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Abstract

This dissertation treats a set of six literary adaptations of the story of King David in the Hebrew Bible Books of Samuel. By attending to common modes of biblical reading and rewriting that straddle generic and disciplinary boundaries, the project explores why and how philological and historical questions and methods interact with imaginative, complex literary adaptation. These authors and scholars articulate and re-frame key twentieth-century concerns—such as the relations of modern cultures to history and religion, the nature of political power, authority, and legitimacy, and narrative poetics—in ways only made possible through new kinds of relationships with the biblical text founded on attentive close-reading, secular deconstructive gestures, or ambivalent returns to a traditional object. The text of 1 and 2 Samuel is both remarkably unified by David himself and fraught with confusion: the juxtaposition of distinct historical sources, propagandistic elements, and multiple genres; a complex history of compilation and transmission and text-critical issues; and a supposedly central main character who is famously opaque and who is surrounded by competing interests and minor figures. The literary works this dissertation studies build from and with the ultimately messy biblical text and recursively return to it. Rather than simply taking the biblical text as inspiration, they stay with it in focused, attentive, even scholarly attitudes that produce narrative techniques. Read together, they evoke Samuel as a quintessential late twentieth-century source-text and crystallize versions of the text’s tension between singularity and dispersion, authority and contingency. These authors probe the literary possibilities that emerge from grappling with David the legendary, enigmatic figure together with the particularities of the text which contains him. Chapter 1 draws together Carlo Coccioli’s Mémoires du roi David (1976) and Joseph Heller’s God Knows (1984), two “autobiographical” texts in which David’s doubled, often opaque characterization prompts reflection on problems of twentieth-century authorial identity. In these two novels, tensions between original and copy are also tensions between versions of selfhood performed and worked through by means of an unusual philologically-inflected style, in which both Davids attend closely to their lives as source-texts. Chapter 2 reads Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Stefan Heym’s The King David Report (1972) as novelistic reflections of seminal works by biblical scholars Martin Noth and Leonhard Rost, who critically represent the Book of Samuel as a compiled text. Faulkner and Heym produce novels as much about the actors who put together texts as about the central Davidic figures, and these compilers enact their own editorial epistemologies. Chapter 3 treats Belgian playwright René Kalisky’s experimental play Dave au bord de mer (1978), in which King Saul and David “play” modern versions of themselves on a beach in Israel. This chapter relates Kalisky’s conflation of ancient and modern versions to David Ben-Gurion’s reading of Samuel, exploring the exaggerated mediated mode by which the play deploys the biblical text and contemporary news in order to propagate a sense of destabilization in audiences, particularly around questions concerning Israel. Chapter 4 turns to Grete Weil’s The Bride Price (1988), a novel which juxtaposes alternating narratives recounted by ancient Michal, David’s wife, and an aging German writer named Grete. The novel critiques certain modes of biblical and modern history as well as the patriarchal violence of nation-building and colonization and stages a tentative encounter between the two narrators, suggesting an alternative means of linking present and past history which re-centers women’s “views.”

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