Can a gay man, raised an Anglican but descended from a Shepardim immigrant father, write a great novel about the Christian faith and the power of redemption? If the author is Michael Arditti and the novel is Easter, the answer is a resounding yes. Easter was, in fact, published about ten years ago, but I just got around to it this, um, Easter, and now I’m wondering what took me so long. This is a magnificent work—a social satire on the scale of Waugh, occasionally sexually graphic, frequently Dickensian in its panorama of modern London, and often wildly funny. And it also has the virtue, increasingly rare these days, of being extraordinarily well written. It’s a chronicle of a modern London church seen through the lives and thoughts of a group of people associated with the Parish of St Mary-in-the-Vale in Hampstead, at Easter (and in the interests of full disclosure, I live in Hampstead, and the church does not exist, although the Vale of Health, where the church is supposedly located, actually does). Particularly the vicar, who seems to be having a crisis of faith, and his younger curate, who learns that he is HIV positive. And what a chronicle it is. This is the best novel about faith, and its testing, that I’ve read in years, even decades. And what does the testing is AIDS, of course. For Arditti, the question isn’t so much “What sort of God would allow AIDS?” as “What sort of faith can survive AIDS?”
The action takes place in the week before Easter, as the church prepares to celebrate the Passion, with the usual accoutrements that accompany, and embody, the crucifixion and the rebirth of Jesus. And the ministers, and many of the congregation, act out their own little passions during the week as well. Arditti has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and the vast cast of characters reveals both their beliefs and their thoughts through their snippets with each other, in all their complexities. Arditti is particularly good at capturing personas, and while some of the characters are more memorable than others, they’re all real. There’s not a false note anywhere in these people—you already know most of them, in one form or another. The Queen even makes an appearance, in one of the more memorable incidents in the narrative.
Arditti has written something very rare—a novel genuinely about faith. The best comparison I can think of is Graham Greene, which is high praise indeed. But Greene’s faith was of a very different sort than Arditti’s—Greene wallowed in Catholic guilt, whereas Arditti’s faith is a broader, more tolerant, more humane faith. I heard Arditti speak in an interview a couple of months ago of the crisis in his own faith that AIDS had caused. I don’t imagine this was at all unusual for devoted and believing Christians (I myself am only vaguely Christian, although, like Arditti, I was brought up in the Anglican faith.) And this is a different kind of fiction than that written by another favorite author, the late J.F. Powers, who wrote some excellent novels and extraordinary short stories about priests (including Prince of Darkness, one of the best short stories ever). But Powers wasn’t necessarily interested in priests who had crises of faith—in fact, most of Powers’ priests were immune to this sort of thing. Powers wrote about priests simply because, as he stated more than once, he thought they were an interesting group of people to write about.
Arditti has a different aim here. He is clearly angry about the world, and how faith can often be unsuccessful in responding to the pressures placed up it. Faith can be a weak foundation to support all that it is occasionally called on to support. And while it’s not clear whether Arditti believes that it does need to be tested in order to be strengthened, it’s clear that he does believe these tests, like those going back to Job, can be perceived as unfair. The 20th century was legion for such tests, and this century shows no signs of being any better. But a tested faith such as Arditti’s, or of those of his main characters, can emerge as a stronger and more tolerant faith. One of Arditti’s achievements is to suggest that the various responses that faith takes to various crises can be a broad and varied as society itself—but that some may not be sufficient to the needs of the people dealing with these crises. The crisis that is currently afflicting the Catholic Church is a good example of how institutional and personal responses can fail those most reliant on the institution. The Bishop in Easter, who represents all that can be narrow and exclusionary about the Christian Church, is a marvelous creation, no less so for having some obvious real world counterparts.
After its publication, Arditti took a fair amount of stick from fundamentalist Christians over the graphic gay sex. I admit that I’m long past the point in my life where this sort of thing interests me that much, and I generally find it more of a distraction than anything else. But Arditti is also a very wry writer, and one scene in particular, of some sadomasochistic sex between an archedeacon of a neighboring church and a male prostitute, is one of the funniest scenes in the book. Still, it’s not surprising that fundamentalists, who generally lack a sense of humor and much tolerance for sex, would have been upset. No matter. Arditti is as concerned with the substantial, the corporeal, as with the spiritual, aspects of faith, and the book is stronger for it. The Passion, among other things, is about the physicality of the pain that Christ endured—this was not a peaceful death, but a violent and painful one.
But there is no escaping the fact that one of the central themes of the book is the place of gayness in the church, particularly in a time of AIDS. Arditti makes no secret of the act that AIDS had wrought a powerful toll to his own faith, in addition to that of some of the central characters in the book, particularly Blair Ashely, the curate who loses his partner and discovers he is HIV positive the same week. Ashley’s spiritual path through Holy week is the major thread of the narrative, which complements the paths of Huxley Grieve, the Vicar, and Jessica, Huxley’s wife. And Arditti cleverly plays these against the narrative of the Passion. It’s an impressive achievement technically, but it works not just because of that. It works because Arditti explores the crises of his characters specifically as crises of faith. These sorts of crises can be–indeed, are supposed to be–life transforming and ultimately life enhancing, and Arditti treats them with the seriousness they deserve. And as we listen to Blair Ashley’s sermon that closes the book, we are in no doubt as to where Arditti stands—the closed faith of the Bishop, or the open affirming faith of Grieve and Ashley.
One doesn’t need to be a devout Christian to be affected by this powerful book—in fact, I imagine it depends upon what sort of Christian you are. But as a literary experience it’s an impressive achievement. If fiction is supposed to make us see the world anew, Arditti has written a great book.