The Lure of Lourdes

Primrose Hill author Michael Arditti’s new book is explored by James Roose-Evans.

The Victorian travel writer Augustus Hare used to tell the story of a French officer who had a wooden leg and went to Lourdes. Before lowering his legs into the waters of the Holy Grotto, he prayed ‘O Lord, make both my legs the same,’ When he took them out, he found they were both wooden!

In the whole of its history, Lourdes has produced less than 70 attested miracles and not one of them was of a new limb, real or wooden. So what is it that draws millions of people to Lourdes year after year? This is one of the questions that Primrose Hill novelist Arditti explores in his latest novel.

Where his last book, The Enemy Of The Good, wove together such different worlds as an English cathedral close, life in one of H.M.’s prisons and the esoteric world of a Hasidic community in north London, Jubilate has one setting: Lourdes – and it is a love story.

Vincent, a television producer/director, is making a film to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette at Lourdes. He and his crew are to follow one group of pilgrims from England. Among them is Gillian, married to Richard, who, as the result of a brain haemorrhage 12 years earlier, now has the mentality of a 12-year-old.

Vincent, an ex-Catholic, is divorced from his wife as the result of a tragic accident. His sexual infidelity led to the death of their young daughter. Gillian, who has remained faithful to her husband in spite of his endless infidelities, is now trapped “until death do us part” as his carer.

Yet although she and Vincent are drawn to each other, and each feels liberated by the discovery of love, she knows that she cannot walk away from her husband. How this dilemma is resolved is one of the underlying themes of the book.

Most Read

Arditti also experiments with the time sequence by telling Gillian’s story backwards, from the last day at Lourdes when she wakes up in Vincent’s bed. By telling Vincent’s story from the first day onwards, he shifts back and forth – so we experience their growing attraction to each other from different perspectives until slowly, as in a jigsaw, the total picture emerges. This makes for an exhilarating read, reminding us how much in real life we glean from shreds and patches as well as from moments of sudden revelation.

As background to this central tale, Arditti weaves a rich tapestry of other pilgrims. Tess, a mother of three, has brought husband Lester whose bones are riddled with cancer. They have been married for 27 years and she has never wanted anyone else. “But I do now,” she says in a whisper. “I want someone now. And not for comfort, not to cling to through the long sleepless nights when Lester is in hospital, but for wild, passionate sex.”

It is Claire, however, who best sums up the spirit of Lourdes, which attracts thousands of pilgrims each year. She has brought a son born with cerebral palsy. Her husband has left her and remarried. She says: “Martin isn’t my cross, my trial or my burden: he is my son.”

She adds: “Lourdes is a place where you spend the week listening in to other people’s lives. Some are happy and some are sad but they are all inspiring.”

It is through these subsidiary characters that Arditti poses leading questions about God, religion and moral values. At the same time, a wonderful humour sparkles from these pages like sunlight on water, including one hilarious sequence in which, late at night, Vincent desperately searches throughout Lourdes for condoms.

Towards the end, his crew ask how he will sum up the experience in his concluding commentary for the film. He replies: “Love. The place may be crass and exploitative, but the pilgrims who come here do so in good faith. Like everywhere else, that’s been invested with a sense of the sacred. It has an aura. It’s that aura that inspires people to keep coming. But it’s also us, or rather they, who’ve given it that aura: their hopes, their faith and above all, their love. It’s not something that’s beamed down from above.”

o Jubilate by Michael Arditti is published by Arcadia Books, priced �11.99. Michael Arditti is at England’s Lane Books in Belsize Park on February 15 at 7.30pm to talk about Jubilate. Tickets on 020-7586 9764.