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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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