Michael Arditti is a novelist who has grown more ambitious, and at the same time become more accomplished. He is a rarity among contemporary novelists, being one who takes religious faith and its contradictions seriously. His characters are regularly torn between the desire for sexual fulfilment and the laws of God as interpreted by churches. Philip Pullman describes him as being a “chronicler of the rewards and pitfalls of present day faith,” and this is a fair judgement, though in this new long novel religious faith and obedience are examined over the centuries, in five distinct episodes (each introduced by the Archangel Gabriel) that extend from the Jews’ exile in Babylon to Hollywood at the tail-end of the second millennium since the birth of Christ.
All five turn on the story of the destruction of the sinful city of Sodom as originally recounted in Genesis. It’s a story that is open to different interpretations: was the city destroyed on account of the inhabitants’ addiction to sodomy, or because of their failure to offer appropriate hospitality to strangers – strangers who may, in one interpretation, have been angels? During the years of the captivity in Babylon (subject of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament) a young Israelite is employed transcribing the story of Abraham and his nephew Lot, creating the myth of Sodom which has prevailed for most of Jewish and Christian history. The second episode is set in mediaeval York where the Guild of Salters perform a Miracle Play telling the story of Lot’s Wife, reputedly turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back on the destruction of Sodom. Then, in late 15th century Florence, Sandro Botticelli paints the Destruction of Sodom, as the city is caught up in the religious fervour occasioned by the Friar Savonorola’s revolutionary Puritanism, and the conflict between the Renaissance delight in the depiction of the human body and the strict sexual morality of Christian orthodoxy.
This conflict is made still more explicit in the fourth episode which tells of the travels in Egypt and then the Holy Land of an English Anglican priest, who is determined to locate the ruins of Sodom. His narrow and very English self-assurance – self-righteousness indeed – is undercut by his companion, a nephew who has been in the employ of the East India Company, emerged from the horrors of the 1857 mutiny with some credit and also bitter memories, and who is himself a practising and unrepentant sodomite. There are horrors here that should disturb the parson’s narrow understanding.
The last section in Hollywood, at the height of the Aids epidemic, begins with a witty mock-Wikipedia entry concerning the film Flesh and Brimstone, “condemned by religious groups for its revisionist interpretation of the biblical stories of Abraham, Lot and Sodom.” Nevertheless it was “nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for Frank Archer in his last screen appearance”. Archer, a star for several decades, was a closeted gay, never able to be open about his relationship – a gay marriage in all but name – with his Russian-émigré lover Gene. Indeed, it is only after Gene’s death, when Frank is HIV positive, that rumours of Frank’s true orientation begin to circulate beyond a narrow circle, this making his involvement in the film an act of considerable courage.
Inevitably when a writer creates a novel in which the same subject is dealt with in very distinct and otherwise unrelated episodes, some readers will be irritated, finding the connections between the different narratives tenuous; others will simply find some sections more pleasing and satisfying than others. The author knows this of course, but nevertheless takes the risk that the parts will not cohere, amounting to a satisfying whole. Here, I think, Arditti’s intellectual grasp of his subject is keen enough, disturbing enough, yet ultimately satisfying enough, to effect that necessary coherence, though I found the Florentine section the most impressive and delightful, and the depiction of the 19th century English parson incapable of imaginative insight into other ways of living, feeling and thinking the most brilliant; comedy as criticism.
Of Men and Angels, by Michael Arditti, Arcadia, 536pp, £16.99