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8 June 2016

How Francis Spufford’s New York novel echoes Cervantes

Two new books help us trace the influences of Cervantes on modern fiction.

By Leo Robson

The novel may have risen in the 18th century but it didn’t really spread. America failed to produce a single instance – “great” or otherwise – until around 1790, a full seven decades after Robinson Crusoe. And though James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote historical novels about the days before the revolution, it wasn’t until the arrival of postmodernism that we got a taste, albeit in pastiche form (John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon), of colonial-era American prose. Now Francis Spufford, a specialist in Old World innovation and exploration, has added something like topspin to the transatlantic rally by writing a full-dress 18th-century English novel, crowded with alliterative names, allusive winks and random capitals, set in New York in 1746 – a time not just before Brooklyn lost its edge but when it was still known as Breuckelen.

Golden Hill opens on a drizzly November evening, with the arrival of a Londoner, Richard Smith, whose fresh eyes are wonderstruck at this Anglo-Dutch city-country mongrel and at such local phenomena as the citizens’ height and the chaos of their religious affiliations. A passage from an authorial perspective explains that the purpose of the book in our hands is to recover the “feeling” of a bygone epoch and milieu, the ancient New York – a century older than what Edith Wharton called “Old New York” – “ruined in the Revolution and burned in the great fires”. It would be hard to exaggerate Spufford’s success in this task. Recalling his childhood reading in his “inward” autobiography The Child That Books Built, Spufford said that he was “nourished most . . . when the town was a real town”. The teeming, cart-torn New York of Golden Hill is as real as it gets, a model of immersive prose:

To the left Broad Way seemed to debouch onto a green common, with a complication of barriers or fences beyond it, but the flow of the traffic favoured, by a majority, the rightward direction, where the houses thickened, and the heart of the town plainly lay . . . The cobbled roadbed seemed to lie along the top of the gentle hummock the island made, between the two rivers, as if it were following out the course of some mostly submerged creature’s spine, with the cobbles as lumpish vertebrae.

In terms of technique, the emphasis on period atmosphere is a fruitful anachronism: with the exceptions of the work of Swift and Defoe – tour guides to the exotic – the 18th-century novel wasn’t all that interested in place. But in other ways, Spufford can appear crabbed. We are told that the novel’s second purpose is to “conjure” Richard Smith but, for the majority of the book, he seems to be the familiar mischief-magnet – he is compared to a “smiling whirlwind” – forever getting involved in chases, seductions and duels. Spufford’s magnificent scene-setting gives way to some fairly dreary scenes.

As things turn out, Smith’s blankness and apparent shallowness are not a product of the exercise, an attempt to construct a hero without recourse to modern devices such as free indirect style or stream of consciousness. Instead, they mark Spufford’s limit as a pasticheur, in particular his failure to replicate the perfection of 18th-century plotting. Smith is denied an interior because Spufford needs him to be a mysterious figure not just to the New Yorkers but to the reader as well. We know many of the things that he is not: “a gilded sprig of the bon ton”, “a flash cully working the inkhorn lay”, “a bag-carrier for the ministry”, “a piece of left-hand aid dispatched to the Governor”, “a banker’s clerk”, “a scrivener’s prentice”. We wait, with growing impatience, to find out what he is.

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In one of many self-referential moments, the authorial figure boasts that “a perished cloth” with “more holes than thread” has been made to seem “a smooth continuous fabric”: it hasn’t. In one scene, Smith takes part in confession. The narrator justifies his refusal to tell us what (if anything) he confessed with a reference to the incapacities of the form – novelists are confined to “the visible and the audible” – when what we are seeing are the artless contrivances and structural shortcomings of this particular novel.

Withheld along with Smith’s identity is a wealth of nuance and meaning. But the novel yields just enough hints to maintain a thematic pulse. Smith, the Englishman at home in Manhattan, is aligned with newness, freedom and paper – and with the novel. (Spufford has written that America is “unique in its emphasis on liberty, not as the means to some further end like social justice, but as the final and ultimate end in itself”.) In one of many sentences with at least two meanings, Smith sees himself as “unshackled, as yet unconfined; the one from whom diversion, or news, or any other of the new worlds a stranger may contain, were to be expected. And perhaps desired.”

This isn’t just metafictional fiddling, but a crucial part of Spufford’s project. The earliest novelists thought deeply about their form. When Fielding called his work “Cervantick”, it signified not only his fondness for a romp but his desire to contemplate the philosophical underpinnings and political potential of fiction. As William Egginton, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, shows in his new critical biography of Cervantes, Don Quixote is at once a narrative about the danger of narrative and a reckoning with the Spanish imperial regime – fabulation as a means of speaking truth to power. The two developments identified in Egginton’s title – The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World – are connected by the defiance of orthodoxy.

For Egginton, Cervantes’s great contribution to mankind – what makes Don Quixote of a piece with Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy and Brunelleschi’s dome – is that he helped to replace the idea of solid empirical reality, as set down in the power of the establishment and in the suddenly outmoded scientific view of an objective world. Egginton explains that in Don Quixote, Cervantes expressed disapproval towards the Spanish empire’s forced expulsion of the Moriscos (Moors), decreed by Philip III in 1609. In the second book, Ricote, a Morisco from Sancho Panza’s village, gives a speech so ardently enthusiastic about the regime’s ethnic cleansing that a note of authorial irony is impossible to miss.

Egginton, addressing a popular audience for the first time, undoes his book’s historical argument with regular provisions of theorising and generalisation, usually decked out in italics altogether less knowing than the ones in Golden Hill. Asking what Cervantes’s novel “means” – whether, for instance, the Don’s seduction by chivalric romance is entirely a bad thing – “misses the boat entirely”, he writes. The “space of fiction” is one in which such questions “can never be solved”.

Of course, Egginton seems fairly certain that Cervantes was being ironic in offering praise to the expulsion of the Moriscos and, for the most part, Cervantes seems less an enigma or fence-sitter than a strident left-leaning liberal, oddly similar to Egginton. (At one point, he advises the reader that while the distinction between subjective and objective has been “enormously influential” in the West, there have been – and are – other cultures that got on perfectly well without it.)

Reading of the importance of individual perspective in the early novel reinforces the absence of inwardness in Golden Hill. But, in his coded way, Spufford is more eloquent about the status of knowledge in prose fiction. Egginton is fond of formulations involving truth, fiction, history and poetry:

We delight in fiction not, as we
might think, because we are trying
to escape reality, but because
we are drawn to a different order
of reality . . . Fiction presents the
untrue in the form of truth, poetry
in the form of history, and in doing
so, allows access to a different
kind of truth.

Golden Hill presents a society in which novels are shown, with equal justice, to inspire addiction (one character consumes them “like laudanum”) as well as allergy (“pabulum for the easily pleased”). Once the stubbornly withheld secret is revealed, it emerges that Spufford has found a way of resolving the novel’s dual identity as fantasy and a vehicle of knowledge, lies and news.

What’s odd is that all this hard work has gone into revisiting a challenge that Spufford has already conquered. Red Plenty (2010), an account of Soviet life under Nikita Khrushchev that features historical figures alongside invented characters, was the most recent text named in Fredric Jameson’s study of the novel The Antinomies of Realism, and it tries to resolve many of the paradoxes that emerged with Cervantes and Defoe.

Golden Hill proves to have been a canny piece of work but Red Plenty is something else, a path-breaking mix of essay and exercise, fact and fairy tale – a novel so faithful to the form’s rejection of moorings, its contempt for solid ground, that it refuses to call itself a novel. 

The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World by William Eggington is published by Bloomsbury (272pp, £25)

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is published by Faber & Faber (344pp, £16.99)

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind