What is refreshing about Calasso’s work is the opportunity he provides us of reading these accounts as stories—neither excised and repackaged, as they sometimes are in lessons read in church; nor charged with communicating a moral message. Not that his retellings are wholly disinterested; Calasso is intellectually drawn to the darker themes of rape, abduction, murder and blood sacrifice, even as he ponders their prevalence in myth-making across cultures and time. Calasso also reads beautifully (even in translation). Readers will appreciate how he sketches biblical characters, presenting them to us in colloquially colourful ways ... At times, his insights leap off the page ... All who wish to revisit these timeless stories in the company of a fresh and challenging guide will want to read this book.
The subject of The Book of All Books is the Hebrew Bible, and Calasso’s principal technique...is to select and retell a great many stories. This is more interesting than it sounds, in part because his selection is cunning and his narrative gifts considerable ... I think of myself as reasonably familiar with the Bible, and yet I found myself checking again and again to be sure that Calasso was not making it all up ... [the stories] convey both the power and weirdness of the Hebrew prophets ... This was the great innovation of rabbinical Judaism, an innovation that committed the Jews to the dream of a life centered on ceaseless, boundless study. It is not difficult to glimpse the polymathic spirit of Roberto Calasso drawn to this dream.
Calasso presumably did not think that such stories as the account of the creation in Genesis 1–2 were literal truth, but he describes them in the same rather neutral style as he does for more plausibly historical accounts such as the stories of the Hebrew kings. At the same time, the biblical stories are often enriched by attractive details from later Jewish legends as found in Midrashim and other later sources, occasionally also from kabbalistic traditions ... the at times slightly naive-seeming retelling of the biblical accounts is, in reality, highly artful ...There are...indications of an essentially Christian reading of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, too. Jesus is sometimes appealed to as improving on the Hebrew Bible’s teaching, and the chapter on the Messiah with which the book ends, although it draws on many Jewish teachings, suggests by its very placement a Christian, teleological reading of the Old Testament. There are other points one could quibble about ... This is in some ways a strange book, which really makes sense only in the context of Calasso’s larger project. Read at face value, it is simply an extended paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible with some embellishments and digressions, and is as such interesting enough. But it is not meant to be read at face value. It is intended to contribute to the attempt to draw out connections between literature from the ancient world and modern sensibilities. In this by and large it succeeds, helping to show how and why the Bible still has power to speak. My hope is that it will encourage people to read the Bible itself, guided by the helpful pointers Calasso provides.
Moving between retellings of biblical stories, heuristic commentary and speculative cultural theory, Calasso spins an epic that is heroic and anti-heroic at once. Portraits of Saul, David, Solomon, Abraham and Moses present a chronicle of relentless patriarchy but Calasso’s attention wanders constantly to the figures on the fringes ... The Book of All Books is in no sense a work of conventional theology, and prominent among its themes is the extraordinary violence required to sustain divine authority. By returning scripture to its wider roots in myth and hearsay, Calasso works to defuse the mystique of patriarchal violence ... Whatever his personal beliefs, Calasso the biblical exegete has achieved a comparable, intimate reciprocity with his text ... With Calasso’s death, European writing has lost a master of comparable stature.
This is an intriguing and ingenious book ... there are authors with whom he shares a resemblance. In the eclectic nature of his thinking he is a peer with Umberto Eco, though Eco was more impish; he could be compared to WG Sebald, though Sebald is more suffused with melancholy. If there were one feature that distinguished him it was not the similarly polymathic imagination, but a combination of being incisive and cautious. Like any good reader, he tip-toes up to the text. The book is a chimera, in that in part he is re-narrating the stories, and at the same time is glossing them ... Where Calasso is especially strong is in acknowledging the contiguity between various stories, such as the Flood, with Mesopotamian myths while at the same time being fascinated about what was different in this library ... This is a wonderful finale to a career. To be lucid and clever without being arcane or simplistic is a great gift, and one that shall be missed.
It exhibits much of the vividness and wide-ranging erudition of [Calasso's] earlier book, but the results are more uneven. Calasso’s retelling is intentionally an intellectual potpourri, and that is the source both of its appeal and its weakness. He begins with a midrash, the characteristic early rabbinic mode of exegesis that amplifies, elaborates and sometimes reinvents the spare biblical text. Other midrashim are then introduced from time to time as well as midrashim that one assumes are Calasso’s own invention. For some stretches of the book, he simply retells the canonical narrative, and these sections are not likely to be of much interest to anyone already familiar with the Bible. More welcome are the frequent junctures in which he midrashically fleshes out what is tersely told in the Bible ... Yet for all these winning moments, there is much that is flawed in this book. Calasso gets certain details wrong ... He sometimes gets a Hebrew term with its nuances exactly right, but he also makes quite a few mistakes ... Calasso’s great virtue as a writer is his willingness to go with the impulses of his own interests and preoccupations, even when they might seem rather remote from the subject at hand. Sometimes when he does this here, the effect can be annoying ... a very mixed and eccentric production but hardly an authoritative account of the Hebrew Bible. In some ways it is misleading, in others exasperating, but it is also beguiling, and there are points at which it actually throws fresh light on the biblical story.
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 ... Nor is he offering a commentary, although he does draw on some (not very recent) biblical scholarship. Rather, he is connecting ... Calasso links the tales with reflections on sacrifice, election, evil, separation and redemption—losing, enlightening and perfecting himself in the process.
In this probing inquiry into biblical mysteries, the author meditates on the complexities and contradictions of key events and figures ... Calasso makes palpable schisms and rivalries, persecutions and retributions, holocausts and sacrifices as tribal groups battled one another to form 'a single entity'—the people of Israel. An erudite guide to the biblical world.
Italian publisher and writer Calasso...once again muses eloquently on the Bible in this 10th entry in his series dedicated to exploring ancient myths and the human search for meaning ... In their refraction through Calasso’s prodigious mind, biblical stories are connected to a broader history of ideas, and the author argues that the Bible, like other ancient texts and myths, represents the human drive for transcendence and meaning. Despite the scholarly trimmings, the individual retellings will have wide appeal. Readers with any level of biblical knowledge will benefit from Calasso’s far-ranging insights.