When award-winning writer Michael Arditti began researching his latest novel, part of which is set in medieval York, he discovered something unexpected.
Searching through the ecclesiastical archives in the city, he found court records from the 14th century for what were known as ‘impotence trials’ in which a wife could file for divorce if she could prove that her husband was impotent. This discovery provided him with a significant plot point for the York-set section of his new book Of Men and Angels, published later this month.
Arditti is well known for his elegant literary novels which have frequently dealt with questions of faith and morality. “Quite a few of my books have looked at the intersection of sexuality and spirituality,” says Arditti. “Being a gay man, one of the most significant myths of the Old Testament is the myth of Sodom. I thought I would like to explore it to see how, in a historical perspective, that myth came about. The idea was to see how it formed, how it is used and how it affects the lives of the people involved.”
The book’s structure is interesting – it is divided into five thematically-linked sections, set in different eras and each dealing with a major art form. The first is set in ancient Babylon where a young Judean exile transcribes the Acts of Abraham and Lot and Arditti speculates on why the story took on a homophobic slant; in the subsequent four sections he examines how the myth plays out in four specific time periods through different areas of creativity. “It seemed to me by doing that, it enabled me to cover the major religions and philosophical views I wanted to.”
Aside from writing novels, this is his tenth, Arditti is also theatre critic for the Sunday Express and his interest in the performative arts is evident in the second section of the book which revolves around preparations for the York Mystery Plays. It follows the Guild of Salters as they rehearse their performance of the story of Lot’s Wife, while a marriage comes under strain and the secrets of a boyhood friendship fuel a feud.
Arditti chose York for various reasons he says. “Firstly because it remains such a visibly medieval city. I had a map of medieval York and enjoyed looking up the unusual street names. I think that the York Mystery Plays themselves are the most beautiful – I came up three years ago to see them performed. I sat in the Dean’s Park next to the Minster exactly where people would have sat 600 years ago. Also, I was interested in the the fact that there was a Guild of Salters.”
The book’s third part is set in Renaissance Florence and focusses on visual art as Botticelli attempts to make a name for himself, the fourth is set in Palestine in the 19th century and is told through the medium of travel writing, and the fifth is set in Hollywood and Morocco in the 1980s. “That was at the time of the AIDS crisis which was seen as a kind of Sodom, so in a way then we have come full circle,” says Arditti who for this book was immersed in writing and researching for a longer period than usual.
“Most of my novels have taken two years and this one took three,” he says. “It was hugely satisfying working on it because I wanted to give each of the episodes its individuality, authenticity and particular atmosphere. It was really great fun to do.”
Of Men and Angels is published by Arcadia on March 22, priced £16.99.
By Yvette Huddleston
It’s quite a challenge that Michael Arditti has set himself but he manages it with great grace and writerly flair. The award-winning novelist has tackled the subject of faith and morality many times before – most notably in his acclaimed prize-winning work Easter – and here he takes on the myth of Sodom, looking at the history of homophobia in religion and art.
Dividing the novel effectively into five distinct novellas that are thematically linked, Arditti visits five epochs, examing the myth and its effects on spirituality, creativity and sexuality through different art forms. They include Renaissance Art, Medieval Mystery Play, 19th century travel writing and 1980s Hollywood filmmaking. This latter section is particularly moving, following the fate of an ageing closeted gay movie star, recently diagnosed with AIDS, as he portrays Lot in a controversial biblical epic. Arditti’s attention to detail ensures that each section is a convincingly authentic part of a hugely satisfying whole.
Erudite, humane and profound, Of Men and Angels deals with unapologetically weighty issues but nevertheless has a page-turning quality that, through its empathetic characterisation, gentle humour and richly imaginative storytelling, draws the reader in. It is literary fiction of the very best kind.