Michael Arditti: A seriously startling novelist

After his lustful vicars shocked the Church, Michael Arditti turns to the Mitford clan and German terrorists. Peter Stanford talks to a seriously startling novelist
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"After Easter, there were a lot of people who would have liked me to write a follow-up called Lent." Michael Arditti says this to make me laugh, but behind the laughter lies a five-year absence since his last novel. Writers are easily pigeonholed and - especially after Easter - Arditti was down as Mr Religion but with plenty of sex, a cross between Anthony Trollope and Alan Hollinghurst. It was a niche he was anxious to escape.

His two trademarks were there in the first novel by this former theatre critic and writer for the stage - The Celibate in 1993 - but what made the connection between them and him in the public mind was the publication of Easter in 2000. It managed that holy trinity of selling well, winning prizes (Waterstone's inaugural Mardi Gras award, emerging from a short list that included Colm Toibin and Sarah Waters) and stirring so much controversy that he was the headline-making talk of the Church of England's General Synod. Arditti also received hate mail.

His correspondents were mainly Evangelical Christians. They were outraged that Arditti's otherwise very Godly tale of faith lost and resurrected during a Holy Week journey was set in the closets of the Established Church, where gay vicars roam Hampstead Heath in search of casual sex and act out sado-masochistic crucifixion fantasies with male prostitutes. "I think people have tended to overstate the gay element in Easter," the devoutly Anglican Arditti muses.

Tall, dark and softly spoken, he is not, it quickly becomes apparent, a flamboyant controversialist. "It was a third of the novel, but it was the third of the novel that was then taken for the whole. And I didn't want that element to be taken for the whole focus of my writing ever after. If I'm going to spend two or three years writing a novel, I do like to do different things."

At first glance, Unity (Maia Press, £8.99) suggests he has achieved his aim. It is almost unrecognisable from what has gone before. It features no organised religion and very little sex. Instead, it tells of the making of an art-house film in 1977 in a West Germany polarised by the activities of Baader-Meinhof terrorists. The film is a historical one about the celebrated socialite Unity Mitford's relationship with Hitler; its director is a well-known and mercurial radical.

Arditti's fourth novel builds its story through first-person accounts of the shooting of the film which ends when its star, the aristocratic English newcomer Felicity Benthall, blows herself up at a memorial service for Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The previously apolitical Benthall, it turns out, had become involved with both Baader-Meinhof terrorists and members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The narrator is seeking to pick over the events surrounding her death - and to understand what had motivated the woman who had been one of his closest university friends at Cambridge.

It is a complex plot and, as he talks, Arditti picks his way carefully, fluently and engagingly through its many layers. "I knew I wanted to do something that was close to reality and which looked at the nature of evil in general terms," he explains. "The greatest evil in the last century was the Holocaust but, while it would have been perfectly possible to do the research for a novel set then, it seemed to me absurd when there are so many people who were there and are still alive, so many witness accounts. It would become a cliché. So I had to find a new perspective and this came in looking at it through a film."

He is sitting on a large sofa in his snug London flat, overlooking Regent's Park. The walls are lined with bookshelves, with titles arranged in alphabetic order. I have only ever seen such good housekeeping in one other writer's home, and that belonged to the otherwise bohemian Edna O'Brien. Perhaps their shared compulsion for good order is something to do with their shared interest in religion.

"Somebody," Arditti recalls, "once told me 'you're a moralist'. I'm not sure if he meant it as a compliment but I took it as one. I'm not moralistic. I'm not interested in producing a list of 'thou shalt nots'. But I do value a moral perspective on life and literature.

"Unity looks at evil from a morally relativist position. There are, as far as I'm concerned, very few moral absolutes and most of us agree what they are unless we are psychopathic. Everything else is and should be relative. I know some churches don't agree but I see that in itself as a moral position."

His novel explores this proposition by juxtaposing different groups which, in recent history, have attempted to impose their view on others by force. From the film's subject comes a perspective on Nazism and fascism, albeit a very English one because of the Mitford connection. "A friend of mine said 'Oh great, a book about Unity Mitford'. She'd just been into Waterstone's in Piccadilly and there was a whole bay of Mitford books. There isn't even a bay on the Nazis, or Churchill.

"They are a source of perennial fascination for people. And a part of what I'm writing about is why we have this fascination with them." The Duchess of Devonshire, Unity's surviving sister, refused Arditti permission to use a picture of her on the cover of the book. His narrator sees Unity as "the perfect representative of a nation that prefers its fascists dressed in frou-frou and tulle than in greycoats and jackboots"..

By setting the film's making in West Germany in 1977, Arditti brings in another group often labelled evil: the Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader Meinhof terrorists. Finally, there is a strong contemporary resonance in the novel in the light of September 11 and the "war on terrorism", emphasised by Felicity's involvement with Palestinian militants. "What I am trying to understand," Arditti explains, "is what causes an individual to commit an act of terrorism, what is the effect on an individual of being caught in the middle of extremists who say 'my views are of more value than your views and in order to endorse them I'm prepared to kill you'. This for me is the classic fascist attitude."

Though he speaks gently, Arditti is neither in the flesh nor on the page someone who shies away from expressing strong opinions about very sensitive subjects. But, you sense, he does it in pursuit of understanding, not headlines.

That restless spirit of enquiry covers his attitude to most things about him, not least his unflinching view of fiction. "I review a lot of novels and read many more for pleasure and I am often struck by the lack of ambition," he says. "Many of them are perfectly formed miniatures, with a single idea. This is particularly true of English novels with their closed world, which is beautifully observed, richly characterised and written about with an ironic detachment. But I find they don't challenge me... They don't take me into areas I've never been to before."

Arditti believes writers must be willing to exploit the greater flexibility and scope of the written word to come up with a real challenge in form and content. And he practises what he preaches. So behind the sex and religion in Easter was a dazzling technical achievement: to mirror in the structure of the novel a religious artist's medieval triptych.

And that same invention is at play in Unity. "I thought it would be very false for me to do it as a straight narrative with me as an all-seeing narrator telling the story," explains Arditti. "I wanted to show different responses and perspectives provided by various people who were part of this story."

So the story progresses through a sequence of individual reflections of events - some in diary form, some in letters, some in interviews, some bleak and some full of black humour. It is in the self-centred ramblings of one of the film's stars, an acclaimed British actress who has joined a revolutionary party and believes that part of her contribution to the cause is sleeping with downtrodden workers, that Arditti offers both satire and sex. He brings in a further twist by naming the narrator Michael Arditti - though he insists the character is not based on him. "I wanted me as the author to be involved... I wanted to challenge readers as to what is the reality of the book."

The conventional wisdom in publishing is to follow up a success with more of the same. Arditti knows it, but has declined. Did he set out deliberately to go in the opposite direction? "I think," he points out, "I've been doing that all my life in various ways."

Peter Stanford has edited 'Why I Am Still a Catholic' (Continuum)

Biography

MICHAEL ARDITTI

Michael Arditti was born in Cheshire and attended Rydal School in north Wales. After studying English at Cambridge University he was a theatre critic for the Evening Standard and wrote plays for the stage and radio. His first novel, The Celibate, appeared in 1993. It was followed in 1996 by Pagan and Her Parents, shortlisted for the Lambda Award in the US. Easter (2000) won the inaugural Waterstone's Mardi Gras Award for the best novel on a gay subject. A collection of short stories, Good Clean Fun, came out last year. His new novel, Unity, is published by Maia Press. Michael Arditti lives in Primrose Hill, north London.

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