In this latest offering from Italian scholar Roberto Calasso, who passed away in 2021 at 80 years old, he explores the Hebrew Bible as part of his lifelong project of examining the through-lines and implications of Western mythologies, religious texts and literature.
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.