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Keene Book Review: The Book of All Books

The Book of All Books

Roberto Calasso

Allen Lane, 2019, tr. 2021 (ISBN: 978-0-241-44672-0, 450pp, £25)

Long-form reiterations of Biblical material, with varying levels of ‘artistic licence’, have become a popular literary form. A recent treatment of this sort for the gospels is Johannes van der Bijl’s Breakfast on the Beach, though as regards the first Easter, few can improve on Peter Walker’s The Weekend that Changed the World. One of the final books written by the Italian publisher Calasso was Il libro di tutti i libri, another in this style, though tackling the Old Testament. This is now published in English translation by novelist Tim Parks. 

Much of the book is a rather conventional narration of events described in the Bible, from Abraham through to Nehemiah. Calasso somewhat surprisingly imports a minimum of extra-scriptural gloss, adhering almost entirely to the biblical material. The occasional imports include an extended death sequence for King David and an elaborated rendezvous between his son and the Queen of Sheba. In this respect, nevertheless, the main part of the text is both enjoyable and worthwhile. 

There are however a number of oddities. First is the erratic manner in which The Book of All Books shifts between literary genres. Like a drunkard staggering down a dark street, the text frequently lurches from its principal path of reiteration into side-tracks, some many pages long, such as biblical criticism, linguistic analysis, and archaeological review. These forays, though not without interest, have the effect of breaking a ‘fourth wall’ and harming the otherwise immersive flow of biblical narrative. 

Second is the splicing of the Abraham-Joshua segment of material between the fall of Jerusalem and the exile, rather than keeping the whole in chronological order. The conceit used for this insertion is Josiah’s rediscovery and public reading of the Law, but the arrangement feels unnecessary and smacks of a sort of high-brow Tarantinoism. 

Third, and most egregious of all, is Calasso’s unhealthy preoccupation with Rabbinic mysticism. While the heart of this book is reasonably straightforward, the beginning and end are, thanks to this bent, as off-the-wall as they come. The introductory chapter merrily replaces the only son of God with seven daughters. The first paragraph alone imagines familial squabbles in heaven, an inhibited deity, and an illicit love affair between a mortal and a demigod; all the ingredients of a classic pagan creation myth. Even minor tweaks, such as rebranding archangels as ‘presiding angels’ seem bizarrely designed to instil disquiet and put off biblically-minded readers. Likewise, the close of the book, despite the promising title ‘The Messiah’ (the true fulfilment of the Old Testament), confidently asserts that Christ has not yet come and that when he does so, it will be ‘unobserved’. Any who hold such a view are in for quite a shock when the Lord himself descends from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God, as clear as lightning that comes from the east and shines as far as the west.

The final oddity is Calasso’s technically correct but jarringly unusual use of term ‘holocaust’ for the Jewish ritual burnt offerings. Given the modern natural associations of the term, its use seems inappropriate in this context. This may however be one facet of the original unfortunately ‘lost in translation’. 

Edward Keene, Little Shelford