The culturally queer roots are often overlooked in the UK…
Michael Arditti is an author who tackles the big topics; faith, love, religion and culture. He’s been a theatre critic for The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Mail and The Evening Standard. Here he discusses his sixth novel, the critically acclaimed ‘The Enemy of the Good’.
In your latest book ‘The Enemy of the Good’ you address the conflict between liberalism and fundamentalism, but kept clear of tackling Islam. Was that conscious?
I do include Islam in the discourse of the novel. One of the main characters in the first part is Rafik, a gay Algerian asylum-seeker on the run from the Groupe Islamique Armée, and one of the key concerns at the end is the growth of Muslim fundamentalism in prison. I grant, however, that the key faiths under my fictional microscope are Christianity and Judaism. This is in part because they’re the two I know best but also because the fundamentalist mindset is essentially the same whichever religion is being addressed.
How did you research the closed world of Chassidic Jews?
It was a case of a friend knowing a friend who knew a friend who introduced me. The Lubavitch are the most outward-looking group of Chassidim. They knew that I was writing a novel and gave me generous assistance in my research. Like many writers, I had some concerns about accepting hospitality from people who might later be unhappy with the way they were portrayed, but, when I mentioned this to one of them, he told me not to worry since they never read novels or any secular work. Moreover, I have tried to portray them in all their complexity as both a rigid and reactionary sect and a loving and supportive community.
Faith is a recurring theme in your novels, how would you describe your own relationship with God?
Deep, enduring and at the core of my being. I have an absolute conviction that we are all made in God’s image…that’s to say we have been given the capacity to love, to be creative and to exercise moral judgement. I have an equally firm conviction that, after death, we will all be reunited with the divine. My relationship with the Church, on the other hand, is far more equivocal… but that’s a different question.
What is the biggest challenge for an author today?
To ignore the trivia that passes for culture in contemporary society. To combat the erosion of artistic values and risk being labelled ‘elitist’. To resist the pressure to flatter the public rather than to challenge it.
At the core of this novel is the fractious relationship between art and religion- why do you think that coupling has survived for so long?
Art thrives on conflict and complexity and religion offers plenty of each. Art and religion both strive to provide a meaning to life, albeit from different perspectives. At its best, the combination can be awesome.
If you could own any work of art, what would it be?
Georges de la Tour’s Penitent Magdalene, the most serene image I know.
Do you believe that euthanasia (or physician-assisted suicide) should be legalised?
Yes, with all the obvious safeguards.
Is it compatible with the major faiths?
This is one of the key conflicts in The Enemy of the Good and at the heart of the struggle between liberalism and fundamentalism in general. The liberal position would be that we should be able to exercise our free will even in extremis (although many liberals would disagree with the action that Clement takes in the novel). Fundamentalists of all faiths would, however, maintain that the sanctity of life is absolute.
To an outsider, the Church of England comes across as eccentric, aloof and out of touch- is that your experience?
Like many, both inside and outside the Church, I have grown very frustrated with the Church’s attempt to be all things to all people and it’s clearly absurd view that maintaining universal values means upholding antiquated moral views. The Church should see change as a sign of maturity rather than weakness. It should become as radical as its founder. Speaking personally, I have met with a great deal of love and support from within the Church of England as well as having been denounced from several pulpits after the publication of my novel, Easter.
Why do you think some religions attract such fervent and widespread fundamentalism while others have little but diminishing audiences?
There are fundamentalist elements in every major religion apart from Buddhism…and many Buddhists would claim, as does Carla in The Enemy of the Good, that Buddhism is a spiritual practice, rather than a religion. We live in very complex, frightening times and fundamentalism appears to offer an escape, promising that, if you adhere to a set of strict moral guidelines, you will not only do the right thing in this world but be sure of gaining a place in the next. This is a very attractive proposition to many people. Liberal congregations, on the other hand, reject such simplistic solutions. They admit – indeed, embrace – doubt in an age when doubt is deeply unfashionable.
Are men of the cloth wary of talking to you due to the subject matter in your books?
On the contrary, they love to talk to me provided that it’s off the record.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write their first novel?
Don’t look for short cuts and easy solutions. Don’t try to anticipate popular taste. Writing a novel is hard work, so write one that you want to write. That way, even if it fails to sell, you can be proud of it.
Your novels are the antithesis of celebrity pop culture, are you never tempted to pick up a copy of Heat to see what’s going on with Jordan and Peter Andre?
I hesitate to sound like the judge who asked ‘Who’s Dirty Den?’ But Jordan and Peter Andre barely impinge on my consciousness. Part of the trouble with celebrity culture is that it feeds off itself. Everyone in the media complains about it, but their very complaints help to publicise it. I despair of the sick celebrities who allow themselves to be the subject of reality TV programmes. The oxygen of publicity has become the mustard gas.
‘The Enemy of the Good’ by Michael Arditti is published by Arcadia Books.