The Book of All Books – Roberto Calasso’s paean to biblical myth

The novelist Sebastian Faulks once remarked that “of the 100 greatest stories ever told, 99 are probably in the Old Testament and the other is in Homer.” Roberto Calasso would have disagreed with his proportions and his omission of Hindu literature – but he would, no doubt, have agreed with the underlying sentiment. The Hebrew Bible positively chokes with pithy, penetrating and profound stories, from Eden to Exodus, exile to eternity.

Calasso, who died earlier this year, was a master of myth. Fluent in four modern and three ancient languages, he wrote a (very loose) series of books, the best-known of which is The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmonyexploring the pathways between modernity, European literature and ancient stories. The Book of All Bookshis final book (for now – other posthumous works remain to be published), tackles perhaps the greatest “myth” of European civilization: the Bible.

Myth is a notoriously slippery word. For some, it simply means “false belief”. For others, like Calasso, it is a controlling story, a powerful narrative that evokes and structures the complexity of human existence. Historically, this kind of myth may be more or less true; the question doesn’t really interest Calasso. Existentially, it discloses truths about who we are.

Calasso’s title refers not only to the fact that the Bible is not a book but a collection, but also, more specifically, to an idea of ​​Goethe’s that serves as his epigraph. “The book of all books,” Goethe wrote, “was given to us that we might try to enter there as into a second world, where we lose ourselves, enlighten ourselves, perfect ourselves.”

This captures what Calasso attempts. Beginning with the early kings of Israel, he then loops back to Abraham, Moses and the creation, before returning to the destruction of the Temple and the coming of the Messiah. He writes engagingly, in short, direct sentences and discrete paragraphs, which are rendered clearly into English by Tim Parks. And he is faithful to his source material, often supplementing it with details from the Mishnah, the post-biblical Jewish tradition, and from his own pen.

These are not straightforward retellings, however. Calasso is not simply translating the Old Testament afresh – wisely, given that Robert Alter has done such a good job of that recently in a series of books, including The Five Books of Moses and The David Story. Nor is he offering a commentary, although he does draw on some (not very recent) biblical scholarship.

Rather, he is connecting: connecting the stories of Israel with those of classical Greece and Vedic India; with moments of European literature and philosophy, as Kafka, Weil, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche flit across his pages; and with the deep currents of human existence. Freud, himself fascinated by the story of Moses, gets a whole chapter, and throughout the book Calasso links the tales with reflections on sacrifice, election, evil, separation and redemption – losing, enlightening and perfecting himself in the process.

The Hebrew Bible, he intimates, offers us something that modernity fails to. The “secular world machine”, he writes at one point, is like a company that rewards efficient employees and assigns others more miserable jobs. The “scientific world machine”, by contrast, favors those who have temporarily avoided evil’s blows “merely thanks to statistical probability”.

But these two are not enough to describe the world in which we live, one that witnesses the kind of “grace” that is given to Abraham and “dis-grace” that is felt by Job. For that, Calasso writes, we must turn to the Bible.

The Book of All Books by Roberto Calasso, translated by Tim Parks, Allen Lane £ 25, 464 pages

Nick Spencer hosts the ‘Reading our Times’ podcast

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Leave a Comment