There’s more life and variety in a single page of Francis Spufford’s prose than there is in many full-length books. Spufford is a writer of polymathic intelligence. He’s written what still stands as the best account of the strange, powerful, and dangerous love felt by the English for Arctic exploration (1999’s I May Be Some Time); he’s written a nonfiction novel—or is it a fictional work of history?—about the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s (2010’s Red Plenty); and he’s written a brilliant work of Christian apologetics (2013’s cheekily titled Unapologetic, which Paul Elie described in Commonweal “as an account of Christian belief as David Foster Wallace might have written it”). No matter what genre he happens to be working in, Spufford displays great wit and even greater intelligence.
June saw the American publication of Spufford’s Golden Hill. Unmistakably a novel, Golden Hill is set in Manhattan in 1746, with a plot that seems ripped from an 18th-century work of fiction: A mysterious man named Mr. Smith sails from London and arrives at a New York City counting-house with a bill of credit for a thousand pounds and not much else. He refuses to describe his past or what he plans to do with such riches: “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore,” he says, “I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” Spufford inhabits his chosen century to the hilt. The prose often reads like Fielding, and the story centers on many of the period’s most vexing and vexed issues: the relation between crown and colony; commerce and its relation to slavery; slavery and its relation to justice. Golden Hill has already won several prizes, including the Costa First Novel Award, and I suspect it’ll pick up more.
I spoke with Spufford by e-mail.
Anthony Domestico: This is being described as your first novel, though Red Plenty certainly borrowed from fiction’s big bag of tricks. How would you describe the differences between Red Plenty and Golden Hill? What was it about Golden Hill that called for the free and unfettered use of fiction? Do you put much stock in genre differences, or do you find this is more a question for the marketer/critic than for the reader/writer?
Francis Spufford: For me, Red Plenty was a genuine compromise between fiction and nonfiction: a house built directly on the borderline with doors opening both ways onto both literary territories. Or more creepily—pick your metaphor—a product of the uncanny valley between the two, where things are not quite fully alive from the imaginative point of view, but not quite fully dead either. It was a book in which characters were written as livingly as I could manage, and spoke dialogue as real as I could manage, but nevertheless were subordinate to a structure of explanation. Red Plenty was about economics, first, and only secondarily about people. Opinions vary about whether that’s enough to banish it from the category of fiction. I have friends whose opinions I respect who insist on taking its first five words (“This is not a novel”) ironically. Its publishing status is certainly uncertain. It came out in the United States as a novel, in Britain as “history.” Consequently, Golden Hill is both my first novel and my second novel, simultaneously, depending on where you’re looking. Or I’ve published two first novels. Or I started writing fiction with my second novel. Or something. But this I do know: Golden Hill is primarily a story about particular people, and only after that is it any kind of meditation on a theme, or on history. It’s not an explanation. For me that’s a decisive change, irrespective of all the blurring categories.
AD: Why do you think there’s so much critical anxiety surrounding historical fiction? It seems that whenever a “literary” writer publishes a brilliant “historical” novel, the critic needs to begin by explaining why this isn’t really an example of the genre. Here, for example, is James Wood’s opening move in a review of Hilary Mantel: “Both this new book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, are mysteriously successful historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness. One of the reasons for this literary success is that Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.” Did you have any anxieties about writing in this oft condescended-to genre?
FS: There may be genres that are too narrow, too inherently shoddy for interesting things to happen within them, though it’s always easier to think so from a distance. But on this particular point James Wood—a colleague of mine once a very long time ago, and usually one of the subtlest judges of fictional effect that we have—seems to me to be off his trolley, barking up the wrong tree, playing an extended solo on the sousaphone of error. Hilary Mantel does not purvey a lightly costumed modernity. The historical novel is not “a somewhat gimcrack genre,” but one of the permanent central possibilities in the repertoire of realistic fiction as such, ever since its very beginning. After all, novels always deal with characters in settings, with integrated fictive worlds where the destinies of imagined people are shaped by, evolve from, the possibilities of some specific human habitat; and there’s no reason why this integrated curiosity should not be directed at a setting defined by a historical moment, as well as by place and class and culture and race and religion. I think the anxiety about historical fiction comes from people conflating the idea that genre fiction offers predictable pleasures—a canned experience, stipulated on the outside of the packaging—with the idea that a past period offers, somehow, a closed and second-hand field for the imagination. One known in advance, and therefore unambitious compared to the bolder, braver novelistic effort to take the measure of the present.
What this leaves out is the desire in ambitious historical fiction for, precisely, an encounter with difference; the wish, on the writer’s part and the reader’s, for an intelligible engagement with those things in another time which are not known in advance. Almost every major writer has wanted to try this out, one way or another. War and Peace is a historical novel. In Search of Lost Time is a historical novel. Middlemarch is a historical novel, for heaven’s sake—deliberately set a generation before the time of writing, on the cusp of a sudden social liquefaction and transformation, so that George Eliot could think about the fluidity of her society by looking at a provincial microcosm just before all that was solid started melting into air. The backward look needn’t be a sign of a preference for the easy, the predigested. It can be the writer’s imagination reaching out towards something richly, productively difficult: something which will put up just as many obstacles to being known as the present does, if not more so. Anyway, I think the world is too interesting to worry much about where (generically) you get your tools to describe it, so long as they work.