Who would deny that we are fascinated by the complaints of the privileged? Or titillated by the underside of fortune? In Lazarus Is Dead, the English novelist Richard Beard capitalizes on such verities. Beard’s fictional biography of the Bible’s second most famous resurrected man is a markedly secular book in which the word “god” appears shorn of a capital “g” and B.C.E. is used in lieu of B.C. The impression left by this nevertheless engaging novel is that resurrection may not be something to envy.
“Lazarus is the victim of a miracle,” Beard writes near the end of the book. He arrives at this claim after building a narrative that draws synergy from the Biblical version of the story and a myriad of other sources — literary, scholarly, and pictorial. The conjectures inspired by this tactic are justified by the observation that, “In, any biography, the facts will generate patterns of evidence.” There is something more than a little tendentious to this statement, but never mind. Unlike genuine biography, literature need not justify its inventiveness.
The main twist that Beard brings to the story of Lazarus is to imagine that he was the childhood friend of Jesus. The Scriptural basis for this point of departure rests upon the opening lines of Chapter 11 of the Book of John, where Jesus receives word that one of the people he loves — e.g. Lazarus — is sick. With notable economy of expression, the novel recounts how the two boys growing up in Nazareth drifted apart after Lazarus decides to pursue an entrepreneurial career, which leads him to become a sheep trader in Bethany, not far from Jerusalem. Over the intervening years, the friends fail to keep directly in touch.
At length, news reaches Lazarus of his friend’s prophetic exploits, which prompts him to boast of their erstwhile friendship “out of vanity.” This attracts the attention not only of the priests in Jerusalem but also Cassius, a Roman official charged with collecting intelligence. Besides incurring such unwanted scrutiny, it is Lazarus’s great misfortune that he is singled out by providence, like Job, for the purpose of its exultation. Thus, his body comes under assault by an assortment of deadly ailments. As in the Book of John, so in the novel, Jesus puts off rushing to his friend’s deathbed so that out of the crisis he may work a miracle that will increase his renown. (In the King James edition of the New Testament, Jesus says, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.”)
Availing himself of a brisk, clean-cut prose, Beard paints Lazarus as an all-too-human man who is self-reliant, basks in the temptations of the flesh, and questions the integrity of a God who would see fit to bring him back from the dead only to expose him to ire of those eager to maintain the status quo. Beard is also particularly good in his handling of a subplot that sees the Roman spymaster Cassius eager to acquire a “client messiah” who will be amendable to Rome’s political ambitions. Ultimately, Lazarus Is Dead fits comfortably into a literary tradition — stretching back to Kierkegaard’s retelling of the story of Abraham — that invites us to look upon its characters in the gospels as more than vessels of tradition.