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“Thank God (maybe literally) for writers like Michael Arditti, whose invigorating novels dare to shake us out of our complacency.” These are the words of The Spectator magazine. Massimo Gava spoke with Arditti – before the launch of his latest novel.
MG: Well, do you think that God, for his part, will be grateful for your new novel, Of Men and Angels?
MA: I certainly wouldn’t want to answer for the Almighty! But I hope that he’d be pleased to find a contemporary novelist tackling one of the most central and controversial myths in the Bible, not taking it at face value but exploring its meaning at the time of composition and its effect through the ages.
And what myth is this?
Lot and the destruction of Sodom. You’ll recall that, in the Bible, God sends two angels to Sodom, promising that, if there are 10 righteous men in the notoriously wicked city, he won’t destroy it. In the event, they find only one – Lot himself – who refuses to let his fellow citizens lay hands on them.
You say ‘lay hands on”, but I’ve always understood that they wanted to rape them.
Ah ha, that’s the $64,000 question: exactly what does the sin of Sodom consist of? Of course, it’s commonly assumed to be homosexuality: an assumption that’s given rise to a pernicious legacy of homophobia. But there are other equally valid – and, as I suggest in the novel, more authentic – explanations, such as inhospitality (which, crucially, is how Christ views it in the gospels). The novel examines how the myth has been appropriated – and misappropriated – down the years.
And you do that by setting it in five very different historical periods. Can you tell us a little about them?
Gladly. The first is the late 6th-Century BC, the time of the Babylonian Exile of the Jews. No one knows for sure when the Old Testament was written but it’s generally agreed that the myths – and even using that word will be controversial in some quarters – were current in the 7th and 8th centuries BC, taking on their final form during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile. The novel opens with what I posit is the original version of the Sodom story, in which the men are not would-be gay rapists but devotees of the storm god, Baal. But, enslaved in Babylon, the Jews are so appalled by the prevailing sexual licence – in particular, the transvestite male prostitutes in the temple of the goddess Ishtar – that they rewrite the Sodom story, giving it a homophobic slant, in a bid to set themselves apart.
Transvestite male temple prostitutes: that sounds like a myth in itself…
Well, the 5th-Century Greek historian, Herodotus, to whom we’re indebted for so much of our knowledge of the ancient world, describes encountering them, which is good enough for me! But the whole novel is what I’d term ‘speculative history.’ Everything in it could have happened in the way I describe, although of course I’ve no way of knowing whether it did.
Then, from Ancient Babylon, you continue to 14th-Century York, 15th-Century Florence, 19th-Century Palestine and 20th-Century Hollywood. A magnificent epic spanning centuries and continents!
Thank you. I’ve taken four critical and representative world views: medieval Catholicism, Renaissance humanism, Victorian scepticism and contemporary secularism. I’ve explored how the myth developed in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That last is particularly important, since many Westerners don’t realise that Lot is a far more significant figure in the Qur’an, where he is a prophet and precursor of Muhammed, than he is in the Bible.
And each of the sections shows how the story has been adopted in different artistic and literary forms.
Exactly. The heart of the novel is the intersection of religion, art and sexuality. So, in the medieval section, one of the craft guilds is presenting a pageant of Lot’s Wife in the annual mystery play cycle. There was no pageant of Lot’s Wife so I’ve written one. This forms the backdrop to a narrative of adultery, impotence and sodomy among the guild members, which has tragic consequences. The Renaissance section features a real-life protagonist in Botticelli, who is asked to paint the story of Lot for a Florentine court and finds himself caught up in the conflict between the religious fanaticism of the Dominican friar,
Savonarola, and the humanism of the Medici. The final section is set in the world of the cinema, the most powerful 20th-Century artistic medium, and my protagonist is a closeted gay movie star, playing Lot in a biblical epic at the time of AIDS, which was described by many right-wing commentators, as a second Sodom.
So, the whole novel comes full circle. It’s extraordinary the way that you’ve made all the pieces of this epic jigsaw – and it really is an epic – fit together. Each historical era is so richly observed, down to the smallest detail. Did you do a lot of research?
Absolutely. If you’re asking readers to go on a journey with you, you have a duty to make the places they visit authentic. My research didn’t just colour the local detail – whether it was life in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court or the methods of a Renaissance painter’s workshop or the ceremony at a Bedouin chief’s banquet – but it informed key aspects of the plot.
Let me give you a couple of examples. In researching medieval church courts, I discovered the impotence trials, where local prostitutes would be summoned to test a husband’s virility, and in researching Victorian visitors to Palestine, I discovered the explorer, Louis Félicien de Saulcy, who convinced himself and thousands of others that he’d chanced upon the ruins of Sodom on the Dead Sea shore. Both these discoveries inspired crucial twists in the narrative.
And you keep that narrative constantly engrossing. The five episodes reflect on each other, but all have very different atmospheres. Was this a conscious decision?
Yes, very much so. There’s a danger when discussing the book of focussing on its ideas, to the exclusion of the five singular characters at its heart: Jared, a young Judean scribe; Sir Ralf, an impoverished chantry priest; Botticelli, an out-of-favour painter; Gilbert, a bereaved Victorian rector; Frank, an ageing film star. Their very different conflicts and consciousnesses inform their respective stories.
As you said at the start, the sin of Sodom is regarded, rightly or wrongly, as being homosexuality. Have you aimed this novel primarily at gay readers?
Not at all. You expect me to say that and, of course, every writer wants the widest possible readership, but I believe that the characters, dramas and ideas in the book are universal. Gay readers will bring something
different to it from straight readers, just as older readers will bring something different to it from younger ones, women from men, and so on. The novel explores how a myth has formed and informed our perception of sexuality and will, I trust, speak to anyone who’s interested in how our views of the world are fashioned. Besides, you haven’t even asked me about the other key element of the book – the angel who’s up there in the title.
I strongly recommend that readers find out about the angels and all the rest of this brilliant new novel for themselves.