Another week, another launch. This time I went straight to the right Daunt’s in Fulham, to what used to be the Pan Bookshop. It was for the launch of Michael Arditti’s new novel The Enemy of the Good which I had just finished reading. It is a fantastic book which I thoroughly recommend, a highly ambitious novel which successfully deals with essential themes such as the subjective notions of good and evil, faith which can be lost, looked for or redefined, the existential choices one is forced to confront, freedom in all its forms and above all love. I would be delighted to hear from you what you make of it. Needless to say, we have invited Michael to come to our next JBW and I’m pleased to say he has said yes.
In the meanwhile, he also generously agreed to answer my questions about his novel.
In The Enemy of the Good, one of the main characters, a bishop who has lost his faith in the traditional sense of the term, reconciles this loss with the beautiful idea that “the concept of God is God itself” putting man at the centre of religion rather than God. Would you mind giving us your thoughts on this idea?
Edwin has devoted his life to a religion which he now, at the end of it, longer believes to be the truth. On the other hand, he believes that that very devotion – that attempt to look for a creative and moral force beyond the world – is valuable and, indeed, expresses the best in human nature. In Genesis we are told that God made man in His own image, and both Jews and Christians have taken great encouragement from this. Edwin turns the verse on its head and claims that man has made God in his image and that, however far we fall short of it, the ideal of good which we invest in God is itself the fount of goodness in the world.
I should add that Edwin says this in conversation with his son, Clement, who has a very strong belief in God but feels that religious organisations of all faiths have distorted His message. Edwin, however, declares that, even if there is no message, the fact that we have devoted so much love, care, poetry and art to promulgating it is of great value.
Am I right in thinking that, in your book, the enemy of the good is not religion or belief but a rigid adherence to texts which negate the human dimension?
Yes, you’re quite right. The title is taken from Voltaire’s celebrated maxim that ‘The best is the enemy of the good’ and, to my mind (I can’t speak for Voltaire!) it means that, in struggling for perfection, we destroy much that is good and valuable in life. The central characters in the novel face several profound moral and ethical dilemmas but, underlying them all is the struggle between liberalism and fundamentalism: between a view of life which accepts human nature in all its fallible (not fallen) state) and one which demands that we strive to fulfil the demands of sacred texts. In claiming that these texts are the word of God (as Christian, Jewish and Moslem fundamentalists all do in different ways), the various religions not only create irrevocable tensions among themselves but also within themselves. They lay themselves open to failure and thence to bitterness, violence and abuse.
One of the characters in the novel joins the Lubavitch cutting herself from her family and friends but finding happiness. Your skill was to show them both as an antiquated and terrifying sect and a loving and fullfiling community, truth being in the eye of the beholder. Why did you choose the Lubavitch?
For the very simple reason that they would talk to me! Having written about Christian fundamentalists in my novel, Easter, I wanted to ring the changes. The Chassidic community is obviously a significant, if small, strand in contemporary Judaism and, through a friend, I managed to gain entry into this closed world. No other Chassidim would have countenanced inviting me into their homes. My Lubavitch contacts were extremely hospitable and sympathetic to my writing the book. Although I feel that the portrait of their lives is honest, I was worried that they would consider themselves traduced. I offered to send them a finished copy, as I always do to anyone who has helped my research, but they told me not to bother since they never read novels. Although, on one level, this was a relief; on another, it made me sad. A character in one of my earlier novels says ‘People who don’t read novels cannot base their moral judgements on imaginative empathy with others.’ This may be an overstatement, it contains a kernel of truth. I think that the Lubavitch lives would be vastly improved by reading some fiction… and our secular lives would be equally improved by sharing their sense of community and devotion and awareness of the sacred.
The other reason for choosing the Lubavitch is that the character in question, Susannah, is searching for an alternative to her busy media life and takes the currently fashionable step of studying the Kabbalah. She, however, refuses to attend any West End group but, through her sister-in-law’s neighbour, goes to a class run by a Lubavitch rabbi in Hendon.
I am very pleased that you saw the ambiguity in my portrayal of the Lubavitch. The sense of certainty and of community that they exude is enormously attractive and is surely one of the reasons that fundamentalist sects of all sorts are gaining adherents today. On the other hand, the closed minds that go with such closed communities are the cause of so much harm.
Last but not least, the Jewish experience is part of most of your books. Why the fascination for Judaism?
Largely because although I grew up in the Christian faith and continue to be a committed, albeit idiosyncratic, Anglican, I have a Jewish family. None of them were religious and most converted to Catholicism in France after the Second World War. So it wasn’t until I started researching my first novel, The Celibate, that I began to think seriously about Judaism. It is ironic that, although my reputation (such as it is) is as a Christian writer, one of the key characters in my best-known novel, Easter, is Jewish. Unity explores the nature of fascism which cannot but be of interest to Jewish readers. A Sea Change tells the story of the 1939 voyage of St Louis in which 937 Jewish refugees fled from Hamburg to Havana, only to be denied entry. So far there are no Jewish characters in my work in progress, which is set in Lourdes, but it’s early days!