Friday, July 30, 2010

The Enemy of the Good

Everyone wants to change humanity but no-one wants to change himself. - Leo Tolstoy

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
- Pascal (frontispiece quotations)

I recently read a novel by Michael Arditti entitled 'The Enemy of the Good' (2009). In essence it's a novel which highlights the on-going conflict between liberalism and fundamentalism and to a lesser extent, the relationship between art and religion.

The central characters are the Granville family who consist of Edwin, a retired Bishop who no longer believes in God, but continues to believe in the idea of God and the institution of the Church; his wife Marta, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and a distinguished anthropologist, and their two children Susannah and Clement.

Novels which debate upon contentious issues such as religious faith are few and far between these days. Ever since the scandalous debacle which followed in the wake of Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' (1988) the battle-lines have been drawn up between adherents of liberalism and fundamentalism, resulting in artists being wary of, and fearing to offend the wrath of religious sensibilities; indeed it's with some trepidation that I myself attempt to discuss a subject which arouses stronger than ever feelings amongst some.

The beliefs of the Granville grown-up children Clement and Susannah are central to the novel . Clement, a gay artist with HIV, retains his progressive Christian faith whilst finding himself increasingly embroiled in controversy, hatred and suffering for his liberal views. His sister Susannah discovers her true spiritual identity by embracing the ultra-orthodox faith of Hasidic Judaism. These two siblings find it increasingly difficult to accept each others beliefs, as their relationship deteriorates, the view-points of liberalism and fundamentalism are clearly delineated in their spiritual and intellectual conflict. Articulating lines such as-

'Sex is one of God's greatest gifts to us. To reject it in favour of bloodless chastity is in a very real sense to reject God', and 'Fundamentalists don't think: they bray, they parrot' uttered by the gay artist Clement, clearly display which side of the fence his character represents, while his sister-in-law Carla, the widow of Clement's twin brother, unambiguously states-

'for people with no inner life, sexuality has become the all-important measure of authenticity'.

In this novel the author Michael Arditti has written a realistic portrait of religious faith in Britain today. It's a thought-provoking, lively, at times amusing, more often tragic, tale of a conflict which continues to grow in ferocity. I particularly liked Clement's astute statement upon how the all-pervasive internet has, and continues to erode aesthetic judgement -

'Memory lies at the heart of what it is to be human. In fact I'd go further: it's the reason we both need and respond to art. It's the part of our brain that creates and shapes narratives, that filters images, that draws analogies and chucks away inessentials.... Can it be an accident that, at a time when we're trusting less and less to our memories, we're growing less and less discriminating about art? We may have a world of information at our fingertips, but we've got fewer and fewer ways to assess it'.

Arditti's novel has received numerous glowing reviews far more articulate than anything I can write; the author Philip Pullman (b.1946, Norwich) for example stated of this novel -

' The Enemy of the Good' is a vivid picture of the religious life as it's lived among the conflicts and compromises of modern Britain. Michael Arditti has extended and deepened the vision that made (his) Easter so interesting, and he must be our best chronicler of the rewards and pitfalls of present day faith'.

I recommend 'The Enemy of the Good' to anyone who is interested in acquiring a greater understanding of the complex issues arising from the conflict between liberalism and fundamentalism today, albeit in the form of an entertaining and extremely well-written work of fiction.

In an age which remains obsessed with nationalism, despite two world wars which devastated Europe, I also recommend Arditti's short statement upon a vision of a united Europe.
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