Richard Beard: Lazarus is Dead

Occasionally you read a novel which entirely subverts your expectations and, in doing so, becomes one of your favourites of the year. (I had better add, in case anyone suspects slippery phrasing, that this is that book.) I’m not sure what I thought Lazarus is Dead would be: not quite a ‘religious spoof’ as the Edinburgh Book Festival crassly categorised it. Perhaps a contemporary allegory? In fact, such category issues are central to the book.

Lazarus is Dead is described on the jacket as “genre-bending,” though blending might be more apt. It is a novel, a biography, and a study in fiction and storytelling. It is both respectful to the biblical scriptures, and more observant than they are to Lazarus’s own story. The only gospel which mentions Lazarus is John, and for a man who is Jesus’ “only recorded friend”, his story is short. Front of stage in his own book, Lazarus here becomes a man in full.

In Beard’s story, Lazarus is a businessman. “His life is ordered, successful, unusual; he doesn’t need enlightenment.” He attempts to carry on with life and work through a worrying decline in health; each time Jesus performs a miracle, his condition deteriorates. He turns to a healer, Yanav, who “likes sick people with active imaginations who thrive on close attention,” and whose treatments unsurprisingly fail to help. Lazarus thinks back to his childhood friendship with Jesus: “as children in small-town Nazareth, the boys could barely be told apart.” Lazarus returns again and again to a pivotal event in their childhood with another friend, Amos, in which Jesus does not come out well and which is decisive in parting the young friends. Indeed, Beard is brutally balanced in his approach, reminding us that in John 11:6, Jesus remained at a distance from Lazarus as his death approached, all the better to ensure an unignorable death and a memorable miracle. Even earlier, when Jesus walks on water:

Innocent people must drown in Lake Galilee. Blameless families are required to grieve. This must be so, otherwise no one would be frightened for the disciples in the storm.

If Jesus is the son of god, then all stories before and after exist in the service of this one incredible story. Every drowning makes its contribution to the glory.

The similarity of Lazarus and Jesus in childhood, their closeness, returns as a more complex thought: the potential for Lazarus to usurp Jesus’ place in the Christian story is a central element of the book. (One might think of Jim Crace’s Quarantine and its alternate take on the origins of Christianity.) As Lazarus’s health declines, local priests and Romans alike are watching him for his friendship with the dangerous Jesus, or, later, wondering if Lazarus himself might be the much-promised saviour. “Doesn’t the messiah come back from the dead?” Beard also explores why the disciples themselves might see Lazarus as a threat.

There is playfulness in Beard’s forensic analysis of biblical verses. When John writes that Lazarus was sick, what was he suffering from? He “records no specific symptoms,” reports Beard. The condition is “so familiar that the bible doesn’t need to describe it.” Beard adds that we know the illness was fatal, but not infectious: Lazarus lived with his sisters, who remained unaffected. “This eliminates tuberculosis and smallpox.” It is also a gut-wrenching and visceral story, a grisly and pain-wracked descent from life toward death.

He tries to speak, tries to say. His thoughts and memories and feelings have come to nothing. It doesn’t matter how much anyone learns. Poc. The knowledge disappears. One thing after another, and Lazarus plucks imaginary objects from the air. The opportunity to marry. Poc. The decision to be good, or the chance once more to see Lydia naked. Poc poc. To have children of his own and to show them the glory of the Temple. Poc.

But there is comedy, too, from the literal interpretation of the Bible story as a human experience. “In the Book of John, Lazarus has a non-speaking role,” Beard reminds us, but here he gets his say. After his resurrection, Lazarus comes to see Jesus, but the disciple Peter tries to put him off, tells him that Jesus is sleeping: “What he did today wasn’t easy.” Lazarus responds, “This time yesterday I was dead. I have a couple of questions.” One of those questions is expressed by Lazarus’s sister Martha: “What for?” It is the unanswerable. Lazarus’s tragedy is to believe that he has been raised from the dead – and before that, made to die – simply as an illustration of Jesus’ abilities, or, worse, as a trial run for a greater death and resurrection soon to come.

Given that the biblical record of Lazarus is so scant – forty-four verses – Beard also uses other texts and interpretations to build his story: Robert Graves, Pär Lagerkvist, E.P. Saunders, and more. But this is no dry analysis: the characters are alive, the scenes vivid, the plot gripping. The story drives us on through a desire to see first how the inevitable comes about (Lazarus dies), and then to see what happens afterwards (which we don’t commonly know). The structure is immaculate: the chapters balanced in an ‘angel-wing’ pattern of declining length, seven to zero representing Jesus’ miracles, and then back again. Beard’s short declarative sentences have a scriptural authority, even as the book explores authority and questions authenticity. This is the author as creator: any biography is, he says, “an attempt to bring someone back to life.”

What helps make Lazarus is Dead such a brilliant achievement is Beard’s ability to balance two ideas at once. He is respectful but playful, rigorous yet inventive. If Truman Capote invented the ‘non-fiction novel’ – I said if – then this might be a new form of fictional biography. Beard uses the existing stories to work out the ascertainable facts, and then builds on these facts to create a new story. It is this transformation, from verifiable truth to imaginative truth, which is the very essence of art.


  1. Very interesting stuff, John, the more so as you clearly enjoyed it so much. I was making the Crace-Quarantine connection just as I came to your own linkage of the books.

    Do I sniff a little bit of controversy in your final sentence?? “Verifiable truth”?

  2. I looked into Beard’s back catalogue after reading this review John, and I’m now in the dismaying position of finding a new author all of whose work sounds interesting. Bah!

    Anyway I’ve put this one on the wishlist to start with, so thanks as always for the pointer.

    It’s an interesting proviso about Capote. I had thought that an obvious earlier example was Theodore Dreiser, but of course he had quite a different approach that clearly fictionalised a factual inspiration.

  3. Tremendous review, equally impressive book. Beard deploys a great, apt voice with this, leaving a sort of hushed authenticity to settle on his take on time-worn tales, just the right compromise between distance and intervention. Clever stuff.

  4. Hi John,
    A great review of a book I will definitely look into. If you like this approach to fictional bios, you will enjoy Colm Toibin’s “The Master”. He also makes diligent use of sources (letters, to and from Henry James) to present the man faithfully. I will be interested to see if Beard’s novel is similar, in kind or degree. It sounds like a good book and great fun, in any case!

  5. My princple concern reading the review is that I lack the bible knowledge to spot much of what’s going on. I had no idea for example that there were seven miracles. Do you think that would be an issue?

    I did immediately think about Quarantine. It’s the obvious comparator but they do sound very different books in terms of structure and approach.

  6. Well I can guarantee you that you don’t lack bible knowledge any more than I do, Max (nor did I, re the seven). As Beard points out, Lazarus is very briefly mentioned in the gospels, so most of his sources are from commentators.

  7. Fair enough.

    To be honest, it doesn’t sound particularly tempting. Except, and it’s a very big except, for how highly you praise it.

    One of your favourites of the year. That’s a big statement. And I have to admit (I like starting sentences with and, perhaps because I shouldn’t) it sounds like it’s doing something different. I was reading over at Kevinfromcanada’s his review of The Marriage Plot which just sounded dull. This doesn’t sound dull.

  8. I agree that The Marriage Plot sounds dull (without even reading Kevin’s review) – I read both of Eugenides’ earlier novels and thought them OK, nothing spectacular.

    What about Lazarus is Dead doesn’t sound particularly tempting, Max? Or is that asking you to prove a negative?

  9. No, it’s a good question. One I’ve been thinking about actually because as I looked again at the review I couldn’t help notice that it sounds like exactly the kind of thing I love.

    I’ve noticed that at mine my best reviews seem to be those of more modernist or experimental works. They give me more to work with, and I find them invigorating too which doesn’t hurt. This falls squarely into that camp.

    In all honesty I suspect it’s just that I’m shattered from heavy hours in the run up to year end at work. When tired one can look at a more demanding novel and feel a slight sense of shrinking back, or just struggle to find enthusiasm generally. I suspect when I’m recharged in the new year this will be right up my alley. I downloaded a sample onto my kindle and within moments I was hooked. It’s quality stuff.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s