Michael Arditti's latest novel, Jubilate, came out last week. It's a beautiful love story, set during a pilgrimage to Lourdes. This small village in south-western France is famous for the Marian apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes that are reported to have occurred to a local girl, Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. A total of 67 miracles have been reported at Lourdes since the apparitions.
Here's a brief resume of the evening with author Michael Arditti.
As a writer you are known to write books about faith. Are you religious?
It's true to say that I am a believer; I believe in miracles. Although Jubilate is not a religious novel. It’s a book about another kind of miracle; that of love. Vincent, the male character, is not at Lourdes because of his religion - he's there to film a documentary - but he ends up finding a different way to look at faith.
Did you always plan to set the novel in Lourdes?
I wanted to write about pilgrimage, and about Lourdes. It was important to me to create a strong sense of place, so Lourdes as a place was obviously a factor. Above all, though, I wanted to write a love story.
The novel is about love between two middle-aged people - that's quite unusual in today's literature. Was this a conscious decision?
I wanted the two characters to have had lives before this story - I wanted to create a conflict between them. Both have a lot at stake: Gillian made her marriage vows, which she firmly believes she shouldn't break. Vincent, on the other hand, believes that the breakdown of his marriage has made him a loveless creature. He thinks he no longer has the ability to love.
The whole cast of pilgrims you created are often funny. In fact there's a lot of humour in the book.
There's a lot of humour in Lourdes - and in Christianity. It's a defence mechanism; a way of coping. I like drawing peripheral characters and with them as well as with the main perpetrators, I tried to reflect the Lourdes experience. I wanted the other pilgrims’ stories to mirror that of the two narrators.
The structure of the book is quite unusual in that we follow Gillian's story backwards, while Vincent's narrative starts from the moment they meet. Which story came first?
The structure came to me straight away when I decided on two narrators. I found it interesting to have unreliable narrators tell a story. In general I think it's hard to give a definite view of an event. But I felt parallel stories could perhaps be a little plodding, so I decided to change the timeline. I wrote it exactly as it reads, so I had to plan the book very carefully. Of course the moment of truth comes when their two tales meet in the middle.
I found the point when Vincent and Gillian's stories meet very moving. I felt as if the intersection formed a symbolic cross - was this the intention?
Well, perhaps. I knew the Wednesday had to be the point where the two stories meet, and had to - just like my previous book Easter - be very careful that I had everything in the correct order. I felt the two narrators must have their own versions of the events - at the same time their experiences can't be too different; they are lovers after all.
In some of the reviews of Jubilate you are described as 'brave' for writing books about faith. Are you brave?
I think you have to be brave to write about anything. We are living in a very secular age, so I guess it's brave to write about something that’s not so popular. But some 5 million people go to Lourdes every year, so if everyone there bought my book...of course faith isn’t sexy, it isn't fashionable, but to me faith is how we measure ourselves. You are Christian, Muslim, Atheist… I think it's a wonderful way of getting to the heart of the matter.
You set Jubilate in Lourdes and went there - did you purely go to research the book?
No, not at first. I went there to seek a miracle, like everybody else. But while there, I saw what a wonderful place it would be to set a book in, so I went back to do the research. Of course none of the characters are based on anyone in particular. Neither Vincent nor Gillian are people I know or have met. Although I had a distant relative who had an accident whilst playing tennis. He became a man with the mental age of seven, but with normal sexual urges of that of a grown man. I met him and his wife a few times when I was a child and often since wondered how his wife coped with the situation.
Was Richard difficult to draw as a character?
Of course I researched brain damage and how it can affect a person, and also drew on my experience of my relative and his wife. In the book I also used Richard’s mother, Patricia, to facilitate the drawing of the character of Richard. It was easier to show the relationship she has with her grown-up son. She makes comments such as, 'He's still a handsome man', because she has great difficulty in dealing with the brain-damaged man who used to be her child. But in general with a character like Richard you just have to go with your instincts.
Michael Arditti was interviewed by Danielle van Emden
I haven't read a book for some time which has affected me as strongly as Jubilate. Michael Arditti's prose is beautiful; the way he's drafted the progress of the miraculous love story at the heart of the book is genius. I was sad when the book ended.
The story of Jubilate will stay with me for a long while.