MICHAEL ARDITTI’s massive and ambitious novel (Feature, 23 March) is in five parts, each separated by huge leaps of time; in fact, the book reads like five separate long novellas linked by explosively similar themes: the sexual practices of sodomy and incest from the epoch of the book of Genesis describing God’s vengeance on the city of Sodom; the performance of a Mystery play about Lot’s wife in 12th-century England; Botticelli’s controversial painting of the destruction of Sodom in Renaissance Florence, followed by an English vicar’s visit to 19th-century Palestine in search of the same infamous city of Sodom, and ending in modern Los Angeles during the spread of HIV/AIDS. And it is the Angel Gabriel — “the first Angel named in your Bible” — who is the main guide to a long narrative full of explicit content.
Genesis 19 must be one of the most sexually violent in the Old Testament: men threaten rape of Lot’s two angelic guests: “Bring them out that we can have intercourse with them,” and, after fleeing Sodom, Lot, now a widower, impregnates his daughters at their invitation. In Arditti’s first section, “By the Rivers of Babylon”, a young Judean exile, Jared transcribes, the story of Abraham and Lot; he also serves in the temple, which involves a violent homosexual assault by his priestly instructor. The brutality of the archaic past and its smells are powerfully evoked, the latter so pungent that they would completely overcome a modern nose.
In “The Presentation of the Pageant”, we are in medieval York, rehearsing a Mystery play based on Lot’s story. In an apposite side theme, two male villagers, Simon and Hamo, have been “caught in rank lust”. Simon claims that he mistook his apprentice for his wife, but the court, not surprisingly, finds them guilty of peccatum sodomistum: they are “excommunicated, and handed to the city sergeants, who cut off their ears, branded and gelded them”. Violent punishment indeed.
“Bonfire of the Vanities” is set in Florence in the 1490s during Savonarola’s destructive attacks on “sodomites and the wicked”. Arditti’s main characters are real painters, primarily Sandro Botticelli, whose complex character comes powerfully across. Again, the vivid and often disturbing narrative is well-informed and thought-provoking, as is Arditti’s penultimate section, “The Salt Mountain”, in which a Victorian vicar makes an uncomfortable pilgrimage to the Holy Land to see Sodom itself, and is shocked to discover that the practice is still rife.
The final section, “City of Angels” — Los Angeles — is set during the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS. (By 1985, more than 10,000 had died, and 15,000 more had been infected.) It begins with the Russian Orthodox funeral of Gene, manager/lover of famous film star Frank. They have kept their relationship out of the public eye until Gene dies of AIDS. Frank’s final film is, ironically, the story of Sodom; his experience filming it, and later his own death, are richly and movingly described.
But be warned: women have no significant presence in this long novel, except as a distant wife, a condemnatory mother, and a pillar of salt.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.
Of Men and Angels
Arcadia Books £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30