim De omnibus dubitandum est: ‘Everything must be doubted’. Arditti’s novel shows the value of fiction doing this, doubting even the most scared of texts, and making audiences think, then think again. The combination of his storytelling – Arditti’s imaginative invention of new scenes and identities – amounts to an important novel, one which gives voice to three women silenced by orthodoxy.

            Patrick Maxwell is an English writer on politics, literature and music, based near Oxford. He is the editor of Gerrymander, and a writer for many other publications, such as Comment Central and Backbench.

For more information and to buy The Anointed by Michael Arditti, visit Arcadia Books’ website

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