Robert Alter

Roberto Calasso’s retelling of the Hebrew Bible is both exasperating and beguiling

It’s full of winning moments, but Calasso’s preoccupation with sacrifice may stem from a discredited notion that the Old Testament prefigures the New

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba by Konrad Witz, 1437. [Alamy]

The Italian writer Roberto Calasso, who died in July at the age of 80, was an anomalous and fascinating figure on the international literary scene. In his early twenties he began working for the prestigious publishers Adelfi Edizioni and stayed with them his whole life, eventually becoming editorial director and, when the firm was threatened with a takeover, purchasing it. In his thirties he began writing a series of idiosyncratic books. The second of these, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, established his reputation and was translated into many languages.

Something should be said about it because the project it enacts is related to this last of his books. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is a retelling of the principal Greek myths, incorporating variant versions, performed with such imaginative flair that it takes the reader deep into the mindset of Greek myth. The Book of All Books — the title is taken from Goethe — is a retelling of the Hebrew Bible. It exhibits much of the vividness and wide-ranging erudition of the 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. Here he is on the inception of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon:

The Queen of Sheba stepped out early in the morning to salute the Sun.

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