Unlike recent series of brief books by famous authors about famous subjects — including Penguin Lives, Eminent Lives and American Presidents — the new Jewish Encounters series is not a collection of biographies alone. While many of the planned books are about people — Seth Lipsky will write about Abraham Cahan, Jonathan Wilson about Marc Chagall — others are about cultural icons or broad themes. For example, editor Jonathan Rosen (who, I disclose, contributed kind praise to the dust jacket of my recent book) has signed up Ben Katchor to draw a book about the dairy restaurant. Ilan Stavans will contribute a volume on the Hebrew alphabet. Melvin Konner is writing about the Jewish body, Stephen Greenblatt about the city of Vilna.
Under scrutiny, Rosen’s pairings of author and subject reveal a sly wit, one sure to be lost on most readers. Why would Stephen Dubner, perhaps best known as economist Steven Leavitt’s collaborator on the recent book “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything” (William Morrow), be asked to write about Moses? Those who have read early Dubner will know that he, like Moses, discovered his Jewish ancestry only in adulthood. Rebecca Goldstein on Baruch Spinoza? Why, they’re both Jews who write heterodox philosophy, at grave risk to their religious standing in the Orthodox community in which they live.
What American poet Robert Pinsky brings to his brief book about King David is, of course, his and the king’s shared excellence with verse. King David wrote the psalms, legend tells us; Pinsky writes poems about such everyday objects as (to take my favorite example) shirts. But there is more: Each has been his people’s national poet. Pinsky was poet laureate of the United States from 1997 to 2000, and he brought an energy unmatched in the job before or since. David, a poet king, ruled his people by the sword, but he commands the respect of Jewish posterity with his words. In fact, given the Christians’ love of the psalms, David may be the most quoted poet ever.
Pinsky is not a Hebraist, and while his treatment of David occasionally relies on source criticism or on etymology, he is mostly content to quote from the King James Bible. With that choice — which strikes me as perfectly reasonable — Pinsky commits himself to a reading of David the poet king, as his exploits and poetry have come down to us in Jacobite English. He’s hardly interested in David the historical figure; he largely ignores scholars’ debates about where, when and if David might have lived. What he knows to be true is that David’s greatest real-world impact is as a major character in the most important book of all time, and as the putative author of some of our best-loved poems.
With no time wasted hedging bets about the veracity of any of these stories, Pinsky retells them — from David the boy, slaying Goliath, to David the old man, ensuring that Solomon succeeds him. Pinsky offers commentary as he goes, and sometimes his similes are a bit hokey: “Abinadab and Dodo are not simply our relatives in biblical dress, any more than they are Gregory Peck or Richard Gere in robes and sandals, speaking stilted English or subtitled Hebrew to indicate their biblical condition. They are Jews, but in significant ways they are more like Bedouins than someone from Great Neck.”
It’s when Pinsky is not trying too hard to talk at the reader’s level that he manages to bring the reader up to his, as when, to illustrate the power of the story of Bathsheba, he adduces a poem by 16th-century Englishman George Peele, “Bethsabe’s Song.” Pinsky’s gloss on one particular line — “Make not my glad cause cause of mourning” — is poetry explication of the highest order: “The graceful predicate stutter of syntax on ‘cause cause,’ the word’s energy backward and forward, is like Bathsheba’s helpless need to honor her past life and her new.”
That’s Pinsky at his best, when his marriage to his topic is working most felicitously. He helps us brush up on, say, the Bathsheba story, giving examples of how others have read the story over time, whether the others be talmudists, old poets or Hollywood films. Then he leaves us with some smart, sympathetic take of his own. When all these engines are firing, the book moves briskly and with a satisfying hum.
Other times, Pinsky’s strength as a poet can be a weakness in this book. He’ll chooses archaic words that really can’t be used naturally in prose anymore: He refers to the right as the “dexter side”; in one instance, he writes of the inadequacy of our tongue, that “modern English flails for a noun.” At such moments, the book becomes more about Pinsky the poet than about Pinsky the critic — and if one wants Pinsky the poet, far better to pull “Jersey Rain” off the bookshelf.
But Pinsky’s strong voice is also a helpful reminder that this is not a précis of the David story, nor a scholarly edition, but a tour given by a guide whose choices are personal and idiosyncratic, as all guides’ are. Here, the prophet Nathan is paid more attention than the wife Abigail, Absalom more than Solomon. There’s a lot of Joab. Others would make different choices. It’s one of the fine attributes of the short-book genre that its brevity forces these choices and commands ruthless cutting. In what authors choose to elide and excise, there are arguments made, chauvinisms laid bare. I didn’t finish “The Life of David” with a complete knowledge of the biblical king’s story, and I’m not sure that if I went and reread Samuel I and II, I wouldn’t decide that Pinsky’s interpretations were all wrong. But if that were the case, I’d still be grateful to him for having started the argument so eloquently.
Mark Oppenheimer is the author of the recently published “Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
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The Life of David
By Robert Pinsky
Schocken, 224 pages, $19.95.