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Spouse, but not so chaste

by
03 August 2012

Alexander Lucie-Smith on Jubilate by Michael Arditti

Jubilate is a love story set in Lourdes. This sums up the whole book. Gillian meets Vincent on a pilgrimage. She is there with her mother-in-law and her husband, who has had a brain haemorrhage and now has the mental age of a child; Vincent is there to make a documentary film about the Jubilate pilgrimage.

She is a believing Roman Catholic, one who realises that she is tied to her husband for better or for worse, in sickness and in health; he is a lapsed Roman Catholic, an unbeliever, who has been marked by a tragic past.

"Boy meets girl" is, of course, a staple of fiction; usually something comes between them, and some difficulty has to be resolved - otherwise, the story would not make a full-length novel. Here the difficulty is Lourdes. Sometimes this is an almost comic hindrance: the first tremblings of love occur with the handshake at the kiss of peace at mass; there are several sequences about the physical difficulty of love-making in a city devoted to the Blessed Virgin.

Our lovers have to get past a very strict hotel manager, who describes her less-than-luxurious accommodation as "just basic Jesus". There is also the question where you can buy contraceptives in a city whose shops seem to sell only rosary beads and prayer books.

But, if Lourdes is the difficulty on one level, Lourdes is also the opportunity on another - for Lourdes is all about love. And it is here that Arditti excels. He writes about physical love rather well - not all authors can do this. But he does something more. He writes about love as sacrifice. Love in Lourdes is revealed as the giving of self, and the giving up of selfishness.

At the heart of the pilgrimage are the malades, the hospital pilgrims, each of them accompanied by someone who has a story, often one of selfless dedication overcoming almost impossible odds. This devotion can be rather chilling in the case of Gillian's mother-in-law, who has a love for her handicapped son which seemingly excludes much human sympathy; but other examples make it clear that Arditti sees Lourdes as not just a good advertisement for Catholicism, but for humanity itself.

The novel is a mosaic of small touches. At Lourdes airport, Gillian sees that the whole building is designed with the disabled in mind. The baggage-handlers, Vincent finds, are volunteers who give up their summer holidays to help the disabled and sick. These vignettes throw into relief the world that lies beyond Lourdes, where the disabled find every airport an obstacle course, and where baggage-handling is done for other reasons than love.

This is a love story asking us what we mean by love. The love of Lourdes is a non-sexual love; the Virgin who presides over the town is, obviously, a virgin. Would she approve of what Gillian and Vincent feel for each other? There are two possible answers. The first is that selfless devotion is the true meaning of love; the second answer is that everyone has a right to a little happiness.

Arditti's characters come down firmly on one side of the question. But the question remains: are they right? Are they understanding the message of Lourdes, or are they blind to the truth that is all around them? Readers, too, must make up their minds: after all, love is something we all feel; it is a question that demands a response.

Lourdes itself will evoke a range of reactions, as it does among the characters. Arditti, who does not appear to be a Roman Catholic, to judge by his description of liturgies, nevertheless gives a fair summation of the appeal and the limitations of the place. Lourdes is tacky, and yet, in the end, Madame Basic Jesus aside, unforgettable. It speaks to the soul, and in doing so makes us question what it is that our souls are seeking.

The structure of the novel features two interweaving voices - those of Gillian and Vincent. This means a double perspective, essentially telling the story twice, from each point of view. Arditti also tells the story twice with regard to its timescale. Each chapter is clearly dated, and we start at the end, on the last day of the pilgrimage, working our way backwards, to see how we got here, and then at the end, we revisit the conclusion, and see it in a new light.

This double symmetricality means multiple perspectives. It might seem like a hall of mirrors, a needless complication of what should be a straightforward narrative. But the added perspectives are worth the effort, and the story, although not following linear time, flows well, carrying the reader with it. I read the book twice, and, the second time round, I read the chapters in chronological order: perhaps this is what one is supposed to do. It is a double book, best read twice, a double vision of love.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).

Jubilate by Michael Arditti is published by Arcadia Books at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-908129-40-6.

 

The book begins at the ending of the story. How does the chronology affect the way that the story unfolds?

Have you ever been to Lourdes or a similar place of healing pilgrimage? If so, how similar was it to the book's picture?

Before you read the book, what impressions did you have of Lourdes? Has your view changed?

What were Gillian, Richard, and Vincent hoping for from their trip?

How had Richard's disability changed Gillian's life?

How would you describe Gillian's relationship with her mother-in-law?

How do Gillian and Vincent help each other move forward in life?

How big a part did sex play in Gillian and Vincent's affair? What more was there? How do you think things evolved once they returned home?

Arditti's writing has been compared to that of Graham Greene. What similarities are there?

Did you find humour in the story?

What different views of religion are expressed in the lives of the characters?

Who was your favourite character in the book? Why were you drawn to that person?

Was the ending what you had expected?

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 September, we will print extra information

about the next book. This is Take This Bread by Sara Miles. It is published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978- 1-84825-214-1.

Sara Miles (Back page interview, 28 July 2010; Feature, 27 January 2012) was born to atheist parents, who had rebelled against their own upbringing in missionary families. She worked as a chef and a journalist, reporting on revolutions in various parts of the world. When she was 46, she walked into a church, received communion, and found herself changed. Since then, she has become the founder and director of the Food Pantry, based in St Gregory's Episcopal Church, San Francisco, where she also serves as director of ministry. She has also written Jesus Freak: Feeding, healing, raising the dead (Canterbury Press, 2010). She is in demand as a speaker and preacher in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere.

Book notes

Take This Bread is the autobiograph-ical account of what happened to Miles after the day her life changed. It tells of how she set up the first food pantry, developed and expanded it, and opened up others.

She recounts her theological transitions and discoveries, and writes movingly about those whom she met and worked with in the pantries.

Books for the next two months:

October: In the Midst of Life by Jennifer Worth

November: Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

 

 

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