Lion's Honey: The Myth of Samson Hardcover – 1 Jun 2006
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"'There isn't a more interesting novelist in the West today' HARPER'S MAGAZINE 'We should all thank heaven that the world has such writers in it' LOS ANGELES TIMES 'A writer of passionate honesty, unafraid to ask terrible questions' NADINE GORDIMER 'A writer who has been, for nearly two decades, one of the most original and talented not only in his own country but anywhere.' NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW 'A writer of devastating power.' SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY"
From the Inside Flap
"Let my soul die with the Philistines"
Samson the hero; a brave warrior, leader of men and Nazarite of God? Or a misfit given to whoring and lust, who failed to fulfil his destiny? In Lions Honey, award-winning writer David Grossman takes on one of the most vivid and controversial characters in the Bible. Revisiting Samsons famous battle with the lion, his many women and his betrayal by them all including the only one he ever loved Grossman gives us a provocative new take on the story and its climax, Samsons final act of death, bringing down a temple on himself and three thousand Philistines.
In exhilarating and lucid prose, Grossman reveals the journey of a single, lonely and tortured soul who never found a true home in the world, who was uncomfortable in his very body and who, some might say, was the precursor of todays suicide bombers.See all Product description
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They couldn't be more wrong. The other review of this book is remarkably insensitive to where Grossman is coming from. Kenneth Tynan says somewhere that what tends to move us in some kinds of writing is what it must have cost the writer to write it in the first place; I, as a very minor writer myself, am extremely moved by Grossman's agonised depiction of Samson's plight, the tragedy of a man who never really understood himself (how unlike the tragedy of Oedipus, where a man's search for self-knowledge ends up destroying him). Samson, in all his helpless incomprehension, his self-pity, his mixture of almost casual tenderness and outbursts of manic violence, is a hero to many Israelis, and in writing about him Grossman is taking a central myth of Israel on the chin. It's no coincidence that the open secret of Israel's nuclear capacity is sometimes referred to as the 'Samson option' - the unspoken threat that any country that tries to invade Israel will call down nuclear devastation, even if it threatens the existence of Israel itself, as it surely would.
Grossman himself is a strong critic of Israel's government, and his own son was killed in the 2006 Lebanon war; talking about Samson is not, for him, a polite exercise in playing about with myths, but a burning contemporary issue. This book is, among other things, an attempt on the part of a secular Israeli to explore the murkier and angrier depths of the Jewish imagination. It's a tribute to the secular, literary imagination that Grossman, on the strength of this book, understands the Israeli right a lot better than they will ever understand him. I salute him and recommend this book to anyone who is interested in good writing and/or the Middle East.
That kind of thing is all very well when the subject under consideration is ordinary literature. When the literature in question is sacred scripture, two unhealthy tendencies come into play. The first is that the commentary becomes a bit of a wallow - after all the holy books of people's religion are part of people's sense of their own identity, and every sentence will be pressed in pursuit of special significance. The other danger is that the earnest quest for deep meaning in the text may be squandered on textual readings that are dubious, incredible or downright wrong. I recall A E Housman recounting in his inaugural address at Cambridge how Swinburne had defended the published text of a poem by Shelley on the basis of his deep insight into the poet's style. Unfortunately for Swinburne his eloquent exegesis was of a misprint.
This David Grossman, even more than his namesake, is highly intellectual and mellifluous. He turns out to be a novelist, and this particular book has been translated (except for the biblical sequence at the start I presume) by Stuart Schoffman. Schoffman is to be complimented on his work. Good quality writing in the original language needs good quality when translated, and you would hardly know that this is a translation at all. The issue of the original text is a much deeper one. A story that has come down from antiquity is profoundly unlikely to have survived unchanged in the process. Alterations, additions and omissions are all more or less inevitable. The trouble is that where the text has been given biblical status, some version or other will have been deemed the Word of God, and not many have the chutzpah, or even the inclination, to perform textual criticism on something as awesome as that.
Someone who had those attributes in spades was J Enoch Powell, and I recommend his The Evolution of the Gospel to followers of Judaism as well as Christians. It was long after Powell's death that I got round to reading the work. I recalled that it had affronted many divines, but I have not attempted to retrieve their protestations. It seems to me simply that to deem a text to be correct based on theology or `faith' is back-to-front reasoning. Scribes have been fallible or motivated, and propagandists have been propagandists, since the dawn of writing if not indeed earlier. It should not have taken Powell to point out that Christ's `agony in the garden' ought not to have been so easily accepted as gospel considering that all those in attendance were asleep, to take just one glaring instance. St Matthew's gospel can never seem the same to anyone willing and able to let go of their teaching, their `sense of their cultural identity' and the rest of that chatter after exposure to Powell's lucid and learned reasoning. Is the story, the myth, of Samson to be considered exempt from a similar process?
In other words, I don't see how I can follow Grossman down his enthusiastic lines of explanation. I mean, how much of this actually happened? Even taking it as literary commentary, the thought will not go out of my mind that this is more or less bound to be a story compounded of various threads from unknown participants over a long period, and that for that reason it is a bit of a wasted effort to delve into the author(s) intention. What author(s)?
David Grossman can't restrain his own creativity, and I can picture him part-way towards a novel, or even the script for a play, at certain points. However the book I have just been reading is strictly for those already converted or convinced. One thing I should concede is that he is very readable even in translation. I suppose I may offer him the tribute paid in another work by multiple authors and echo what the Odyssey says about Nestor: `His speech ran sweeter than honey.'
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