Sodom and the eternal longing for salvation

Detail from Lot and his Daughters (1520) by Lucas van Leyden

Of Men and Angels
by Michael Arditti, Arcadia, 546pp, £16.99

Sometimes it is only at the very end of a work of art that one understands what the entire piece has been about – one thinks for example of the final bars of Tristan, where the chord is at last resolved; or of the closing lines of Paradise Lost, which truly justify the ways of God to Man.

So it proves too with Michael Arditti’s latest novel, where on the final page something falls into place and you realise just what it is that is essential in life. It is certainly worth reading that far, and a great reward lies in those final lines.

Of Men and Angels is a series of books within a book, each one telling the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. We open in Babylon, where the Israelites are in exile, and where the biblical narrative that we know is being redacted and rewritten. Then it is to Medieval York, where the story is one of the Mystery Plays. Then we are in Botticelli’s studio, in a Florence undergoing the terrible convulsions brought about by Savonarola, who thunders against vice, and one vice in particular. The fourth narrative is set in the 19th century, the story of an Anglican vicar, wedded to biblical literalism, who thinks he has discovered the actual site of Sodom. Finally, we are in our own times, and in Hollywood, where the Sodom tale is given a modern makeover, and a great star is brought to face not just the truth about Sodom, but the truth about himself.

In electing to write about Sodom, and in writing about the way the story came to be the way it is, Arditti has hit upon a rich seam. Everyone knows the story, or thinks they do, and it has always been seen as giving a divine imprimatur to human prejudices; but like so much else in the Bible, it is not so simple.

The sin of Sodom is, in fact, lack of hospitality towards strangers, a lack of charity, as opposed to sodomy per se. Ironically, this lack of charity is the very sin that the enthusiastic admirers of the story as traditionally received themselves commit.

The most affecting parts of the narrative are those in which the characters face the truth that they would rather not recognise.

I particularly enjoyed the story of the Anglican vicar exploring 19th-century Palestine, who has gone abroad to get away from that which most torments him: the loss of a beloved son.

In the end, Arditti’s fiction makes us realise that whoever we are, all of us long for only one thing, and that is salvation. Moreover, Arditti is a novelist of such skill that he makes salvation not just credible, but desirable.