Monday, March 07, 2011

Reading Aloud the KJV at the Bath Literary Festival

Reading the entire King James Bible may sound like a mad project but after participating in the one in Bath last week, it's an exercise that is highly to be recommended, providing certain criteria are fulfilled. It can't be done without careful preparation. Readers were lined up in advance, and there was plenty of flexibility on site to allow for no-shows (of which there were hardly any) and to accomodate people who were late-comers and really wanted to read. There was a tremendous sense of letting people do their thing; people were hugely respectful of the occasion and the text, and there was no showing off. Nor did I see anyone in clericals or anyone wearing any sign that they were other than ordinary folk. In other words, no one did anything to take the focus away from honouring the KJV.

We were blessed by having a great event manager. He had a sense of who should read what, and he had enormous tact. He was also a tremendous reader: I have never heard 1Cor. 13 read so well. In fact, the reading aloud was generally of a very high level; there was only one reader who was truly awful, and unfortunately her chapters included Philippians 2. There were teams of four readers each hour, reading chapters in rotation, two chapters together if they were short. Professional actors started Genesis and finished Revelation. The only real problem was at the venue, which for the reading was, in general, great, not too big, not too small, with the seating focused in a semicircle on the lecterns. BUT this church had a café, and sometimes the users of the café were much too loud. To the readers' credit, they just 'stayed calm and carried on'. There was very little 'thumping'; most people let the text speak.

The reading lasted from noon on Tuesday to around 6 PM on Saturday. Someone told me their college had done it in three days, for charity, but this was not a reading that was rushed through just so the Bath Literary festival could say they'd done it. This was a reading to honour the KJV; it was done with as much beauty and care as people could summon. Volunteers came from all over: Alexander McCall Smith came from Edinburgh, for example; but most readers were just ordinary folk. If I were younger I would have camped out in the church and listened to the entire bible. As it was, I still received an immersion that gave me a sense of the arc of the text, of the prevailing themes, of the music—for even when the KJV translators' syntax was at its most obtuse, the music was still there; as opposed to modern translations such as the NRSV, which may be clearer (although the meaning of the text is drastically altered) but is horribly awkward to read aloud. Some of the KJV is quite hard going syntactically—endless subclauses which are hard to untangle in terms of inflection, and we only had a few moments to glance at the chapters before we actually read them aloud.

The best time to be there was, of course, the middle of the night, and during my first night I heard the best reader I have ever heard in my life bar none. I have no idea who he was. No accent at all; wonderful voice, pace, inflection—I sat there entranced. I arrived hours before I was due to read at 1 AM. This reading had been arranged at the last minute and was added on to my scheduled reading at noon on Friday, and I was lucky enough to read again on Saturday afternoon, as the reading ran six hours over the projected time. But time meant nothing; I must have sat through eight hours or reading on Saturday, as well as many more hours on Thursday afternoon and night, and Friday, and it never got old.

Ever since I first heard about this project I had thought to myself that if I had my druthers the chapter I'd most want to read was Isaiah 6. Given the randomness of assignments and the pace at which people read, it was impossible to anticipate what you would be reading, so I was more than amazed when I was asked to read Isaiah 6 for my first chapter! I was very lucky in my chapters. I also read the very salacious Ezekiel 23, which is perhaps where the Desert Fathers and Mothers got the idea that distraction is the same as fornication. I had a lot of fun with that chapter—it is so deliberately mocking of superficial sexuality: the idiotic things that attract young women, and the vanity of the men displaying themselves—and I made the most of it. I'd only had four hours of sleep though, and was not entirely alert; and while I'd looked at the chapter before I read it, my tongue slipped on the first mention of 'Aholah', which came out 'Aloha', instantly converting her to a Hawaiian. I kept going without missing a beat and got it right the next time, but inside I was laughing uproariously. I also was given Hebrews 11, the second chapter of James and the first chapters of the two Peter epistles.

There was much that reverberated among these chapters: for example, Hebrews 11 talks of Rahab by faith and the James chapter I read next talks about Rahab by works. There seemed to be a lot of these resonances, and one also gained a sense of themes that emerged over and over again: fancy dress is a bad sign; so is the wrong kind of conversation. Some of the Ezekiel chapters I read have wonderful turns on the egocentrism of evil, specifically of the devil and of Assyria as God's instrument: the repeating 'I' and 'me' when these voices were ventriloquized was striking. There are some profound turns on the hand of God and grasping and ungrasping, and the salvation associated with these images of being set free from a trap. There is a lot about what you do with your mind. Throughout, as Adam Nicholson remarked, there is always the beauty, majesty, vision and music that this translation inserts into the ordinary lives of ordinary people.

At the Bath reading the readers were asked to sign a book of remembrance, and the comments were deeply moving. It's clear that the KJV for all its problems conveys something about religion that today's people are hungry for. One young reader summed it up by saying that she had never read KJV before, but she would now read it in preference to any modern translation.

There is going to be a similar reading at Plymouth, and also one at the Hay Festival—where on June 4 I will be on a panel on with Howard Jacobson and others; and by some miracle at 9 AM on June 5, I also will be giving a little reading, followed by questions and answers, to promote Writing the Icon of the Heart.

It's going to take a long time to absorb the wonders of this immersion in the KJV (instead of geothermal water) at Bath—and in the warm hospitality and kindness of my hosts. You know who you are; my gratitude is beyond words.


Blogger Bo said...

Wonderful experience, wonderful account. Aloha ;)

9:44 pm, March 07, 2011  

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