Incrementally, as they were published, I read Robert Alter’s versions of the Hebrew Bible. We can only be grateful that one of Nabokov’s most inspired readers is so gifted a Biblical scholar. I grew up with the Revised Standard Version (my copy, from 1960, is the book I have owned longest) and, later, King James. My favorite parts of scripture, the books I return to most often, have always been in the Old Testament, especially Psalms and the books Alter translates as The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary (2010).
Proverbs is traditionally attributed to Solomon. Alter tells us the book is more than “a collection of pithy sayings.” Rather, it is an “anthology of anthologies,” including the styles of writers from many periods. Here is Proverbs 13:3, in Alter’s translation:
“Who watches his mouth guards his own life, who cracks open his lips knows disaster.”
Here it is in the King James:
“He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life: but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction.”
The late Terry Teachout, in a 1995 review of Thomas M. Disch’s novel The Priest, describes Disch’s dismissal of Christianity, specifically Roman Catholicism, as “quasi-religious fervor.” Often in poetry and prose, Disch indulges in anti-religious, sometimes grotesque smears and rants. It’s a blot on his reputation, one that may discourage readers from approaching Disch’s excellent poetry. Earnestness and contempt hobble and compromise some of Disch’s work, more so in his prose than his verse.
In the Summer 1998 issue of The Hudson Review, Disch published “parodies” of Proverbs and the Song of Songs. I put the word in quotes because parody is often a mode of subversion. It criticizes a text by imitating it – exaggerating the original, producing verbal caricatures subtle or exaggerated. But Disch’s scriptural take-offs, written in numbered verses, mingle honey with only a touch of acid. “Proverbs” begins “1. There is a man weeping as he sits by a roulette table, in Atlantic City: he has lost everything, he is ruined,” and continues with further laments until this: “6. I say to them: stop bellyaching. Mow your lawns. Rejoice in the music of Beethoven, and brush your teeth.” No haranguing, for once. I detect a new sense of forgiveness, tolerance for human failing. Disch always had an acute eye for revealing detail, and was unafraid to document the minutia of middle-class American lives:
“12. Do not grieve, therefore, for resorts that stand empty in the Catskills, where once were multitudes; nor for the rivers where no bass strike; nor yet for the small town’s only five-and-dime, burned to the ground.
“13. What though there is not money for a wider drive: do not, each spring, the irises return?
“14. The deer and the crow delight beneath the apple tree; the wise man sits by his TV and drowses, and the mouse is warm in the crawlspace.
“15. Why, therefore, sorrow? A millennium draws to an end, but shall not another replace it?
The snideness, a Disch trademark, seems absent. He concludes his “Proverbs”:
“22. Let the wise heed these counsels, and let the ignorant live in their ignorance still. Selah.”
[Terry’s review of The Priest is collected in A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale University Press, 2004).]