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Sticking faithfully to his craft

19 July 2013

In his writing, Michael Arditti wrestles with questions of faith, to critical acclaim. His new novel is no exception, finds Jo Browning Wroe

The conflict of faith and scepticism remains the proper, the only, the deepest theme of the history of the world and mankind to which all others are subordinate.

THIS quote from Goethe, used by Michael Arditti in the epigraph to his seventh novel, Jubilate, is a window on to his preoccupation and motivation as a novelist. His considerable body of critically acclaimed work - eight novels, and a short-story collection - reflects the relentless pursuit of his theme.

Whether a bishop who has lost his faith, an ordinand coming to terms with his sexuality in the aftermath of a breakdown, the members of a Hampstead church experiencing their own Passion during Holy Week, or a young missionary priest drawn to liberation theology during the Marcos dictatorship, Arditti's characters are people who suffer, believe, doubt, and wrestle.

As someone with spirituality at the forefront of his work, what brought him to faith?

"I had a very chequered childhood," he replies. "My parents divorced when I was young, and it wasn't a happy divorce. Fifty years ago, divorce was a dirty word. I'm very grateful I went all through school, from nursery to prep school to public school, with regular chapel; at public school, it was twice a day.

"Clearly, in me there was a very aesthetic road to faith. I was a child who responded to beauty and art, music, words, the biblical stories. I got a great deal of comfort from this particular figure of Christ; I found him very welcoming in a way that other people weren't, and it stuck. Obviously, my faith is different now, and I'm not a naïve person, but I cannot conceive of a world without a creative, moral, loving force behind it, and I don't think I ever have been able to. I think to have faith is a grace; it's an extraordinary gift, particularly in a world where everything is militating against that, certainly in the Western world."

THE author Phillip Pullman, not known for his ecclesiastical sympathies, says of Arditti's third novel, Easter: "It's a delight to find a modern novel that takes religion - and all the objections to it - seriously as a subject."

Arditti is able to write about overtly religious people without putting off readers such as Pullman because there is no authorial self-righteousness, but, rather, a genuine engagement with the struggles of living in today's world from a position of faith.

For example: "Why does a loving God allow suffering?" Arditti asks. "I've tried to answer it - I'm not going to give a simple answer now - but, in various books, I have tried to, and I hope I will go on doing that. But it is a fundamental question. Why? Anybody who has a belief that is beyond the materialist must work that out for him- or herself.

"In my first novel, The Celibate, the central character is a young ordinand, and the book deals with the subject of AIDS. I found a wonderful translation of the New Testament story, where the friends lower the man who's sick of the palsy through the ceiling to Jesus, and it actually referred to somebody with a skin disease.

"At that time, people with HIV who were seriously ill had something called Kaposi's sarcoma, and I had a close friend who was in that position, and it hit me: it was one of the main entry points into the story".

As is often the case with a début work, assumptions were made that The Celibate was autobiographical. "I remember going to dinner with people after The Celibate was published. I referred to something I'd done, and somebody asked if that was before or after I'd trained for the priesthood. I said I never trained for the priesthood - it's a novel.

"And then I looked round the table, and told them: nor was I beaten up by a rent boy in Notting Hill. Everybody said, 'Of course not,' and started spooning their soup. I was reminded of Hanif Kureishi's saying that when people ask if a novel is autobiographical, they're really asking: 'Did the dirty bits happen to you?' Sadly, no." 

A STUDENT at Jesus College, Cambridge, Arditti directed plays at the ADC Theatre, going on to work as an arts critic, and to write several plays for BBC Radio 4. He now concentrates on writing novels.

What is it about the novel that he particularly values? "Novels are a remarkable vehicle for allowing people to empathise with those for whom they would be otherwise unsympathetic. That's very important. It expands one's sympathies, one's understanding, one's humanism.

"Had I been born in a 19th- century Russian hovel, I might have become Raskolnikov: a clever boy, without many opportunities. You understand, and therefore you don't rush to judgement. We like nothing better than to point fingers at people; there's a terrific hierarchy. Everybody wants to look down on somebody else.

"People who are marginalised want to see people who are more marginalised than them. Reading novels destroys those sorts of distinctions, because it's one of the ways we explore our common humanity."

Through his novels, Arditti wrestles with different points of view: sexuality within the Church; HIV/AIDS; the nuclear family; miracles in the modern world - this is by no means an exhaustive list. Yet his characters are clearly more than mouthpieces for particular sides of an argument.

So, is his starting-point character, or issue? "In my latest novel, The Breath of Night, the starting point was a country. In Widows and Orphans [his current work in progress] the starting-point was a character: I wanted to write about a good man lost in this cruel new world, trying to fly the flag for old liberal values.

"In Easter, I wanted to write a modern-day Passion story, and all the way through it I had the image of Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece; so that was a pictorial one. In The Enemy of the Good, I wanted to write about a family, but also I wanted to explore the theme of liberalism versus fundamentalism; but I knew I didn't want to just write about Christianity, which is why there's an Islamic element as well, and particularly a Judaic element. So each one has a different impulse."

ALTHOUGH recognisably Ardittian, his novels are all different from each other in terms of narrative voice, tense, and structure. Is he consciously trying to do something different each time?

"A second meaning of the word novel is, obviously, new," he says, "and I think, in almost all my novels, I've tried to expand my own writing to take it into slightly experimental forms. I used to review a lot of books, and realised I don't terribly want to read a novel narrated by a shopping trolley. I'm sure there are very good novels narrated by shopping trolleys, but it's too tricksy.

"But I do believe that if you're trying to make people see things in a different way, then it's quite useful to reflect that in the structure, in the way you write the book.

"Writing novels is hard. Every time you choose a technique, whether you decide to write it in the first person, the third person, less commonly the second person, or mixtures of the three; whether you write it in the past, whether you write it in the present, there's always something you're going to miss.

"I'm currently writing a novel in the third person, but entirely from one person's point of view. This may be the worst of all possible worlds, but I'll have to work that out."

THE settings for Arditti's novels, and most of his main characters, are quintessentially English. His latest work, however, The Breath of Night, is set in the Philippines. What took him there for his eighth novel?

"The Philippines is the only Christian country in Asia: it's about 95-per-cent Catholic, five per cent Muslim. I don't think I could have written a novel set in Laos, or Cambodia, that had no relation to the world that I know. I wanted to expand my horizons, both metaphorically and literally.

"In Jubilate, there was quite a lot of descriptive writing. I very much enjoyed that; so I thought either I do something set in Northumber-land, or Hampstead, or I go somewhere where there's a lot of scope for description. Obviously, going to the Philippines allowed me to do that, and I wanted to look at clashes of both in religious culture and secular culture.

"The novel focuses on two Englishmen: one who's a mission-ary priest in the 1970s, and another who is a rather deracinated man in the here and now. It was liberating to go there, to be an outsider, to write in the position of two outsiders, one of whom becomes very involved and becomes an insider, and the other, who remains an outsider."

Arditti's characters never get off lightly. Their journeys are painful, and take them up to, and often beyond, the limits of their endurance. As the author of such spiritual and physical ordeals, I wonder what he has taken from writing this particular story.

"I'm pleased with the way I was able - I hope successfully, although that's for others to say - to tackle a completely different culture, and to remain true to myself and to my own preoccupations.

"It's left me with an enormous respect for many of the people I saw in the Philippines. It's left me with a greater understanding and respect for liberation theology, which I try to explore in the book; but it has left me also with a great sense of frustration that people are so exploited and oppressed.

"It's a wonderful country, but one of appalling corruption and exploitation. And the [Roman Catholic] Church has played a major role in that, right back to the 1580s, when the first friars took control of the Philippines. There are discrepancies between rich and poor that I would never have ever expected to see.

"It's not a poor country, it's rich in natural resources, and it's also one where the Church presides over it, and some way justifies it."

ARDITTI gives no hint of any desire to take his foot off the writing pedal. He peppers his speech with references to his next book - and, indeed, the one after the next one. And it seems that there are more stories waiting to get out of his mind and on to the page.

"Writing is my raison d'être. I don't have a family. I have a lot of close friends. I have a lot of godchildren - if you're a gay man, and vaguely respectable, the parents think: 'We'll have him' - and I love all of that, but writing is who I am.

"I want to give something to the world. That sounds awfully pretentious, but I hope I can do a bit of that with my writing. If I weren't writing, I would feel I was a taker rather than a giver, or at least the balance was wrong. So I need to write, and so far I've had things to say.

"This next one is a much easier novel: it's a character-based novel about the editor of a provincial newspaper, in a fictitious seaside resort in the south of England. It's really about the death of community. There is a vicar in it, in the Jane Austen way that there has to be a vicar.

"Then I'm going to have a break, and then I'm going to write a big novel, but I'm not going to tell you about that."

The Breath of Night, by Michael Arditti, is published next week by Arcadia at £11.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10 - Use code CT469 ).

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