A good God is hard to find

James Francken

  • Only Human: A Divine Comedy by Jenny Diski
    Virago, 215 pp, £15.99, October 2000, ISBN 1 86049 839 6

Was God created by a woman, a writer who dreamed up the early stories in the Bible? Differences in vocabulary and style suggest that the Old Testament is a composite of various sources. The oldest sections – parts of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers – are more than three thousand years old and there are commentators who believe that they may have been written by a woman, a highly placed figure in the court of King Solomon. Jenny Diski’s latest novel is a third-person account of misadventure in Genesis: Only Human rattles through the lives of Adam, Cain and Noah and retells the story of Abraham and Sarah. But the omniscient third-person narrative is interrupted; the novel’s central character is God and Diski lets her deity have a point of view. In extended monologues, God looks down on the world, judging the ‘happy, human family’: ‘What sensitivity. What development. What drivel.’ When God talks about himself in the Bible, his sex is ambiguous: metaphors compare him to a mother and a father, a husband and a wife. In Only Human, God is more revealing; by turns patronising, chippy, complacent and withdrawn – God is a man.

There are difficulties with comic novels that draw on the Bible. Joseph Heller’s God Knows sets itself up as the memoir of the ageing David – ‘warrior king, the sweet psalmist of Israel’ – and plays off its contemporary idiom against an ancient story for cheap laughs. David reminisces without ever losing a sense of his audience; with a wink to the reader he recalls his achievements: ‘I’ve led a full, long life haven’t I? You can look it up. Samuel I and II. Kings.’ He gloats about his rise to the top from humble beginnings as a shepherd boy in Bethlehem – ‘I honestly think I’ve got the best story in the Bible’ – and is eagerto rubbish his Old Testament competition: ‘Genesis? The cosmology is for kids . . . an old wives’ tale, a fey fantasy.’ Heller’s novel shuttles back and forth in time, relying on wild anachronism; David snubs Michelangelo’s statue – ‘doesn’t look like me at all’ – and carps about God’s covenant: ‘some Promised Land . . . To people in California, God gives a magnificent coastline, a movie industry and Beverly Hills. To us He gives sand.’ David is small-minded and scabrous, confident that much of the Bible is mumbo-jumbo.

Heller’s attempt to contrast register and subject-matter seems forced, however, new wine in an old bottle, and the shocks have so little to do with plot or character that the irreverence feels like a stunt. David’s complaint that God gave Gentiles bacon, pork and prime ribs of beef while the Jews ended up with pastrami is an old gag; his narrative is crammed with one-liners that sound like they’re from a stand-up routine or a hit-and-miss sitcom. And so his beautiful Hittite wife Bathsheba is praised for her Waspy good looks: ‘she was not stocky, not the least bit Eastern European. Her nose was small, precise and straight and a trifle retroussé.’ Bathsheba wants to see David’s crown passed down to Solomon, her son, and is determined not to be silenced like so many other women in the Old Testament: ‘I want to be in the Bible someday,’ she tells David, ‘even your mother isn’t in the Bible by name.’ As it happens, her wish comes true. David lets slip that he plagiarised everything his wife wrote – ‘“The Lord is my shepherd,” a fortuitous turn of phrase, I can confess now . . . was haphazardly tossed off by my Bathsheba’ – and hoodwinked future scholars by passing off her psalms as his own.

Psalm 23 appears – anachronistically – in Howard Jacobson’s novel The Very Model of a Man, where it is Cain who gets the chance to tell his story: ‘The Lord was our shepherd. We did not want. He fed us in green and fat pastures, gave us to drink from deep waters, made us to lie in a good fold . . . Excellent, excellent, had we been sheep.’ Like Heller, Jacobson opts for a facetious narrator who punctures the solemnity of high-toned Biblical English. And Cain plays similar tricks with time, ignoring the order of events in the Bible. The ‘first small boy ever’ is a moody, petulant witness to the problems of the grown-ups: Jacobson invents a lackadaisical Adam who stands by helplessly as God falls for Eve. ‘Woman had grown to be of greater interest to her Maker than man.’ The novel sends up God’s attempt to come ‘courting on a thunderbolt’. He may paint the sky with rainbows and impress Eve with the music of the spheres, but Cain mocks a ‘foolishly besotted Jehovah’ who woos his mother ‘with shy looks and flowers, His hair slicked down like a water rat’s, His beard combed and smelling of aloes’. The description is meant to surprise, but as Jacobson’s lampoon trundles on through the familiar details of Cain’s crime and exile, The Very Model of a Man seems increasingly mundane, a joke that goes on too long.

There are very few jokes in the Old Testament: not once, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Chronicles, is God seen to crack a smile. Genesis is a reticent, earnest narrative that diligently compiles long lists of family histories and important legal directives; it largely overlooks the unnecessary detail that makes a story funny. In Only Human, Diski turns the Genesis narrative round, using God as a score-settling, knockabout narrator. He provides a cursory rundown of the events that took place before Abraham and relates the history of a ‘wayward bunch of losers’. While God is charming in company, persuading Noah that he is the man to build the ark, in private he can be cruel – ‘Noah was nothing special . . . dull and unimaginative’ – a wise guy with all the answers. The Flood will destroy the animals on land, but how do you drown the fish? From on high, God decides that fish will be steamed: ‘my last-minute solution being to make the rain hot enough to deal with them’. When Noah gets drunk and his sons start to squabble, God rises above that problem, too, making light of the situation: ‘this all-seeing business has its drawbacks.’

The familiar, knowing tone soon loses its appeal; the colloquial narrative skips over details and expects its readers to work out for themselves what’s going on. But the games God plays are predictable: ‘I made life difficult,’ he says, discussing the characters in the opening chapters of the Bible, ‘but I did not – check it and see – destroy them.’ God’s explanation of the silences in the Bible seems pat, a feeble commentary which treats the Creation as a funny old world. The story of Abraham and Sarah, on the other hand, is never played for laughs. A split narrative alternates God’s wisecracking monologue with episodes drawing on Sarai’s childhood experience of loneliness and humiliation. (Only Human uses the names Abram and Sarai – which they were given at birth – until they receive the more familiar versions as confirmation of the covenant with God.) Sarai has the same father as Abram – Terah – but they have different mothers: Sarai’s mother was a concubine who died in childbirth. Emtelai, Terah’s wife, adopts Sarai and the child soon loses a sense of her past: she ‘did not even know the name of the woman who had given birth to her’. She feels accepted into the family even though, as the novel subtly warns, ‘children have their thoughts.’ When Emtelai dies and Sarai becomes motherless for a second time, the memory of those thoughts ‘wrapped itself like a caul around her heart’, a phrase which hints at the defences of childhood that she will continue to employ to conceal her feelings as an adult. Terah had been an even-handed father; the death of his wife sees him grow irascible and self-absorbed. Abram needs a wife, Terah hopes for grandchildren and he has few scruples about forcing Sarai into marriage: ‘you are different from my other children, apart from them, born from another womb.’ The offhand comment divides them – Sarai feels as removed ‘as the cold stars hanging in the desert night’ – and her young husband does little to help. Abram is chilly and detached; the reality of their marriage convinces Sarai of the ‘infinity of troubled distance that lay between men and women in the world’.

Similar patterns of separation and restriction structured Diski’s previous novel, The Dream Mistress. Miriam remembers meeting Leonard Abrahams, an unctuous trainee rabbi, when she was a young girl. Her father was a travelling salesman who left his family for a ‘brighter . . . more exciting’ woman. Her mother became unhinged soon after the split and also ‘slid out of her daughter’s life’. Abrahams appointed himself a guardian of sorts. The Dream Mistress tells the story from Miriam’s adult perspective, when she has problems with a relationship of her own: ‘love was not Mimi’s subject. Never having learned it at her mother’s knee, she grew up without placing it at the centre of her life.’ If Miriam had been aware of religion as a child, it had less to do with faith than with the showbiz fantasy of ‘Jews of note’. She could believe in the God who was good enough for Alma Cogan and Frankie Vaughan, but praying in synagogue was like ‘reciting a shopping list in a foreign language’. The rabbi’s interest in developing a friendship is one-sided and Miriam retreats into herself, coolly distanced from the difficulties around her. When she has to move in with Abrahams’s sister during the school holidays, the rabbi’s obsession with the child in his care becomes impossible to ignore: ‘he lifted his arms and held his hands parallel to her face, but wide of each cheek, as if waiting for consent to close the distance between his flesh and hers . . . Miriam, the frozen princess, was awakened by the request for a kiss.’

Miriam’s momentary helplessness recalls the predicament of fairytale heroines, shrinking violets who are expected to play along with the schemes that men devise. But she is quick to react, pushing her ‘bare, bony knees into his chest, unbalancing him, toppling him back onto the carpet enough for her to wriggle herself around his body and bolt from the room’. Diski had already upended the archetype of the cruel, controlling father in The Vanishing Princess, a collection of short stories that brings the Brothers Grimm up to date. Their tales, of course, are full of dreadful fathers who bargain away daughters for their own benefit – in ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ a shiftless miller marries off his unnamed daughter to a rich suitor who has her for dinner, cutting her into pieces and sprinkling her with salt; in ‘The Girl without Hands’ a miller saves himself from the Devil by promising that his ‘beautiful, pious’ daughter will receive a summary punishment. In ‘Shit and Gold’, Diski’s clever adaptation of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, the restive heroine, Clara, is no longer happy to remain ‘just the daughter of a miller, and then later the Queen – meaning Mrs King . . . we millers’ daughters have names, like everyone else.’ She lets fly at her greedy father, whose false promise to the King made the miller rich but left his daughter in Rumpelstiltskin’s debt; and she is too resourceful to give up her firstborn child in return for the secret of spinning straw into gold. Rather than spend three days struggling to guess the name of the ‘wizened little man’, Clara has a breezy suggestion: let Rumpelstiltskin spend three nights in her bed and he will forget that he ever had a name.

Diski has always shown an interest in the troubled expectations of parents and children, the hidden dreams that only reveal themselves bit by bit. Like Mother tells the story of Frances, a woman who was conceived during the strange final days of the war. Her parents were spellbound by the promises of the future, caught up in the hopes of a never-never England; they danced in the streets on a magical VE night, bright anti-aircraft searchlights overhead. Gerald’s boozy proposition – ‘What about a baby then, old girl?’ – fitted in with the evening’s high jinks: ‘they had to round off their victory night celebrations somehow.’ But they don’t have a fairytale marriage – Ivy and Gerald argue about money, her drinking, his affairs – and Ivy tries to prolong an illusion of happiness through her daughter. So long as the little girl is ‘dressed as the princess’ – Frances has a ‘pair of white gloves for every outfit’ – Ivy can pretend to be a queen. This uncomfortable fantasy finds an echo in Diski’s memoir Skating to Antarctica, which reveals that even when ‘the money, the credit and my father all ran out for good,’ her mother was determined to keep up appearances: Jennifer’s white gloves ‘were the last thing to go’.

As she grows older, Frances rejects the narrow role offered by her parents, certain that there are few happy endings in a world of make-believe: ‘she didn’t want to live in the fairyland of other people’s fantasies.’ There is no princely rescue in the story: Frances gives up her dancing career for marriage with a man she doesn’t love. Stuart is a mechanical engineer who has feelings for Frances that she is unable to return but unwilling to ignore. Like her mother, she had relied on different kinds of denial to get through life; as an adult she decides that nothing should be denied. So when an amniocentesis reveals that the baby she is carrying is badly brain-damaged, Frances refuses to have an abortion, though her doctors insist that the decision is madness. She knows that it will leave her on her own – ‘people simply couldn’t understand. They were only human’ – but she has no desire to service her mother’s myth of happy family life.

Frances let go of that myth when she saw that the unsatisfactory ways of explaining her past were an ‘abstraction . . . like the stories of Genesis or Sleeping Beauty’. Sarai is another of Diski’s disbelievers; like so many of the women in her fiction, the heroine of Only Human thinks convention is suspect, mocks authority and brazens out her situation. As a child she would not be duped by Terah’s belief in gods that order the world: ‘she knew it was a nonsense. A story for children.’ And she is frustrated as her husband becomes increasingly in thrall to the charismatic God who has promised to make him the father of a nation; the couple remain childless.

Sarai refuses to be God’s flunkey – ‘no gods were needed to account for the tragedies or even for the joys’; and the extent to which this rejection ruffles God’s pride seems absurd: ‘She who refused to recognise my power or even my existence would get no succour from me . . . Yes, I hated Sarai.’ Oddly, the anthropomorphism and conversational directness of God’s interventions confirm the seriousness of Diski’s intentions. She transforms the Bible narrative by bringing Sarai to the centre, an unillusioned woman who turns down a bad part. The set-piece of the novel is the meeting at Mamre as it is told in Genesis. God appears in the form of three men: scholars have argued that this phantasm is God accompanied by two angels. He has renamed Abram, ‘Abraham’ – ‘father of a multitude’ – and Sarai, ‘Sarah’ or ‘princess’. At Mamre one of the men, the anthropomorphic God – Diski invents the detail that he was ‘swathed in bright white’, which makes his identity clearer – has a meal with Abraham. (This is the only moment in the Old Testament when we find out what God likes to eat: he tucks in to veal, curds and rolls washed down with milk.) The man tells Abraham that Sarah will have a baby boy in the coming year; Sarah the reluctant princess is 90 years old and can only laugh. Diski finds comedy in the Divine, but there is no condescension in her treatment of the original story. Only Human is faithful to the Bible in its account of Sarah’s incredulous response, her readiness to head off a question and bluff an answer, and make a laughing-stock out of God:

‘Abraham, why does Sarah laugh at the idea that she will conceive? Is anything beyond the Lord? I will return in due time and you will have a son . . .’

She stepped out of the shadow into the light and faced the man.

‘I did not laugh,’ she said, challenging him with her manifest lie.

‘Yes, you did laugh,’ the man replied, too insistently, and as Abraham rose painfully to accompany the strangers on their way, she smiled a brittle smile at the man in bright white.

Sarah has a son, Isaac, but God is still dissatisfied. Death is not a worry for him – ‘I knew nothing of death . . . How could I? I had created life’ – but the novel suggests that God is a has-been. By the end of Only Human he is certainly in a slump: ‘Abraham and Sarah had what they wanted . . . And me, what of me?’ God is left alone and hopes to feel needed by putting Abraham’s continued obedience to the test. The novel’s account of the binding of Isaac is hasty; God intervenes as Abraham’s knife is raised and it is never made clear whether the father would have offered his son as a sacrifice. But Sarah’s mind is made up. She is shocked by Abraham’s ‘refusal to rebel’ against this terrible expectation and by the ease with which a dry-eyed, skulking God could urge him on. She has lost faith in her husband and leaves home knowing that a good God is hard to find.