In The Book of All Books—published last year in English translation just after the author’s death—Roberto Calasso attempts to do for the Tanakh what he in a previous work did for Greek myths: reinterpret it in a modern literary form. Robert Alter writes in his review:
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.
This retelling of the Bible is also enlivened by its range of intertextual references—Racine, Kafka, Freud, Nietzsche—to whom Calasso adds the Veda, the Indian text he cherished. In a few instances, a surprising comparison is combined with a genuine insight into the biblical story: “Saul hid among the bags—something Harpo Marx would do—paralyzed by the terror of election that more than any other would afflict his people in the future, the terror of the drawn lot, the chance that a moment later might select him.”
Yet for all these winning moments, there is much that is flawed in this book. Calasso gets certain details wrong. . . . Perhaps what is most curious is that though Calasso is chiefly interested in Jewish readings of Scripture—the midrash, the Zohar, Maimonides and not Aquinas—there are intermittent passages that invoke discredited supersessionist notions of the Old Testament as an anticipation or prefiguration of the New.
He is also drawn to the bizarre, which explains why he devotes a chapter not to Isaiah or Jeremiah but to Ezekiel, surely the weirdest of all the biblical prophets. And his modern references definitely impart an allure to his narrative. Why not pick up a diary entry by Kafka as a clue to something going on in the Bible, or why not invite us to see the fearfully diffident Saul by way of Harpo Marx?