I have been fascinated by Cannongate’s Myth series from the start. I have been trying to read each new book in the series as they come along (see previous reviews here: A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong; The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood; and Weight by Jeanette Winterson). A number of additional works in the series have been published and I thought it time to catch up.
As a part of this effort I recently finished David Grossman’s take on Samson entitled Lion’s Honey. The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur by Victor Pelevin and Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams by Alexander McCall Smith remain in the TBR pile.
Lion’s Honey is somewhat unique in that it isn’t really a fictional retelling or re-imagining of a famous myth so much as a psychological and literary discussion of the story and characters. This involves Grossman’s unique viewpoint on Samson, which certainly counts as a re-imagining, but it doesn’t involve straightforward storytelling. Instead, Grossman provides a sort of read along commentary and analysis. Here is how the Complete Review describes it:
Grossman both re-tells the Samson-myth and interprets it, lingering over a variety of detail in trying to understand what might have motivated Samson (and the other actors) in these various scenarios. He has a nice touch — midway between teacher and raconteur (with a touch of the Talmudic scholar as well) — and manages to convey both Samson’s entire life-story as well as offering a specific interpretation.
Grossman’s take involves both a non-traditional take on Samson and a political commentary on the state of Israel. Many reviewers touch on the former but emphasize the later. I found neither quite as useful as many. It is perhaps my innate skepticism toward psychology, particularly any sort of Freudian analysis, and my conservative political perspective that prevented my appreciation of Grossman’s insights, but the approach left me underwhelmed. More below.
David Bernstein in his review for The Age sums up the dual nature of Grossman’s take:
The first is simply an attempt to add psychological and emotional flesh to the bare bones of Samson the man – the Hebrew giant, profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin, born into the world with a preordained mission to deliver his people from the Philistines. And, as Mann achieved with Joseph, Grossman employs his considerable skills as a novelist to create a complex, three-dimensional portrait of a deeply troubled soul (with whom, one gets the powerful sense, the author strongly identifies, or empathises, personally).
But it is at a second level, of Samson as a metaphor not only for the Jewish people, but for the modern state of Israel, that Grossman’s account is so arresting – especially in light of the present chaos in the Middle East.
I guess I just didn’t find Grossman’s psychological portrait quite as strong as Bernstein. Grossman pains Samson as an artist trapped in a strongman’s body. He focuses on the isolation and separation Samson feels because of his unique destiny and gifts. Grossman explores the unique struggle for love and acceptance Samson might have faced after having been set apart from the rest of his family and culture from before his birth. But all of the speculation didn’t really lead to a deeper understanding of the story for me.
Many of the reviewers touched on the events in the Middle East that were occurring as the book was released. In reading these review now, it seems those events brought a poignancy and immediacy to the book that I didn’t feel.
Bernstein sums up his reaction this way:
It is purely fortuitous that Lion’s Honey is being published in Australia now. But it illustrates, in the profoundest way possible, the capacity of myth, especially in the hands of a writer as skilled and as sensitive as Grossman, to cast light into the darkest, most ancient depths of human behaviour, both individual and collective, at all times and in all circumstances. And it has left this reader, at least, not only with a deep sense of unease about what Israel has been doing in Gaza and Lebanon, but foreboding about what the future holds for the Jewish state.
It seems to me that if you think Israel over-reacted during its engagement with Lebanon or that they have a built in tendency toward undue force then your reaction to Grossman will mirror Bernstein’s. His musings on Samson give aesthetic weight to these feelings. But if you don’t share that strategic viewpoint, then Grossman’s perspective won’t seem so prescient or insightful.
In a largely favorable review in the Weekly Standard Benjamin Balint has a different reaction:
Whether Israel will lose its vitality as suddenly as Samson did is an open question. In the end, however, this book usefully opens a window into the psychology not of biblical Samson, or the contemporary Israeli, but of those who accuse Israel of excessive force in defending itself against Islamic fundamentalists who have sent wave after indiscriminate wave of suicide bombers from the West Bank, Qassam rockets from Gaza, or Katyusha bombardments from Lebanon. It seems that these critics consider Jewish force to be an embarrassing liability; perhaps they do not wish to be answerable to the heavy responsibility of using it, or perhaps they see distinction in weakness[. . .]
Grossman is no Chomsky or Steiner; he is, to his lasting credit, deeply involved in the life he criticizes. His son Uri, two weeks shy of his 21st birthday, was tragically killed in the latest war in Lebanon, a couple of days after his father had said at a press conference that Israel had exhausted its right of self-defense there. But in indulging the temptation to make a virtue of political innocence, in refusing to consider that not every exercise of strength is a militarism and not every use of power an idolization of power, his reading of Samson shares some of the marks of an unnatural political consciousness.
I confess I find myself rather ambivalent about whether I liked the book or not. As the other reviewers have noted, Grossman brings a knowledge of the language and culture that make for some insightful commentary and insights into Samson’s story. And he is a skillful enough writer that Lion’s Honey is an easy and mostly enjoyable read. But in the end, I didn’t feel like I came away with much. Interesting for the most part, even intriguing at times, but the whole seemed somehow less than the sum of its parts. In psychological terms I guess I am conflicted.
Whatever my reaction, I continue to find Cannongate’s series a fascinating one. Every book doesn’t have to be a home run to be worthwhile. The style and structure of Lion’s honey just didn’t work as well for me. What makes the series so interesting is to see how different authors approach the subject and carry out their ideas. If you haven’t checked the series out I would encourage you to do so.