MICHAEL ARDITTI’s new novel, Of Men and Angels, due to be published yesterday, is a great doorstop of a book. It weaves together five stories, each from a different epoch in history, and spans 2500 years. At its heart is the story of Lot, and God’s vengeance on the wicked city of Sodom. It is meticulously researched, richly inventive, and hugely ambitious in its scope.
So, why this subject? “It’s the culmination of one strand of my work,” he says. “[My books] The Celibate and Easter both look at the integration of sexuality and spirituality, especially among gay people.
“The founding myth of the Western cultural view of homosexuality is the Sodom myth. But its interpretation was disputed in the Bible itself. To almost everybody, it’s seen as a strong denunciation of homosexuality. But, in the Old Testament, Ezekiel — who is not the most generous of prophets — sees it as a myth about pride. And Christ himself sees it as about inhospitality. So within the Bible there is no consensus.
“I wanted to explore it, reinterpret it, and show how it had been used through various art-forms.”
HE STARTS from the point of view of a young Judaean exile who transcribes the Acts of Abraham and Lot in ancient Babylon. “I show possible ways in which the myth is created,” he says. Scripture took on a particular importance after the destruction of the Temple, in the time of the Babylonian exile, he goes on. Arditti’s scribe, like Daniel in the Old Testament, comes from a scribal family, and is taken on as an administrator. This gives him access to a whole new world — Babylonian tablets, a museum of artefacts, the Temple prostitutes — even if what he discovers appals his family, who “batten down the hatches”.
Then the action moves to medieval York, where the Guild of Salters presents a Mystery play about Lot’s wife (a small joke). “The Mystery plays were a good way of sharing faith at that time,” he says. “Almost the whole of medieval life is dominated by the nature of purgatory. It’s absolutely fundamental to everybody’s belief. Even by attending the Mystery plays, the Archbishop of York gave people 40 days’ remission.”
THE third section is based in Renaissance Florence, and focuses on Botticelli, who paints the destruction of Sodom. “I’ve always been fascinated by Botticelli. You see the two great influences of the Church and humanism pulling [Botticelli]. We tend to see the figure of [The Birth of] Venus as a great pagan picture — it was the first full-length nude in Western art — but it was also the figure of Mary to him.”
For a time, Botticelli followed Savonarola, and threw his pictures on to the Bonfire of the Vanities. He was also arraigned for sodomy; “so we get the Renaissance perspective.”
NEXT, the narrative moves to the 19th century: “A great age of the sea of doubt, just before Darwin but after [Robert] Chambers. Traditional religious belief was under threat.” A country parson needs to find historical evidence for the biblical sites to silence the doubters. He travels to the “cities of the plain” in Palestine with his nephew, an unbeliever. “Through his nephew and their Bedouin guide, we see the Islamic view of life, because, in the Qur’an, Lot is a prophet. Again, the story is ambiguous.”
Finally, we move to 20th-century Hollywood. “I wanted to take us where the art-form of the present day is forged. So we have a celebrated actor who has hidden his sexuality, who makes a film about Lot. But it’s the 1980s: the time of AIDS, [described at the time as] a second Sodom, and God’s punishment. I try to bring it all full circle.” And peering over the shoulder of the whole book is the Archangel Gabriel, representing the accumulation of every human idea about angels. “He is the link over the course of the book.”
THE novel Of Men and Angels is hugely complex and full of ideas. It took three years to write. “It’s both the culmination of a lot of years of thought, and also some areas that I researched very particularly. There were all sorts of fortuitous things, such as discovering the studios in Morocco where [biblical and epic] films were made, [such as] Lawrence of Arabia. And I didn’t know about the Temple prostitutes before. I knew a bit about the Mystery plays. But I learned a lot about Renaissance painting methods, for example.”
Is there a section he is most pleased with? “The medieval section, because this was the most difficult.” It is not just about historical accuracy, he says: there were whole concepts that we take for granted that had not been verbalised. “It was full of discovery for me. The extraordinary impotence trials, for example, where men’s virility was tested by prostitutes.”
AS HE says, this tenth novel addresses familiar Arditti territory around spirituality and sexuality, albeit from a different perspective. (His next, a work in progress, is about three of King David’s wives: Bathsheba, Michal, and Abigail. “I wanted to write something simpler and shorter and character-based, but I’m discovering the story of David is immensely long and inconsistent, and I’m still finding my way through.”)
He is one of the few literary novelists today who write about faith. (Philip Pullman has described him as “our best chronicler of the rewards and pitfalls of present-day faith”.) He admits some bewilderment. “I used a quote from Goethe as an epigraph for Jubilate (his 2011 novel set in Lourdes),” he says. “Goethe writes that ‘The conflict of faith and scepticism remains the proper, the only, the deepest theme of the history of the world and mankind’”.
Yet faith is distinctly unfashionable as a subject. “Faith is increasingly difficult in this culture, where there are few glittering prizes and a lot of also-rans. My publisher has been supportive, but [my books are] not going to be on the shelves of Tesco. “
FAITH should be of interest even to those of no faith, he says. “We live in a world where we think humanity can cover everything. People don’t look beyond. But there’s mystery about so much in life.” Part of the trouble, he continues, is that religion has been hijacked by extremists on all sides. “Islamic fundamentalists are just the same as Catholics blowing up abortion clinics, or African churches stoning adulterers.”
Arditti himself grew up with faith. “I went to a Methodist public school in North Wales, and went to chapel twice a day from [the age of] seven to 17, and I’m very grateful for it, though not necessarily at the time — both from a spiritual and a cultural point of view.”
These days, he goes to St Mark’s, Regents Park, just over the road from his flat. “I don’t go to church every week any more, because I find it impossible to say the tenets of the Creed. I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I don’t want to have to cross my fingers; so I find that quite difficult.”
Faith has to go beyond the simplistic, he says. “I make sense of the Trinity for myself by believing God the Father gave us creativity, God the Son gave us love and compassion, and God the Holy Spirit gave us moral discrimination. We have to create our own basis for faith. If I’m made in God’s image in any meaningful sense, I have the capacity of making my own moral judgements, based on a deep understanding of life, including the Bible — but not exclusively the Bible or any other book.”
WHAT of his experience as a gay man in the Church? “I live in north-west London, in a very liberal community. Fortunately, all my life, I have never known discrimination of any form. I have a privileged background: I went to a liberal university, and I work in the arts. A lot of people can’t say that. It’s important that people who have those privileges should stand up for those who don’t.”
None the less, he says, he wishes that the Church would grow up. “If the Church is the Body of Christ, bodies develop. The Body is different now than it was 200 years ago, or 20 years ago. That doesn’t mean we are bowing to popular beliefs. Actually, it means saying that human understanding has developed hugely since the times of the Bible. That’s one of the things I’m trying to do in this book.”
Of Men and Angels is published by Arcadia Books at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.30).