Re: Chronicum’s manuscript
I’m really awfully sorry not to have been back to you sooner with reactions and responses to your manuscript, but I have been under a lot of pressure here. My secretary called in sick most of last week. I don’t know if she was sick or just disgusted. And we have been having more tense, stressful meetings in the house than ever before. Last evening, as everybody was on the verge of going home, Frank came roaring through the corridors crying out, “We’re going to come up with a title if we have to be here all night,” which we very nearly were. We who were dressed to leave at six o’clock ended up sitting around in our hats and coats until midnight, starving and nodding.
You may be interested to know the title we came up with: Testament. It was a kind of compromise, not very inspired, but it’s a lot better than some of the awful stuff a lot of people kept coming up with, and Frank and Francine like it because it has that Michener single-word-blockbuster-title sound to it—Centennial . . . Chesapeake . . . Hawaii . . . Poland . . . Texas . . . Iberia . . . Sayonara . . . Space.
But I must bravely get on here with the essentially disappointing news I have for you. I proceed, as you will appreciate, with all my humblest assertions of deference to your talent, and to some extent my astonishment at my arrogance in criticizing your work at all. Still, that’s what I’m paid for and you always take it so well—you write, I scream, you rewrite, I stand amazed, and everybody ends up happy.
Some of the writers have been coming in with some challenging work, but you may take whatever comfort you can from the fact that none of them, any more than you, has done the job on the first try.
I think the problem with your book at this point is both structural and substantive. I mean to say that it lacks, on one hand, narrative, thrust, drive; and that it lacks, on the other hand, a satisfying moral, lesson, philosophy. In the subtlest sense, it doesn’t speak very well either for the Jews or for mankind. It seems only to say to me, “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” which I know is not the message you intend, for you are an optimist about man’s chances, as I am.
Let’s begin with structure. Tomorrow.
My secretary says I unfairly satirized the Apthorps yesterday; that what they have in mind is a lasting work; that this Volume is the major project of their lives. A couple of years ago in Francine’s prospectus this was not to be a Volume but a series of books. Later it was thought of as a single volume which would be “the biggest and most distinguished of its year.” Now they are thinking of it as the biggest book of the decade. Frank sees people curling up with it in hotels with People and The National Enquirer. A year ago or more when they announced at a meeting that it was to be a Volume instead of a series I said, “It’ll have to be on damn thin paper.” This made everybody laugh except Frank and Francine. I saw how serious they were and I don’t joke about it any more.
Structure. I am sure I’m the last person in the world who ought to be so rash as to tell you about structure, or what makes a book work, but as I read along in your manuscript I found myself asking myself, “Why am I reading this?” I had better be able to give myself a good answer or we are in trouble.
Your manuscript should be drawing me forward. But nothing seems to be at stake. I see great high points of narrative, landmarks, peaks you want to reach (and will), but for the moment things are mapped out rather than written, sketched rather than painted. You have a reputation to uphold. We who know your reputation know that your strategy always leads us to satisfying heights. In the present book, however (that is to say, in the present draft), some of your digressions lead to dead ends; or the opposite is true—some of your endings have no beginnings. Now and then your climaxes, instead of augmenting the ecstacy of suspense, trail away, as if you have forgotten your plan.
You sometimes interrupt yourself. But for interruption to be effective the writer must have engaged the reader in a plan of action the reader is powerless to abandon; alas, you have not always done this. You interrupt your own interruptions. Bill Gibson once offered me a witty small sentence so durable I have used it for years: “You can’t interrupt nothing.” Sometimes you intrigue me with the promise of a story, but you distract me by not continuing with it. Please dispose of your abortions. For example, what about the story of Sheshan and Jarha in Chap 2? “Sheshan had no sons, only daughters. He had an Egyptian slave Jarha, to whom Sheshan gave his daughter in marriage.” So embryonic is this suggestion you don’t even name Sheshan’s daughter. In Chap 5 Reuben was deprived of his birthright because he “violated his father’s couch.” We hear no more. (I’m just mentioning these passages as suggestions.) Perhaps more tantalizing than any other is that moment right at the end of Chap 16 when we encounter Saul’s daughter Michal, , at the very moment of David’s triumph, standing at the window. “Now as the ark of the covenant of Yahweh entered the Citadel of David, Michal the daughter of Saul was watching from the window and saw King David dancing and exultant; and she despised him in her heart.” What does Michal know about David that we don’t know? We never see her again.
Let’s go on. From Word One of the manuscript my flag goes up. “Adam.” You’re beginning your tale with Adam, which might be suitable as a brief refresher reference to events which have gone before, a little like Alistair Cooke’s opening remarks on Masterpiece Theater, but instead of your getting in and out of that moment with brevity you give us nine chapters of genealogy. I just honestly and truly can’t believe, Chron, that any writer, however fine, however confident he may be of his/her waiting public, can risk the loyalty of his reader with nine chapters of genealogy while he is warming up to his story.
At this point, however, I also have a crucial substantive question. This goes to the heart of things, to the whole mortal question of mankind, the Jews, and living by the sword, which I mentioned yesterday in this now somewhat lengthening letter. I mean principle. I mean, I speculate that this long indulgence of yours into the many generations of your genealogy is intended to show the reader the purity of the Jews. And yet, in my opinion, racial purity can scarcely be a goal we ought to care about. To the extent that we celebrate such a thing as racial purity we celebrate the very lore which has always been the battle-cry of those who would kill us— they are pure and we are not. In our own century the Nazi example is the obvious one, but not the only one, and our object ought to be to rise above ignorance, to see the races of the world as one race, as they fundamentally are. In Chap 17 you have David asking God rhetorically, “Is there another people on earth like your people Israel. . . .” Yes, David, there are other people on earth like Israel, more people like Israel than unlike Israel, various colors, various tongues, but basically one. Our safety—the safety of the world—depends upon our raising nationalism and jingoism to universal appreciation. We are required to celebrate not purity but principle. I remember when Jackie Robinson died somebody in the press asked Roger Kahn what Robinson had done for his race. Roger replied, “His race was humanity, and he did a great deal for us.”
Well, I understand very well this genealogical compulsion of yours. It’s an old familiar habit and I don’t worry about it— you’re supporting your story while you’re organizing your tools, you’re stalling, you’re whistling while you’re thinking. It’s your scaffolding. Then when you get your story up you take your scaffolding down. But there’s work, work, work. Don’t groan, old friend. You know that we who live the lowly lives of editors possess a certain talent (commonly called hindsight) for perceiving even in the best of authors—and you are certainly one of those—qualities which, in the complicated process of composition, authors can’t readily see for themselves.
Your book in its present form tells me that what you’re aiming at is this: the death of Saul, the reign of David, the succession of Solomon. I see you struggling to get your rough draft more or less under control before you can begin to swing dramatically free. You want to establish your periphery, your limits. Here are your major structural blocks as you’ve worked them out so far:
Chaps 1—9: Genealogy from Adam to Saul. (Needs to be reduced to a few lines; a chapter at most.)
Chap 10: The death of Saul. (Requires expansion. You have despatched Saul in a hell of a hurry, just as you have virtually eradicated his daughter Michal—see above. Your well-known pro-Davidism was never more conspicuous than in your treatment of Saul. I think we have got to think about this.)
Chaps 11-into 23: David’s anointment, his military exploits, especially, of course, his capture of Jerusalem, his recovery of the ark, his taking of the census, God’s wrath, God’s forgiveness, David’s building of the altar, his plans for building the Temple, his secret or private meetings with God, and his aging. (Much of this material raises substantive questions. Clearly the obvious numerical imbalance underscores structural questions: David receives 13 times the attention Saul receives; on the other hand, David receives only four chapters more than the genealogy. We have got to think about this.)
Chaps 23—27: An interruption for chapters of names and lists of dubious importance or relevance, the orders and functions of the Levites, the classification of priests, cantors, keepers of the gate, and military and civil organization. (Do we need these?)
Chaps 28—29: Here at last, after an interruption of five chapters, you regain contact with the line of the plot. David retires as king, succeeded by his son, Solomon. Your book ends. (I suspect you will want to expand these two chapters to bring them into line with the earlier material as you redesign the proportions of the manuscript. By the time you arrive again at this late stage of your book you will have appreciated for yourself the demands of proportion.)
I can’t resist mentioning at this point my powerful personal emotional identification with your opening of Chap 28. “David held a meeting in Jerusalem of all the oficials of Israel, the commissioners for the tribes, and the officials of the orders in the royal service, the commanders of thousands, the commanders of hundreds. . . .” and on and on. Believe me, everybody was there, which is how it’s getting to be here at Apthorp House. Frank and Francine have called nothing but meetings as we bear down on later stages of preparation for the Volume, the title of which I no longer know. I thought we had settled it the other night—Testament. But Frank came rushing in today with some exciting, inspiring reports on Test Marketing which seem to indicate that the minute the world has gobbled up this Volume it will cry out for another. That will be Testament Two. This then is Testament One, unless we devise another parallelism such as Earlier Testament/Later Testament or First Testament/Second Testament. Cheer up, Chron, you are going to share in some mighty hefty royalties.
In Two/Later/Second Testament or whatever we call it, all the contributors will be Gentiles, and I hope, apart from whatever Test Marketing may say, that Two will be a lot shorter than One. We don’t really even know how many books we’re going to have in the present Volume. It depends, of course, on how many of the writers come through. Maybe 22. Maybe 39. I couldn’t help laughing. I asked at the meeting this morning what the justification is for 22. Frank was uncertain. He looked at Francine. “There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet,” she said. Are there? Francine always speaks with such authority I keep thinking she’s telling the truth. Months later I find out she made it up on the spot, to keep the meeting moving.
“Then why 39?” I stupidly asked. Frank, for some reason or other, became really angry at me for that and began to spin around the ceiling shouting down sarcasm. “Thirty-nine because,” he said. “Why three strikes and four balls? Why seven wonders of the world? Why 52 weeks in a year? Why 30 days hath September? Why 12 in a dozen? Why 52 in a deck?”
Why me? He really doesn’t like to hear questions at meetings, especially from me. I am exhausted by meetings. I am going home right now.
Since David, of course, is the major character in your story I am hoping you will make him as convincing as possible by sharpening your critical perception of him throughout your revisions. Your reputation as a partisan pro-Davidist is well enough known to place upon you a special burden of perspective. You have got to help me see David in the round.
And so I come to credibility. You intend to show us the triumphant David offering inspired leadership to the Jews at an historic moment of relative stability through the years of his long reign. Here is a David you want me to admire, to respect, to love, and to follow—to my death, if necessary.
I know that before you are through you are going to give me the required balance. Reading your manuscript in its present stage, however, I have a certain difficulty in dealing with David’s overview, his philosophy, his politics, and the moral idea (if any) which he attaches to his role as king and leader.
If I am to overflow with pride in our Jewish legacy, and if our Gentile readers are to feel themselves strengthened by their association with this era of our common beginnings, we must have a David we revere. Just as structure is a device for seizing us and retaining us, so is the characterization of our hero.
I guess what I’m talking about here is that quality we in the trade call “rooting interest.” I must root for David and everything he represents if I am to commit to him my posterity and my sacred soul. But I have trouble rooting for David at this point. I don’t really like him very much. I might put it more strongly. I dislike him. I begin to loathe him. He begins to strike me as a wanton warmaker. I begin to hear within myself mumblings and mutterings and grumblings familiar to me as inward signals from the early Vietnam days, when I felt myself isolated in my private thoughts and began to look anxiously around me for signs of sympathetic viewpoint in the public. I feel myself left out. I keep wanting to call out, “But you are omitting me, and if you don’t start including me I’ll start retaliating with graffiti on the walls.” I am the brooding dissenter, of whom there must have been proportionately as many in David’s time and place as in our own. I’m sure you remember Anatole France’s story, “The Procurator of Judaea.” In that story Pontius Pilate observes: “The Jews alone hate and withstand us. They withhold their tribute until it is wrested from them, and obstinately rebel against military service. . . . They are secretly nourishing preposterous hopes, and madly premeditating our ruin.” When he is asked by his old friend Lamia if he remembers a particular Jew—Lamia names the man and his town—he cannot remember: there were so many young radical troublemakers. He tries to think. “Pontius Pilate contracted his brows, and his hand rose to his forehead in the attitude of one who probes the deeps of memory. Then after a silence of some seconds—”Jesus?” he murmured, “Jesus—of Nazareth? I cannot call him to mind.”“
So you see, it is not my imagination that I was at least sufficiently numerous to be individually anonymous. In my silent, fearful, minority heart I resist this David. He makes me feel disvalued. Why then should I follow him, revere him, praise him, or root for him? The men who “rallied to David” in Chap 13 are those “who could handle the bow with right hand or with left, who could use stones or arrows.” I don’t fit into that bunch. Even as a kid I didn’t. My God, look at the crowd that came to Hebron in Chap 12 to join David “in accordance with the order of Yahweh”: Judah sent 6,800 “warriors equipped for battle.” Simeon sent 7,100 men “valiant in war.” Levi sent 4,600. Benjamin sent 3,000 “kinsmen of Saul.” Ephraim sent 20,800 “valiant champions.” Zebulun sent 50,000 men “fit for service, marshalled for battle, with warlike weapons of every kind.” Naphtali sent 37,000 men under 1,000 commanders “armed with shield and spear.” From TransJordania carne 120,000 men “with warlike weapons of every kind.” And that’s only part of it. I count in that chapter a total of 326,000 men, all armed, all “fit for battle.” But are they fit for civilization?
In Chap 11 the minute David is anointed king you have him marching on Jerusalem and capturing the fortress of Zion—which he immediately renamed after himself. Right away he offers a prize to the first man to kill a Jebusite. Oh, these damn prizes, these Pulitzers, prize-winning this, prizewinning that, and now David comes up with prize-winning killers. Couldn’t he have given prizes for something else? I do so much wish that the first act of David’s reign might have been some break with ancient barbarism. I should love to read of a David who takes down walls instead of putting them up. I saw a bumper sticker this morning: Visualize World Peace.
Of course, facts are facts. David built the wall. He did not take it down. But history might also be the record of men and women who sought to take down the walls. History need not be the conventional account recording the dates of battles and the numbers of people killed. What news of the arts in the year of David’s anointment? What news of peacemakers, negotiators, mediators, and ecologists, of whom there were some, for my imagination tells me so, and Anatole France’s Pontius Pilate felt besieged by them. Writers can change the world by helping the world to imagine the unseen. You may show the undernourished public good things it didn’t know it wanted until it saw them. Once Saul Bellow was asked why he hadn’t written about war. He replied that he chose to write about the causes of war.
A few lines before the end of Chap 18 you give me a little bit of a hopeful lift: “David ruled over all Israel, administering law and justice to all his people.” I hope I’ll hear more about law and justice and how it was administered to “all.” When you say “all” I keep thinking maybe I’m to be included even though I’m not an ambidextrous switch-hitting bow-man. I don’t mean to be picky. I have started and stopped this letter several times today. I need the weekend to recover from Apthorp House. I’m sure I’ll love David better on Monday.
Viewpoint. Attribution, I think we’ve just got to try throughout the text to cut down the number of occasions of hearsay, which make me so skeptical of David’s motives and virtue. Lose David and we lose everything, don’t we? There goes my rooting interest. So we’ve got to get to the heart of the problem, which at this point seems to me to be this: I just really can’t tell the difference, Chron, between David and God. They sound alike and think alike and have the same value system. Whose fault is this? I cringe at my own audaciousness, but in trying to size up our problem as honestly as I can the thought keeps coming back to me that the responsibility is the writer’s—yours—that if God and David are indistinguishable the reason is that you have made both of them spokespersons or (shall I say it?) mouthpieces for your own point of view.
When you want something to happen, you arbitrarily make it happen. You put orders in God’s mouth. But what motivates God? What makes God think David’s so wonderful or Israel’s so terrific that he should produce miracles for them. You can’t just make God do the things you’d do if you were God. A character has got to have a motive—that’s basic to all story-telling. I’m awfully bothered by your bad practice of introducing disembodied speeches reported by unidentified sources. Readers demand credibility. Voices out of nowhere turn people off. For example, I was mentioning to you on Friday that business in Chap 12 whereby the tribes send all those warriors to David at Hebron. My eye catches the passage asserting that this was done “in accordance with the order of Yahweh.” I haven’t begun to count the number of times you cause things to be done by the order of Yahweh, but as a critical citizen I find myself bursting to ask, after a great deal of anguish and hesitation, “Where is the evidence for this order from Yahweh? Who heard Yahweh give it?”
Yahweh and David seem to be masters of the self-fulfilling prophecy. When they want something, public opinion backs them up. You underestimate the prevalence of human variety. Thus you are not credible when you give the multitude a single voice, as if it were a consenting person. “All the tribes of Israel then rallied to David at Hebron. “Look,” they said. . . .” How can tribes say “Look”? As I mentioned on Friday, there were 326,000 people there, counting warriors only, not even counting women, children, and servants, “all of one mind in making David king. For three days they stayed there, eating and drinking with David.” I just can’t see this crowd of 326,000 people plus women and children and servants, many of whom are by now as drunk as you might expect, crying out at any moment all in one voice the clear syllable “Look.”
In this matter you cross-pressure the reader. My reason or pride might make me want to dissent, but I think I’d remain terribly damn silent about it, knowing David’s tendency to strike down his supposed enemies, or his single-mindedness in pursuing his ends. (Several of the other writers in the Volume have brought in some awful stuff about David. The worst is a terrible rumor of his having gone about window-peeping, seen a voluptuous woman at her bath, seduced her, and shipped her husband to battle to die a cuckold’s certain death. I fear that people these days are much more likely to give credence to that sort of realistic rumor than they are likely to believe reports based on secret channels to God.)
Or even assuming that David (or you) has access to Yahweh, I find myself troubled to think that you might not be interpreting him correctly. You make him so very earthly, so helplessly in the grip of mere human desire, as if you are projecting your wishes or character on him. You make him a quid pro quo God, a God very often given in a most unbecoming way to personal spite and violent vengeance, bitterly disappointed by his mere terrestrial failures, as if he were mortal and short-lived like us. Why, for example, does God save David after David has sinned in Chap 21? He saves him because David has built him an altar. This is bribery; it is the demand for fealty made by any everyday pirate. Frankly, it sounds more like Man than Yahweh. God should be different from us, and he should act like God, not like David—not like you or me or Frank Apthorp.
In all this you’ve really avoided the important political question, “Who is really running things?” Israel is really a democracy, if only the people knew it, and David’s great fame (how he loves fame!) could rest upon his showing the people how powerful they really are. Whatever David does, he claims that he has been ordered by Yahweh to do it. And the people in turn claim that they are obeying their king. In this, David perpetuates the public ignorance, for he knows that what the people are doing is what they really want to do. They know no better. If he seriously proposed to introduce into Israel a more contemplative, peaceful life, the people in their ignorance would rebel against him. Therefore he permits them—God orders them, he says—to ravage, reduce, dismantle their “enemies,” to carry off spoils and bring him home ornaments. He releases his people to their furies and their savagery, and he and they and God all together sustain the illusion that David obeys God, and the people obey David. The public requires a leader. David plays the role of leader, though in fact he is a tool, a puppet. The more willingly he serves, the more willingly his people love him and honor him and celebrate his greatness.
But a truly great leader, in my opinion, a truly great king, by educating people and refining popular assumptions could carry his countrymen further than he found them toward a fully realized humanity, decency, and restraint. If David were that kind of king I would love him better than I do.
Another thing I notice with dismay is your opening to Chap 20: “At the turn of the year, the time when kings go campaigning, Joab led out the troops and ravaged the land of the Ammonites. . . .” Do kings “go campaigning” by the calendar? Do you mean there’s a war season like a hunting season? If so, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you created David the Educator (as opposed to David the Warrior) struggling to end such a thing as ritual war, war by the calendar, substituting for it some more constructive activity, in which masses of people (not only men “fit for battle”) could participate with pleasure. But no, not your David; he sanctioned this Ammonite expedition as he sanctioned every other. Joab brought home to him the crown of the king of the Ammonites—”it weighed a talent of gold; in it was set a precious stone which made an ornament for David’s head.”
It amazes me that God puts up with all this warfare and then, on the other hand, becomes angry with David for conducting a census. What’s so terrible about a census? It seems to me better to count people than to slaughter people. David appears to miss the point of this issue, at least as you present it. Satan incited David; God punished Israel. How? Get this: God sent a pestilence and slaughtered 70,000 Israelites. Holy Christ. Where is justice? God in his crazy wrath sounds more like David, who killed seven thousand Aramaean charioteers and forty thousand Aramaean foot soldiers (not to mention General Shophach) in retaliation for the Aramaeans having mildly abused three of David’s servants—”shaved them, cut their clothes half way up to the buttocks, and sent them away.” Whatever happened to that earlier resolution to administer “law and justice to all”? Gone with the wind.
I think you might make this scene stronger if you got at the issue of the substance of the situation: Satan tempts David; David conducts the census; Joab presents David with the figures: “The whole of Israel numbered one million one hundred thousand men capable of drawing sword, and Judah four hundred thousand capable of drawing sword.” Possibly you might have a more sensitive God see things in larger perspective than David, and hint to David, “According to your census nobody matters except men who are capable of drawing sword. Go and do better. Establish a Bureau of the Census. Find out how many people are ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-educated. Do something about it.” In all this talk of the power and the greatness of the Davidic kingdom I know what we’d see if we walked the streets: we’d see hideous poverty. And you know that, too, Chron, for you and I have walked about together in some of the cities of the world. Sam Johnson has said that we know the virtue of a nation by measuring its solicitude for the poor.
I pray you won’t think I’m being hypercritical. I know that you know that all of us here in the house want to make this Volume the best it can possibly be, and the way to do that is to be relentlessly self-critical as we work with our authors on the individual books—none of which, when all are done, are going to have the power and breadth of yours. You bring pleasure to your readers and credit to yourself with every new work.
One more subject and I’ll go away. Let’s examine that fabulous scene among David, God, and Nathan the prophet for the ultimate word on viewpoint and attribution. This scene, potentially so crucial, so climactic, plunges to depths of self-serving rationalization, a four-way farce of deception and egomania. I say “four-way,” Chron, because you must be counted a presence: you are the omniscient, all-seeing reporter telling us what happened when God, David, and Nathan conspire to justify David’s affluence.
As the scene opens (Chap 17) David is relating his distress to Nathan: “Here am I living in a house of cedar, while the ark of Yahweh’s covenant is still beneath the awning of a tent.” I think he is reacting to some public criticism, of which he has become aware. Rumblings have begun to drift upward, vibrations of radical young troublemakers, socialistic “madmen” of the left known to Pontius Pilate. But David loves his cedar house. He does not care for tents. What shall he do?
Nathan grasps the problem perfectly and sees the way out. They know what they’re up to. He gives a blank check to David, carte blanche, cart before horse. “Do all that is in your mind,” says he to David, “for God is with you.” Nathan will tell God what David wants to do, and God will approve it.
Nathan wastes no time, and God is acquiescent—”that very night the word of Yahweh came to Nathan.” So Nathan says. Or you say. How do we know? God, through Nathan, for the benefit of a momentarily uneasy public, delivers the most satisfying endorsement any man could ask for. Do you remember Eisenhower’s endorsement of Nixon—”he’s my boy”—after Nixon’s speech explaining that he had not taken the money he had taken?
God swiftly disposes of the charge. He tells Nathan (says Nathan) that the ark of the covenant has never reposed in a house but has gone “from tent to tent, from one shelter to another.” In half a dozen lines you’ve done it. God also (Nathan? you?) takes advantage of the occasion to expatiate on David’s past, to guarantee him fame, and to promise his protection to Israel.
I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be leader of my people Israel. I have been with you on all your expeditions: I have cut off all your enemies before you. I will give you fame as great as the fame of the greatest on earth. I will provide a place for my people Israel; I will plant them there and they shall live in that place and never be disturbed again; nor shall the wicked continue to destroy them, as they did in the days when I appointed judges over my people Israel; I will subdue all their enemies. I will make you great; Yahweh will make you a House. And when your days are ended and you must go to your ancestors, I will preserve your offspring after you, a son of your own, and make his sovereignty secure. It is he who shall build a house for me and I will make his throne firm for ever. I will be a father to him and he a son to me. I will not withdraw my favor from him, as I withdrew it from your predecessor. I will preserve him for ever in my house and in my kingdom; and his throne shall be established for ever.
Hearing this “revelation” (broken promises and wishful thinking, I’d call them), David “went in” to Yahweh and addressed him in humble terms, rephrasing God’s promises and praise as God presumably announced them to Nathan, but speaking to God in the way of a trader, a deal-maker, quid pro quo, swapping flattery: “There is none like you, no God except you alone, that we have ever heard of.” He instructs Yahweh to remember his promises: “Now, Yahweh, let the promise you have made to your servant and to his House be always kept, and do as you have said.”
No right-minded citizen, hearing through Nathan God’s blazing endorsement of David and of Israel, could continue to bicker about David’s living in a cedar house. And yet, relieved that the hint of scandal has passed, a good citizen might begin to wonder how he/she truly knows God said these things to Nathan. One has only Nathan’s report, really. David put the report to no test, certainly. Nor is there much to give us confidence in David’s deal-making language.
I know you’ll want to strengthen the dialogue throughout Chap 17—Nathan’s tête á tête with God; then David’s. You’ve got a big job if you’re going to make a closed-circuit revelation credible. Sooner or later people will ask questions. And I wish I could believe, at this point, that David’s session with God nourished him with a powerful resolution to lead a different life, to carry the Jews as the world’s best model toward a national life of peace and tranquility. I regret to say that nothing in the language or the substance of these sessions—first Nathan and God, then David and God—assists us to imagine a God of sublime vision or a David of noble intention. The scene ends. Immediately David is whacking away again at the Philistines. Chap 18 begins: “After this, David defeated the Philistines and subdued them . . .he took Gath and its outlying villages. He also defeated the Moabites. . . .” He consolidated his power over the Euphrates. You enumerate the loot: one thousand chariots, seven thousand charioteers and twenty thousand foot soldiers. He killed twenty-two thousand Aramaeans. “Wherever David went, God gave him victory.”
Will it ever end? I question Chap 17 as relentlessly as I have only because alert readers are going to question it, and certainly Frank and Francine are going to question it.
My secretary reminds me that I have here a little memorandum from Frank regarding some small matters of style, which I enclose herewith:
I’m reading Chron’s ms and enjoying it. It’s great. Here are some small matters of style meanwhile basically having to do with difficult words. Get Chron to eliminate difficult words when possible. In Chap 11 seventh pgh he has a character named Benaiah strike down two champions and one snowy day killed a lion in a cistern. He was a huge man five cubits tall. Nobody knows what cubits are any more. We’re not into cubits. We couldn’t even get into the metric system. Change the cubits to feet and inches. The same is true of a talent of gold. Gold is enough. Talent is something else.
Have him change Yahweh to God. They’re the same, aren’t they? Many readers aren’t going to have any idea who Yahweh is and they aren’t going to be able to pronounce it. I understand it’s related to Jehovah. That doesn’t help any. There’s Jehovah’s Witnesses for one thing. Let’s stick to God throughout the book and throughout the Volume, changing over from Yahweh to God wherever necessary—all very simple with computers.
Have him change ark to something else such as receptacle. I had to look it up. It’s the chest they carried the ten commandments in but many readers hearing the word ark are instantly going to think back to the first book of the Volume where one of the characters set out in an ark. Did you read Joe Heller’s novel God Knows? David himself wasn’t even sure what the ark was. “To tell you the honest truth, I had no clear idea what the ark of the covenant even was when I decided to move it up into the city from the house of Obededom the Gittite etc. etc.”
Well, dear Chron, we’re on the way now. I’ve discovered a lot of things writing this ever-lengthening letter, and I’m sure you have too. With you, as with so many writers, the first couple of drafts are a process of self-illumination. I know that you are going to take this the rest of the way, and this will be one of the very good books of the Volume. You are going to create a balanced and sympathetic David, showing the elevation of his consciousness toward the ideal of justice. If the Jews have anything to give to mankind it is that sense of law and justice arising from the experience of having suffered life under tyranny. The experience of oppression must make us principled, not merely turn us into oppressors. We want justice and freedom not only for ourselves but for everybody—even for the Philistines.
I love David’s choosing Solomon as his successor. The very name Solomon means peace, does it not? David, seeking support and help from Solomon among the leaders of Israel, praises Yahweh for having “given you peace on all sides.” I don’t see evidence of God’s having done so, so your job, as I see it, is to reinforce the foundations of your tale to make the achievement of peace coincide with David’s enlarged understanding. He will articulate a vision of the end which shall be more beautiful than profits and weaponry.
Take your time. Don’t rush it. A lot of this is our fault. Maybe we’ve emphasized too much the pressure of the deadline. But you’ve got things in place now. The Volume will wait for you. You know your beginning and your end. With new confidence you’ll not need to engage in those long digressions, the endless genealogies and the household inventories.
I’m sending my marked copy of the manuscript back to you Express Mail—Federal Express, my secretary says. If Frank and Francine have things to add to my letter I’ll send their comments along to you, too, of course. We’ve all been awfully tied up in meetings. We still aren’t even sure how many books there are going to be. Some of the writers are coming through better than others. Some aren’t coming through at all. Not everybody is an Old Dependable like you, Chron. If you have any questions, as I suspect you will, call collect. It’s always a pleasure to hear your voice, even if you’re angry.
I send my best wishes and warm regards to you and Emily and the children.
Yours very affectionately,
Re: Chronicum’s manuscript
By now you have no doubt received the manuscript. Ordinarily I’d be waiting in some trepidation for those howls of protest from your direction which always precede your rolling up your sleeves and getting to work, your reshaping your manuscript, and your whipping it back to me with lots of praise and thanks for my having made you do what you should have done in the first place.
Well, my dear friend, if you love me, find me a job. Recommend me to a respectable book publisher of your acquaintance, which is only to say, by way of backing in, that this will be my last letter to you on Apthorp stationery, and Friday will be my last day of work at Apthorp House. Frank and Francine have fired me.
Frankly, I’ve been wanting for some time to resign, but if I resigned I couldn’t collect unemployment insurance. Now I can collect unemployment insurance. I’ll also get a vast sum in severance pay from Apthorp House.
Yesterday Frank just simply stormed into my office. Usually he phones ahead. The last time he stormed in without phoning was a couple of years ago to tell me he was firing Aaron Goldstein and to appoint me to succeed Aaron. I said no, Special Projects was the place for me, I was more of a literary person myself, I didn’t think there was much room for a literary person at the top of a publishing house. Frank has been going about boasting to people of my “integrity” ever since.
Now, however, the uses of my integrity have expired. He had in his hand a copy of my long letter to you. A lot of it bothered him, though I don’t think that at the moment he walked into my office he intended to fire me. He felt that I had taken too long with your manuscript. “You dawdle and delay,” he said. (I denied that. “I work as fast and as thoughtfully as I can,” I said.) “You think too much,” he said. “You took a week to write this letter you used to write in half a day. We want to keep this project moving. It doesn’t have to be all that good. It’s been Test Marketed. It’s going to go big on the strength of the popular elements, sex and violence etcetera etcetera. Who needs all this?” he asked.
By “this” he meant my letter to you. “We don’t need all this soul-searching and hair-splitting. There’s nothing wrong with David. I like him. He’s my own kind of man. I love him. He doesn’t put up with this Philistine shit. He goes out and kicks ass. I understand him. I like God and Nathan, too. I have no objection to their secret meetings. It’s a committee. People do it all the time. You know who I don’t like?”
I’m absolutely positive that when Frank came into my office he had no intention of firing me. But suddenly he was seized with a fabulous idea and propelled into action by the force of his anger. For a fraction of a moment he restrained himself. His eyes darkened with a sudden thought, and I know what that thought was, and you can guess, too: my severance pay. If he fired me, he’d have to pay me severance pay. But his eyes had a second thought. It would be worth it. A few thousand dollars and it would all be over. “You’re fired,” he said, “because I’ve become so damn impatient of the way you’ll take a lot of simple reading material and make it dense. Who needs density? People read on the run. They read while they’re dressing for parties. They read while the commercials are on. The only people who read the dense parts of books are poverty-level students standing up in used bookstores. We asked Chron in on this project because we knew he could do it and he’s done it, and you are rewarding his beautiful effort with a long letter that sounds more like a sermon than a letter. I love the way he outlines things so the reader knows where they are. I love that genealogy with millions of names. I love the credibility he’s got into it. He doesn’t need all your advice about structure and substance. I don’t want him wasting his time with Sheshan and Jarha and Reuben and Michal and all these minor characters you’re driving him crazy with”—referring, of course, to my arduous letter to you. “Let old Chron go back to Adam if he wants to. I love Adam. Adam is a big name. Bring in all the big names he wants, the more the better. Millions of small names in the genealogy and a few big names in the action is ideal. I see television specials left and right. I see Richard Chamberlain as David. I’ve got plenty of rooting interest for David, and I believe every word David speaks and every word he and God exchange because Chron draws me into their characters as far as I care to be drawn in. It’s wonderful. It’s marvelous. I don’t for one single minute question viewpoint and attribution and hearsay and all those other bundles of shit you’ve wrapped up in here.” By “in here” he meant my letter to you. “I don’t want a single word changed in Chron’s stuff. I want it just the way it is from Word One [Adam] to the end except as noted regarding the words “cubits,” “Yahweh,” “talent,” and “ark,” and if Chron objects to changing those I’ll respect his objection. Matt,” he said, “when I saw this letter you wrote to Chron I was going to write you a letter in reply, but I said to myself, “When I find myself writing letters in reply to a letter from one of my own editors, one of us have got to go.”“
Since it can’t be Frank, it’s got to be me. For your sake, Chron, I hope the Volume sells a million and your royalties roll in forever. I can see that it’s going to be an uneven Volume. Some of the books make more sense to me than others; and if Frank says the Volume is going to be a big seller it’s going to be. He’s usually right. I’m usually wrong. Do you remember Lee Youngdahl’s book When Your Bicycle Tires? I took the manuscript to Frank and Francine. I said, “Is this supposed to be humor? I didn’t crack a smile.” Francine replied, “We laughed, so it must be funny.” It sold 1.25-million copies.
And now they have provided me with unexpected freedom, unplanned vacation. At least I won’t have to work on Testament Two. If you know anybody who wants a good, steady, sober, literary-minded editor please have him/her give me a call (at home). Leave a message on my machine if I’m not there.
Yours very affectionately,