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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Lazarus is Dead

Richard Beard

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To purchase Lazarus is Dead

Title: Lazarus is Dead
Author: Richard Beard
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 228 pages
Availability: Lazarus is Dead - US
Lazarus is Dead - UK
Lazarus is Dead - Canada
Lazarus is Dead - India

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Our Assessment:

B : creative take on the Lazarus-story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 10/9/2011 Adrian Turpin
The Guardian A 30/9/2011 Alfred Hickling
The Observer . 20/8/2011 Tom Lee
TLS . 19/8/2011 Laurence Scott

  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)ith its subtle parallels between the two "shepherds", this clever and original book keeps the reader guessing until the death -- and beyond." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "Stylistically, Beard strikes just the right tone, flippant but never trivial; and the conceit pays off because enough flesh and blood is added to the bones of Lazarus's story to make you care about his eventual fate (.....) Lazarus Is Dead is a delightful falsehood -- a brilliant novel and a shining example of the gospel untruth." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "The difficulty here, however, is not so much a prescriptive structure as the book's failure to assert itself on other levels. This is not a modern reimagining of a kind we have often seen. (...) The dialogue between different texts is dry, lacking in drama or intellectual punch, and the relationship between Jesus and Lazarus doesn't always feel essential enough to carry our interest." - Tom Lee, The Observer

  • "It is miraculous that any dramatic or emotive power survives the weight of all this history, especially given the anachronisms in Beard’s undisciplined narration. (...) If Beard had played it straight, the novel could easily have been at the mercy of kitsch. Instead, his essayistic digressions temper the mythic luminosity of his subject, contributing to the poignancy of his imagined "biography" by showing that Lazarus persists, albeit overshadowed, in the collective imagination." - Laurence Scott, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Among all the tricks ascribed to Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead (after four days, by which time he'd gotten kind of smelly -- "Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days" (John 11:39)) is among the most impressive; nevertheless, it begs several questions. Why do something as creepy as that ? Did folks get too drunk off that whole water-to-wine deal to be properly awed by what Christ had done, so that he felt he had to really blow their minds ? And, if you can raise the dead, why not raise a lot more ? (Sure, sure, there's that whole 'Dawn of the Dead'/army-of-zombies worry, but Lazarus seemed to turn out okay.) And, indeed, why Lazarus ? Sure, Jesus considered him a buddy, but was in no rush to get to him when he was ailing. True, when Lazarus died, "Jesus wept", which he apparently was not prone to doing, but then it was one big Heulfest there (Mary was weeping, the Jews were weeping ...) so he might have just gotten carried away by the moment.
       Richard Beard tackles all this in Lazarus is Dead -- a book that, in the American edition, is described as 'A Novel' on the cover and 'A Biography' on the interior title-page. Fair enough: Beard has written a work of fiction, but a great deal of the material is also biographical in nature -- taking the term 'biographical' to be even more loose than biographers generally admit to. That's part of Beard's point, too: there's very little documentary material about any historic Lazarus -- basically the few Bible verses are all you have to go on -- and yet Lazarus has proved to be an enduring figure, resurrected not only in original form but in a vast number of works of literature and art over the centuries, to the present day.
       As Beard notes:

     In the informal record Lazarus is everywhere. He appeals strongly to the imaginative mind, a recognisable figure on frescoes and marble reliefs throughout the ancient world. He and Jesus are the two main characters most frequently depicted on the monuments of the Christian necropoli in Rome.
       Or, as he puts it more forcefully later: "Lazarus is indestructible". It's a hell of a story, with a hell of staying power -- too good to kill, apparently, despite its inherent silliness (which is surely part of what attracted Beard to it).
       Lazarus is Dead has a carefully planned-out structure: its sixteen numbered chapters run from seven down to zero and then from another zero back up to seven (yes, there are two chapters "0.", the nadir reached with Lazarus' death). Each chapter is further divided into however many sections the chapter-number dictates (i.e. both chapter fives have five numbered sections -- though, again, the order of the numbers is descending in the first one (5,4,3,2,1) and ascending in the second ...); the "0."-chapters have no sub-sections (but otherwise resemble the "1."-chapters, with a single entry).
       Beard describes Lazarus' life (and death, and second life ...) in novelist-fashion: he invents a great deal and puts words in his characters' mouths. It is a specific view of Lazarus, taking into account the scanty 'evidence' (if one can call the biblical verses that) and historical circumstances -- but Beard is also willing to consider other interpretations of Lazarus and work them into his own. He repeatedly turns to other takes of the character and considers them as well, making for any interesting fiction-commentary hybrid.
       Pointing to the parable recorded in Luke 16:20-21, Beard considers why Jesus uses the name 'Lazarus' for the beggar covered with sores:
     Jesus rarely names the characters in his parables. Here he makes an exception, and chooses the name of his only identified friend. This Lazarus, too, the one in the parable, is sick and dying. Coincidence ? Remember that the parable is fiction, and Jesus can determine every element in the story.
       So too Beard -- even as he ostensibly relies on whatever 'authority' there is surrounding the Lazarus story (and later (re)interpretations)): as Beard's carefully structured work suggests, he is the one making all the choices, determining (very carefully) every element (beyond the vaguest of outlines that the biblical tale offers).
       The Lazarus-story is an extreme case -- a fictional story (sorry, but Jesus did not resurrect a smelly corpse back in the day) that's been dressed up and treated like history -- but the fundamentals are much the same for what is considered actual personality-based history. Beard shows -- in his own work, and in the many variations appearing over the years -- how easily this can be manipulated, the novelist (or historian or biographer) able to shape the 'record' practically any way s/he likes.
       Along the way Beard also tries to get at some of the reasons why this particular story has been so enduring -- though arguably he is not nearly critical enough about the whole resurrection-premise nonsense.
       It makes for an entertaining version of the biblical tale, with Beard imagining Lazarus' life and suffering in great detail, as well as the consequences of the 'miracle' -- and also the lasting appeal and different takes on the Lazarus story. Lazarus is Dead is quite successful both as a fictional treatment of a familiar story and an entertaining gloss on how that story has been seen and shaped over the centuries.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 September 2012

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Lazarus is Dead: Reviews: Richard Beard: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       British author Richard Beard is director of the National Academy of Writing.

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© 2012 the complete review

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