The story ends badly. It's in the Bible (the Old Testament), and concerns Jezebel, a ninth century B.C. Phoenician princess who marries the king of Israel, Ahab, corrupts him, scandalizes the kingdom, is cursed by the prophet Elijah, and meets (as predicted by Elijah) a gruesome death—she is thrown out of a window, trampled by a horse, and eaten by dogs. And precisely what did this woman do to deserve this horrible end and a bad reputation that has lasted for nearly 3,000 years? She was a polytheist; she did not love the one and only king of heaven, Yahweh; she loved many gods. Jezebel was a "harlot."
Three years ago, Lesley Hazleton wrote a "flesh-and-blood biography" of a woman who is the biblical symbol of female purity, perfection, absolute good: Mary. Hazleton's new book is another "flesh-and-blood biography," but this time of a woman who is on the other end of the moral spectrum—the biblical symbol of female decadence, corruption, absolute evil: Jezebel. In the way Hazleton brought Mary down to the earth, she now raises Jezebel up from hell. But even more than that, more than simply repairing Jezebel's reputation, more than placing her on the same ground as Mary, Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen makes the despised queen look, act, talk, and think like any other person. Jezebel was not perfect; she had her strengths and weakness, her good and bad moments, her highs and lows.
"When I first began to research this book," writes Hazleton in the introduction, "I imagined that it would be a rehabilitation of Jezebel, even choosing 'a rehabilitation' as my working subtitle. But the deeper I went into her story, the more I realized that to do this would be merely to replace one stereotype with another, that of 'the good woman wronged.' And Jezebel was far too interesting to be pigeonholed in this way."
Before going any deeper into the subject of this wonderful book, a little background on the author. Lesley Hazleton was born in England, trained as a psychologist, and worked as a political reporter in the 1970s. She spent a good chunk of her life in Jerusalem (1966 to 1979), another good chunk in New York City (1979 to 1992), and currently lives in Seattle. "I came from New York for two months in 1992 to get my pilot's license (single-engine, those buzzy things with single props)," she explained in an e-mail. "I met someone who said, 'Would you like to rent my houseboat?' raced the moving van from New York, and three years later bought the place from her. I haven't wanted to move since."
Hazleton has published nine books, speaks Hebrew, and specializes in religious and social subjects. She is fairly active in the local literary scene, once contributing work and ideas to the Seattle Research Institute, and is presently participating in the first installment of Hugo House's Literary Series "Lost in Translation," which takes place this Friday, October 12. She's contributing an original piece about "the foundation story of the Shia-Sunni split"—a split that happened right after the founder of Islam, Muhammad, died 1,300 years ago.
Like the Shia-Sunni essay she will present at Hugo House, nothing in her new book, Jezebel—save the a couple references to Jonathan Raban—has anything to do with the Pacific Northwest. The book takes place not only in a time that's remote, but also in a place that is geographically and climatically distant from the Pacific Northwest. "It's all weird," she wrote in the e-mail, "since I still think of myself as a desert person (13 years in the Middle East), yet I seem to be terrifyingly content (yes, I am terrified by contentment) in all this watery ease, halfway round the world from my subject place. Must be something to do with the name Pacific Northwest."
Near the end of her information-rich book, the reader will find a short passage that contains the three main elements of Hazleton's style and program. Here's the passage: "There were once literally such creatures as dogs of war. Specifically bred mastiffs trained by both the [ancient] Egyptians and Assyrians for use in battle... The very idea of them was terrifying, let alone the reality. American soldiers in Iraq were working in a far more ancient tradition than they knew when they used attack dogs to terrorize and torture prisoners in Abu Ghraib."
Here, the ancient past (the Assyrian war machine) is collapsed with the present (the American war machine). The passage also collapses one type of writing (historical) with another type (journalism). In other passages and chapters, Hazleton also collapses scholarly writing with fiction, or fiction with travel writing, or travel writing with political reporting. Finally, though the subject of the passage (violent dogs) is terrifying, the tone is of the writing is steady and even.
But why this collapsing of the new and the old, of the literary conventions, of the horrific with the calm? Because Hazleton wants the past to be as real to you as the present. In the book, the ninth century world of kings and warriors is connected with the 21st century world of presidents and generals. In one chapter, you are in a palace with the queen; in the next chapter, you are reading the theories of Edward Said or a translation of a modern Hebrew poem. The dogs that eat and shit the corpse of Jezebel near the end of the book almost devour Hazleton, her guide, and her rented car near the opening of the book.
The ultimate result of Hazleton's approach to time and style? Instead of being transported to Jezebel's world, she becomes a part of our world.
Lesley Hazleton appears with monologist Mike Daisey, novelist Randall Kenan, and musician Devin Sullivan on Fri Oct 12, Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Ave, 322-7030), 7:30 pm, $15-$25.