Britain is good at producing historians, biographers, nature and travel writers and so on, but thanks, perhaps, to a not very extensive magazine infrastructure, powerful marketing departments at publishing houses, and a historical tendency to disaggregate writing into well-defined genres, it isn’t good at knowing what to do with writers who set out their stalls in the equivocal zone where the techniques of fiction and non-fiction intermingle outside the ambit of the novel.
Francis Spufford is an almost parodically English figure whose output includes a cultural history of polar exploration (I May Be Some Time, 1996), a memoir of childhood reading (The Child that Books Built, 2002), a study of various unsung successes of postwar British science (Backroom Boys, 2003) and a non-fiction novel that unpacks the story of Soviet economics (Red Plenty, 2010). He has also published Unapologetic (2012), an Anglican riposte to the likes of Richard Dawkins that’s subtitled ‘Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.’ Backroom Boys is billed as a ‘love letter to quiet men in pullovers’, and Spufford often seems to focus on socially or technically productive forms of nerdiness. In this, he seems to be true to a family background in the high-minded public-service class that once knew its way around quasi-governmental bodies, Cambridge colleges and the Church of England. A child of professors of social and economic history, and the grandson of an industrial chemist, he boarded at a choir school, went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and married a future Anglican clergywoman who wrote a PhD on Izaak Walton’s ecclesiastical Lives.
Still, it’s misleading to speak of love letters to quiet men in pullovers, because characters, though deftly sketched, aren’t always the prime movers in Spufford’s work. ‘At its limit,’ he writes (in The Child that Books Built) of science fiction, which he used to consume in bulk, ‘the genre approached the condition, stranger than it first sounds, of telling stories about something other than people,’ and a version of that ambition is often on display in his writing. Red Plenty describes itself as ‘the story of an idea, first of all, and only afterwards, glimpsed through the chinks of the idea’s fate, the story of the people involved. The idea is the hero.’ But it isn’t just ideas. Spufford is interested in things and the way they interact, in practices and processes and what you can do with enormous heaps of data. He’s very good both at explaining how stuff works and at controlling the storytelling dynamics of explanation, which lets him write preposterously gripping accounts of the problem-solving involved in constructing a mobile phone network or trying to optimise a planned economy. Micro-scale set-pieces showing what goes on in a rocket engine or a smoker’s lung cells are a speciality. Another is a sudden zoom out to view the whittling of natural selection’s ‘blunt knife’ from the perspective of geological time.
His books smuggle human interest back in chiefly at the level of rhetorical performance. He’s sufficiently skilled at manhandling the reader with tricks of voice and tone to worry about replicating the bullying quality he identifies in C.S. Lewis’s writing, and after illustrating an argument he’ll step back to concede that a particularly seductive passage might add up to little more than ‘a special effect in prose, controlled by me’. When he expounds his subjects’ thinking from the inside, there are moments of heightened, rhapsodic identification. A chapter of Backroom Boys tracks the process by which two Cambridge students, David Braben and Ian Bell, used elegant mathematical fixes to get round the limited memory available on home computers in the early 1980s while writing an epoch-making computer game, Elite:
Whether the components are atoms or bits, ideas or steel girders, building something is a process of subduing wishes to possibilities … A real, constructed thing (however dented) beats a wish (however shiny) hands down; so working through the inevitable compromises, losing some of what you first thought of, is still a process of gain … But sometimes the process goes further. Some of the best bridges, programs, novels – not all the best, but some – come about because their makers have immersed themselves in the task with such concentration, such intent openness to what the task may bring, that the effort of making wishes real itself breeds new wishes. From the thick of the task, in the midst of the practical hammering, the makers see further possibilities that wouldn’t have been visible except from there, from that spot, from that degree of engagement with the task … This is what happened when Bell and Braben wrote their game … It became great because they saw the possibility of it being great while they were just trying to make it good.
There’s plainly a large investment of the writer’s self in these eloquent inhabitings. It’s accompanied by a sympathetic awareness of the subjects’ flaws. We’re left in little doubt about the revenge-of-the-nerds reasoning behind Braben and Bell’s other lives as student Thatcherites, just as Spufford’s bravura discussion of the Narnia stories isn’t mealy-mouthed about Lewis’s twee intensity and ‘streak of misogyny a hundred yards wide’. Spufford’s careful treatment of such matters, and his capacity for thinking about morality without moralising, make Red Plenty’s re-creations of Soviet history impressively unhysterical. At the same time, he makes it clear that the delicacy of his judgments comes from an uneasily self-examining disposition. The Child that Books Built depicts his reading habit partly as a species of emotional withdrawal: his early life was shadowed by his younger sister’s congenital illness, and books offered ‘a kind of deal that allowed me to turn away’. Unapologetic suggests that the proximate cause of his turn to Christianity, ‘after twenty-odd years of atheism’, was a need to feel forgiven for betraying his partner in an unspecified fashion. Perceiving that the notion of sin is irretrievably mixed up with expensive chocolates and underwear, he rebrands it as ‘the human propensity to fuck things up’, or ‘the HPtFtU’ for short. To his way of thinking, the church is, or ought to be, ‘the international league of the guilty’.
All the same, the Spufford universe isn’t drenched with guilt or synced to an upbeat providential narrative. Instead, it’s a set of complex systems, and the transcendent moments in the stories he likes to tell tend to be moments of emergent possibility. Sometimes, for dramatic purposes, he’ll pick out an either/or proposition: ‘The whole history of Concorde over 22 years had funnelled down to that room in Victoria Street … It was the bottleneck that had to be passed. Or, better, it had become the needle’s eye.’ More often, he’s drawn to moments in which a ‘whole fan of futures’ – some of them improbable but beautiful – can be glimpsed. (In The Child that Books Built he reports that, aged 17, he made the transition to grown-up literature by way of ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’: Borges was ‘truly about something other than people’.) Red Plenty opens with a description of Leonid Kantorovich formulating the mathematics of linear programming and picturing the prosperous Soviet future its application might bring about. ‘So long as something was still happening, no matter how modest,’ Spufford writes in Backroom Boys of British rocketry in the 1950s, ‘a path could still be imagined that led from the present by many obscure twists and turns to the future in which a squadron leader drank tea on the moon … All the possible futures depended on a starting point in the present.’
Golden Hill, his first straight-up novel, is set in mid-18th-century New York, and the setting functions as another of these starting points. The reader isn’t so much encouraged to gawp at the contrast between the provincial entrepôt and the future megalopolis as coaxed into seeing a spread of possibilities in a future that’s still up for grabs. Half-formed notions of democratic equality mingle with traditional talk of English liberty. Slavery underwrites the city’s wealth and French scalps are on show in the public square, but the ‘bon ton’ are communicants of the Established Church who sit patiently through readings of ‘Mr Colley Cibber’s notoriously awful odes’. Up for grabs, too, is the novel form itself, denounced by one character for turning ‘money and manners’ into ‘smirking sentiment and unlikelihood’. ‘Mr Fielding’, ‘Mrs Fielding’, ‘Mrs Lennox’, ‘Mr Richardson’, ‘Mr Smollett’ and ‘Mr Sterne’ are at the narrator’s elbow, and a sneaky pre-echo of Mr Conrad addresses the ‘immense darkness’ of the continent beyond. Another unnamed presence might be Mr James, whose list of the ‘items of high civilisation … absent from the texture of American life’ finds a counterpart in the hero’s observations. After mulling over James’s views in The Child that Books Built, Spufford writes that a community that generates stories needs to be ‘large enough for mutual knowledge to be incomplete, but small enough for the resulting secrets still to be powerful’. His New York, ‘a city of only seven thousand souls’, seems about right.
Some of the novel’s secrets are American-made, but most are imported by the hero, Richard Smith, a personable young Englishman of uncertain provenance who steps off a ship in 1746 bearing a bill for £1000, drawn on a New York merchant, Mr Lovell, by his trading partners in London. Lovell can’t instantly realise this towering sum and has his doubts about Smith, who won’t say where the money’s from or why he needs so much of it and is provokingly unconcerned to allay suspicions that he might be a rogue. Lovell proposes a compromise: he’ll accept the bill but write to London for confirmation. If it comes he’ll pay up sixty days from now; if it doesn’t he’ll have Smith up for fraud. Smith agrees and, having exchanged four guineas for a wad of colonial scrip (‘some limp and torn; some leathery with grease; some marked only with dirty letterpress and others bearing coats-of-arms’: Spufford gets stuck in to the how-stuff-works appeal of 18th-century finance), decamps in search of lodgings on the Broad Way. Soon enough, distracted by the lack of starving beggars in this town with a tenth of London’s population, and by the height and health of its inhabitants, he has his wallet nicked. Doubly annoyed, because the wallet contains a letter relating to his mysterious mission, he sets about blagging his way through a New York winter.
Rumours about the visitor speed through the town. Is he a French agent, a bagman for the ministry, a Turkish conjuror, a Jacobite exile, a harbinger of a princely visit or merely a confidence man? Smith smilingly denies being any of these things in a way that’s guaranteed to attract the attention of the ineffectual Governor Clinton, the Crown’s man on the spot, and the smoothly overbearing Chief Justice De Lancey, spokesman for those among the settlers who are no longer inclined to foot the bill for the local garrison. The Lovells and their business partners, the Van Loons, are similarly curious about their apparent creditor. Smith is taken up by what passes for society, falling in love with Lovell’s sharp-tongued elder daughter, Tabitha, and striking up a wary friendship with the governor’s secretary, Mr Oakeshott, in the course of a round of public and private dinners and preparations for a Dutch-flavoured Christmas.
Low-life isn’t neglected: on Guy Fawkes Night, known locally as Pope Day, a drunken butcher mistakes Smith for a ‘fucken Papist’, leading to a riot and an escape across the rooftops. Smith’s further misadventures include a duel, a trial, two spells in jail and a minor role in a production of Addison’s Cato, the clock ticking down all the while on his £1000 and the question of what he plans to do with it.
One of the main challenges that Spufford confronts has to do with access to the central character’s thoughts. Too little and Smith is a blank; too much and the plot doesn’t work. It helps that the writing’s dominant mode is a pastiche of 18th-century fiction, which licences a certain amount of knowing artificiality. After a 17-line opening sentence beginning ‘The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour’, the novel establishes less mind-bending terms for the appropriate level of language. Eighteenth-century capitalisation practices – ‘It is a melancholy Reflection, that … I am imprison’d today, in gross Proximity to my swelling State of yesterday’ – are restricted to the letters inserted in the text from time to time. Elsewhere, it’s fine to have someone ‘working the room’, and fine too to have someone sit on a ‘sopha’ or picture themselves falling from a height and landing ‘with a croquillant squelch, in a posture of annihilation’. Also standing between Smith and the reader’s scepticism is an interventionist narrator who’s given both to aphoristic wisdom – ‘It has often been observed, how our desires take strength or force by having a minute dash of repulsion curdled into ’em’ – and to Swift or Sterne-like comic error:
Now, it will be most necessary for the reader, in comprehending what followed, to possess a thorough and secure understanding of the rules of piquet, which shall therefore be explained. The play of the game, is in the taking of tricks, yet the greater part of the scores are won in the bidding that precedes it, as for tierce, quart, quint, of sequences, or trio, or quatorze of sets … and there is capot too that has not yet been mentioned, and other scores beside, very particular ones, which alter according as the player is Elder or Younger, this governing the whole complexion or character of the game, unless – Wait – wait – alas the explanation is bungled, but it cannot be recalled and started over again, for the game has begun.
Describing swordplay is likewise a problem, and in tackling a sex scene the narrator starts ‘quibbling to hesitate’ before launching into some sentences that, stripped of fake antique varnish, could do service in Razzle.
Usually, though, what’s under the varnish isn’t a naughtier version of Fielding or Smollett but the outlines of several different kinds of post-18th-century novel. There’s a lot of patient historical reconstruction: Spufford knows that a visiting Londoner would have registered a pervasive odour of wood fires, in contrast to the sea-coal burned at home, and a relative dearth of pockmarks on New York faces. At a higher level, he takes care to underline the tightly woven nature of transatlantic elite politics – De Lancey, like Clinton a historical figure, has good connections at court because he’s the prime minister’s cousin – and the unremarkable, everyday quality of the slave trade in almost everyone’s eyes. (Late in the story there are violent flashes of the way mid-18th-century history looks to Achilles and Zephyra, house-slaves to Oakeshott and the Lovells.) And Spufford labours tremendously at giving the characters greater psychological depth, plus punchier dialogue, than you’d expect of a period-appropriate romp. It’s hard to imagine Peregrine Pickle making such thoughtful connections between his paramour’s rude behaviour and her mother’s early death, or Tom Jones matching Smith’s unruffled tolerance and unexpected moral discrimination on blundering into a scene of ‘vigorous congress’ between two men, one free, one not.
A skeleton of secrets fleshed out with various types of narrative and wrapped in 18th-century skin: it would be amazing if the story weren’t, here and there, a bit Frankensteinishly articulated. But the novel doles out enough information early on about Smith’s background as an urban adventurer to prevent him from moving with the stiffness of someone concealing large surprises up his sleeve. Any loss of flow and naturalness gets recouped in compound ironies, especially when it comes to Oakeshott’s production of Cato, a creaky verse drama exalting republican virtues. Intuiting that Smith has experience of the stage, Oakeshott offers him the part of Juba, a good Numidian prince who loves one of Cato’s daughters. Local sensitivities being what they are, they agree it’s best if he doesn’t black up. Of Cato’s triumphant first night in 1713, Samuel Johnson wrote unkindly: ‘The Whigs applauded every line in which liberty was mentioned, as a satire on the Tories; and the Tories echoed every clap, to show that the satire was unfelt.’ Oakeshott’s revival is similarly supported by what Johnson called ‘the emulation of factious praise’, with the added twist that the governor’s man is putting on a play that, a generation later, shaped the ideals of the American Revolution. (George Washington had it staged to fire up his troops.) The message Smith’s character is meant to convey – that virtue, not skin colour, underpins Roman liberty – is lost on nearly everyone involved.
As the plot unwinds, throwing ironies of these sorts in all directions and igniting a powder trail of images and ideas, it’s possible to wonder if Spufford hasn’t inadvertently extended the project of constructing stories ‘about something other than people’. The fireworks give off a whiff of theology: a figure who’s evasive about his true nature, mixes easily with the oppressed and the sexually deviant, and reveals himself to be on a mission of redemption before leaving for parts unknown, Smith bears a slight resemblance to you-know-who as sketched in Unapologetic, though – with a C.S. Lewis-like disdain for mythological niceties – he’s also likened to a folkloric trickster and makes his exit on a sleigh on Christmas Day. If the operation of grace is in evidence, however, it’s called down by such frequent outbreaks of ‘the HPtFtU’ that Smith continues to pass muster as a hapless if lusty picaro, as well as the star of an indignant historical novel with one or two detonations still to come. I’m not sure what the book can reasonably be likened to – a mad mixture of Thomas Pynchon and Penelope Fitzgerald? – and I’m not sure that I’d recommend it over Red Plenty to someone havering between the two. But there’s no question that Spufford has extended his activities into an only very slightly more conventional field.