Over the past thirty years Michael Arditti has dedicated his life to the written word writing for the stage, BBC TV and radio, but he is best known as a novelist producing a string of well-received and award winning novels.
You were a reputable playwright; was it that only writing a novel could bring out the full depth of Michael Arditti’s thought and feeling, the sense of deep spirituality and faith in a faithless world like ours?
I had some success writing plays in the late 1980s, in particular for the radio (it was in those much lamented days when Radio Four produced a ninety-minute drama every week), but I stopped writing plays for several reasons. Firstly, I became the deputy theatre critic for the Evening Standard in London and I felt that it would be compromising to submit plays to theatres, whose work I might then be called upon to judge. Moreover, in that job, I saw that such serious new work that was produced on the stage did not speak to my own deeper concerns. Secondly, I became increasingly aware that the essence of plays was conflict and, as someone who avoids conflict in every area of life, I wondered whether I was temperamentally suited to the form. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I realised that such talents as I had were more expansive and ruminative and better suited to fiction than the more concise and direct medium of the stage.
Your first novel, The Celibate, is a multi-layered political fiction, which among other themes explores the slippery slopes of faith. It is an exploration of how a benevolent God can allow so much human suffering in the world; it explores a long-standing antagonistic relationship that exists between the Church and the gay community: how does sexual orientation, and to what extent, form a particular viewpoint on the subject of faith, and why do you think it is so?
The Celibate was the first of several attempts in my work to explore both the connections and conflicts between spirituality and sexuality. It was written in the late 1980s when the AIDS pandemic was a huge crisis for gay men. In many quarters AIDS was seen in almost biblical terms as a plague sent by God to punish gay men for their sinful sexuality. It was impossible for me as both a gay man and a Christian not to explore the issue.
The world has changed hugely – and in terms of attitudes towards gay men and women hugely for the better – in the twenty years since the book was first published, but the biblical condemnation of homosexuality (and, unlike many writers and commentators, I cannot argue it away) remains a live issue.
I myself do not regard the Bible as Holy Writ. To me, it is valuable as the record of the sincere attempts that men (and I’m afraid in this case the noun isn’t generic) have made to understand the word of God and not a rulebook laid down by God on how we have to behave. The unnamed protagonist of The Celibate, who, when the book begins is an ordinand at a theological college, preparing for priesthood in the Church of England, is unable to make that distinction. He finds himself repressing his sexuality which he sees as a danger to his vocation.
When a fellow student declares his love for him, he has a breakdown, after committing what in strict theological terms is a sacrilege. The director of the college sends him to London to gain a wider experience of the world – and he gains more experience than the director could ever have imagined! By the end of the novel, his views of the world are radically different from those he held at the start.
There is an underlying anger that is streaming throughout the novel, the blurred line between martyrdom and repressed sexuality – what really motivated you to explore such topics in your first novel?
The issues of repressed sexuality – which I saw then (and still see) as far more likely to lead to both mental and physical illness than a healthy acceptance of one’s sexuality, in that repression leads to a lack of self-worth that in turn leads to risky behaviour – were very much to the forefront of my mind at the time. Like many people, I was seeing friends seriously ill with AIDS. A dear friend, to whom I subsequently dedicated the novel, contracted the virus while working as a theatre director in America. He returned to England and I was one of many people who supported him. I was particularly shocked by the Church’s attitude to people with AIDS, which ranged from condescension to outright hostility.
One rural vicar was pictured on the front page of a tabloid newspaper pointing a gun, under the headline ‘I’d shoot my son if he had AIDS’. This seemed to me so utterly unchristian that I wanted to explore where Christ would have stood if he had been living in the time. I chose for one of the epigraphs of the book a verse from St Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (in an admittedly contentious translation): ‘But we preach Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and a folly to the Greeks.’ I wanted to identify the ‘scandal’ of the crucifixion with the ‘scandal’ of AIDS. And, yes, I was angry – as, it’s only fair to say, were some of my readers.
Once religion was a popular topic with writers. You stand out as one of few contemporary writers exploring religious themes, writing about faith: have religious topics decreased in contemporary literature, if so is there any particular cause for it in your view?
Religion is an unfashionable topic in Western society today, which is materialistic, hedonistic and hostile to the quiet contemplation that is required for religious (and, indeed, most philosophical) speculation. The novel reflects the society in which it is set. As Clement, the protagonist of my novel, The Enemy of the Good, remarks of his own artistic journey, it was easier to come out as gay than as a Christian at the Slade. The same is true of contemporary literary culture, which is relentlessly secular. There are, of course, exceptions, the most notable in the English-speaking world being the American writer, Marilynne Robinson, but the novel has certainly moved on from the days when a Mr Elton, Parson Adams or Rector Cadwallader were an essential component of any English social novel.
Yet, although its overt influence may have lessened, the Church remains a potent force, even in contemporary Britain. Bishops sit in the House of Lords and are closely involved in the framing of legislation. For good or ill, the clergy are regarded as moral arbiters, hence the outrage caused when one of them transgresses the tabloid code. Judaeo-Christian tradition has shaped our society and Cranmer’s Prayer Book has played a greater part in framing our language than any other single source, including Shakespeare. Even the most diehard secularist would find himself hard-pressed to expunge religious idioms from his speech.
And, while its influence may have declined in Western Europe, elsewhere religion continues to dictate peoples’ lives. My most recent novel, The Breath of Night, is set in the Philippines, which along with East Timor is one of only two predominantly Christian countries in Asia. There, the Church wields immense political power along with moral authority. It is only by exploring and analysing its faith that the true nature of that society is revealed. More often than not, this is one of flagrant contradictions. For example, under ecclesiastical pressure, the Philippines is one of only two states in the world to forbid divorce (the other being the Vatican) and yet sexual exploitation is rife, as Julian Tremayne, the missionary priest whose life and afterlife are the subject of the novel, finds when he searches for a missing parishioner in Angeles City, home in the 1980s to an estimated 80,000 prostitutes, some as young as five or six.
Moreover, as a novelist, I believe that it is through the exploration of a person’s religious views (or lack of them) that we come to understand their deepest feelings about their place in the world, their relationship to those around them and what they believe our existence is for. It is no accident that I chose as the epigraph for my novel, Jubilate, a love story set in Lourdes, a quotation from Goethe: ‘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.’ I think that he would be surprised by how rarely the subject is tackled in fiction today. Of course I also hope that he would approve of me!
Where does Michael Arditti stand in this novel – how many autobiographical elements are woven into it?
The novel is not at all autobiographical – although I would say that, wouldn’t I! It has two distinct narrative modes – part of each chapter is a historical walk, in the first half of the book through Jack the Ripper’s London and, in the second half, through Eyam, a little-known Derbyshire village, which was hit terribly hard by the Great Plague of 1665 and which adopted heroically self-sacrificial methods to protect the neighbouring countryside. The bulk of the novel, however, is supposed transcripts of the sessions that the ordinand has with his therapist following his breakdown. I was struck by how many first novels were written as therapy, so I thought that I’d turn the idea on its head by writing a novel, much of which took place on a therapist’s couch but had nothing to do with the writer.
Twenty years and seven novels after publishing The Celibate, is that novel still considered, by critics and yourself, to be one of the best novels you have written?
I am happy to say that all my novels have their adherents and The Celibate is no exception. Although there are several recurring themes throughout the body of work, each novel is very different in character, subject, setting and structure and an individual reader’s preference will depend on his or her responsiveness to the particular nature of the book. As for myself, I never re-read any of my novels once they’re published (which can cause problems when I give talks and discover that there are readers with far better recollection of details than I have myself), so I can’t give any qualitative judgement. I hope that I’ve grown as both a novelist and a person in the years since the book was first published, but I’m delighted that readers still find it has a lot to say to them.
This year marks the twenty-year jubilee. When is the novel going to be republished exactly, and will it be published by Arcadia?
Arcadia will be republishing The Celibate in February. The novel has been reprinted many times and, apart from a short period in the early 2000s, it has never been out of print. It is quite coincidental that the book is being reissued on its twentieth anniversary, but it was felt that it was time for a new edition rather than simply another reprint. Arcadia is committed to keeping all my work in print, which, in these days of the ubiquitous Kindle, is both an honour and a joy.
Michael Arditti creates morally serious, moving and intense fiction and yet you are such a prolific author. Since publishing The Celibate (1993) you have published novel after novel, approximately two to three years apart, just enough time for writing another one. Pagan and her Parents (1996) was shortlisted for the Lambada award in the USA. Then your third novel Easter appeared in 2000 and won the first Waterstone’s Mardi Grass award. Unity (2005) was shortlisted for the Wingate Jewish Quarterly. A collection of short stories, Good Clean Fun, was published in 2004. A Sea Change (2006), your fifth novel, followed by The Enemy of the Good (2009) was longlisted for Le Prince Maurice Prize. Your seventh novel, Jubilate, came out in 2011, and The Breath of Night appeared in July 2013. Is your daily life structured towards constant research and an endless stream of your thoughts and written words?
Yes, I don’t carry a notebook like Trigorin in The Seagull, in which to jot down interesting or serviceable ideas and phrases but I am always alert to fictional possibilities. I live alone and, although I have a wide circle of friends, my work is the fulcrum of my life. Like many other writers of my acquaintance, I am frustrated when I’m not writing and obsessive when I am. Writing is not conducive to a balanced but it does generate moments of extreme satisfaction and even ecstasy.
In March 2013 you were awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Chester, a unique distinction awarded to those rare individuals who have contributed to the study and understanding of a subject. What has such a distinguished award changed for you personally? Would you say that such a reward imposes on you more responsibility as to the written word, and do you strive then for more perfection?
I was deeply honoured to receive the award, which was a wonderful vote of confidence in my writing. On a personal level, I was particularly pleased to be able to take my mother, a former academic. When I graduated in the late 1970s, it was considered infra dig to attend the degree ceremony, so I cheated her of the occasion. I hope that she found my address to the congregation in Chester cathedral some compensation.
But the answer to your question is ‘no’. While it’s always great for one’s work to be acknowledged (especially when novelists now receive so little material reward), it would be very dangerous to let it determine how one writes or responds to one’s readers. I am always striving for perfection, failing, and then striving again. That’s why when anyone asks me which is my favourite novel, I reply not at all facetiously, ‘the next one.’
Your latest novel, The Breath of Night, was equally well received by both the critics and readers; is now the time for you to take a rest for a while, or have you already engaged yourself in a new project?
I have not only engaged in a new project but I have finished one: Widows and Orphans, a domestic novel centred on the editor of a local newspaper in a fictitious English South coast resort. After The Breath of Night, with its Philippines setting and its web of theological and philosophical ideas, I wanted to write something smaller in scale and character-based, although it does have a wider theme about the death of community. Arcadia will publish it in February 2015.
With that completed, I have started on a new work, set in several historical periods, from the Old Testament to the present, and with a controversial biblical theme. But, if you want to know more about that, you’ll have to ask me again in two years.
Thank you Michael for your time and enlightening thoughts. I wish you the best with your new projects.