This is an odd one, not least because it claims to be a novel, which it isn’t. Emmanuel Carrère, writer and film-maker, looks back on an earlier self when, as a young man, he had a phase of being a devout Catholic, going to Mass daily, making his confession, the whole caboodle. He decides to marry his girlfriend, who is called Anne. We do not hear much about her. He later marries Hélène Devynck. Like the ‘real’ Carrère, the narrator has a house on the island of Patmos, where much of this book was written — appropriately, since it is a (sort of) commentary on the New Testament.
As Carrère modestly says, everyone who has ever investigated the origins of Christianity ends up surveying the same relatively small number of sources and documents: the New Testament itself, obviously; the writings of Flavius Josephus, the historian who recorded the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70; the Dead Sea Scrolls (not much there to help us). Christianity or the Christians get brief mention in Tacitus, and the letters of Pliny the Younger. Otherwise you are on your own, and have to decide for yourself what to make of all this strange stuff.
Carrère imagines that James, brother of Jesus and head of the Jerusalem church, really had it in for Paul: indeed, tried to get him bumped off. (Here I felt like Captain Mainwaring — ‘ I think you’re getting into the realms of fantasy, Jones.’)
The character who seems to engage Carrère’s imagination most vividly is Luke. In this book, Luke is a disciple of Paul, who accompanies him to Jerusalem for his last journey there. When, at the end of Acts, Paul is left under house arrest in Rome, Carrère seems to think that Luke exaggerated the number of Paul’s friends. Although Peter and companions had by then reached the Eternal City, ‘no doubt none of them stooped to visiting Paul’.
When Paul was eventually killed by the Romans, it was left to Luke to keep the flame alive. In Carrère’s version, Luke wrote some of Paul’s later epistles, notably inventing the novelistic details of 2 Timothy, its abusive comments about Alexander the Coppersmith, the request for a cloak left behind in Troas, and its giveaway sentence ‘only Luke is with me’. Carrère’s Luke also wrote the Epistle of James, which, we learn, is much closer to the sort of things Jesus actually said than anything in Paul’s letters. Apparently Mark, when he came to write his Gospel, did so in ‘poor Greek — like the language of a Singapore taxi driver’.
The Kingdom is a chatty, bookish book. Repeated allusions to Philip K Dick, the appearances-versus-reality-obsessed American science fiction writer, makes me think I would enjoy him; generous passages about Ernest Renan reminded me of why I had enjoyed him.
Don’t expect consistency from our friend. Like many people, he believes the paradox that the New Testament was written by illiterates (or semi-literates). On page 295 he says that ‘thinking that the same man wrote the fourth Gospel and Revelation would be like thinking, if all of the references concerning 20th-century French literature were lost, that the same person wrote In Search of Lost Time and Journey to the End of the Night’. But on the very next page, he describes John, ‘a no doubt illiterate Gallilean fisherman’ becoming, 40 or 60 years later ‘the prophet of Patmos… Such metamorphoses aren’t unheard of’.
Proust makes another appearance, incidentally, when Luke settles down to do his writing. Like Marcel, Luke apparently liked to write in bed, with a Codex of Mark’s Gospel and a copy of Q: The Sayings of Jesus lying on the duvet cover.
The Kingdom contains a completely incongruous sequence in which the narrator breaks off from telling us about the New Testament, to watch an online film of a young woman masturbating. He watches it 20 times and then has a conversation with Hélène about it which was … well, a bit French for me. Later in the book, he says that he does not find it embarrassing to admit that he enjoys pornography, but that he does find talking about all the religious stuff in this book embarrassing. Many readers will know what he means.
Carrère believes, at the end, that he has glimpsed ‘the Kingdom’ — not by studying the texts, but by taking part in a feet-washing ritual with various Catholic social workers and a young girl with Down’s syndrome. This sequence is as moving as was no doubt intended. Nevertheless, Dr Johnson is a wiser guide than Carrère. I was reminded again and again of Johnson’s description of the New Testament as ‘the most difficult book in the world, for which the study of a life is required’.