Nestled in the middle of True Stories, a collection of Francis Spufford’s essays from the past 25 years, is a short definition of faith. Under the title “Who is God? An Answer for Children”, there are a few hundred words of uncomplicated prose that evoke the base facts of religious belief, but also the sensation it arouses in those who have it. The language is both utilitarian (“you can’t prove He exists”) and quietly gorgeous (“the sun glitters like a diamond in a dark blue sky”).
Thinking about God, Spufford concludes, means that you “discover that the world is much bigger than you knew it was, and that maybe, just maybe, you can be bigger than you thought you were, too.”
This short piece is Spufford’s entire output in miniature. Throughout his career, which has so far spanned journalism, five non-fiction books and last year’s bestselling novel Golden Hill, he has patrolled the border between fact and fiction, seeking out wonder in strange places and attempting to express it in his writing. His recurring subjects have been as varied as Antarctica, Soviet science and atheism – an unusual diversity of focus that perhaps explains why widespread recognition had largely eluded him until Golden Hill. Even that novel, a pitch-perfect 18th-century pastiche, which won a Costa award, is an unlikely crowdpleaser.
In the titular essay of True Stories Spufford outlines and interrogates his approach to blending fact with fiction. Facts want to “roam free and have non-literal adventures” he argues. As long as the writer exports “the wisp of truthfulness” from reality into imagination, the latter should be free to “noodle out into wild paisley filigree, and still dot each nested curl of fancy with rigour, with puritan conviction”.
Pitched by the publisher as a comment on the contemporary afflictions of “post-truth” and “fake news”, Spufford’s analysis dances rings around the buzzwords without ever needing to spend time debunking them. Instead, like that old journalistic maxim, he chooses to show, not tell. A misattributed Coleridge quotation, which at the outset seems to encapsulate his argument so perfectly, is unmasked as fraudulent before we are whisked on to consider what Middlemarch and the gospels can teach us about narrative. His manifesto, finally revealed, is one of imperfect toil – to “rather build in gopherwood and potato peelings and broken circuit boards and bicycle spokes than in pre-cast concrete”. Truths can be told “straight and slant” he concludes. Not everything that is true is entirely factual.
The 37 pieces collected here are organised into sections based on Spufford’s long-term interests. “Cold” contains his essays on polar exploration and the metaphorical potential of ice; “Red” has Siberian travel writing and reflections on the rise of the global market; and “Sacred” treads ground similar to that of Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, his 2012 riposte to the New Atheists. There is a toughness to the writing here that is absent elsewhere. For example: “Puritans” is quietly devastating on the theological ignorance found in the work of Richard Dawkins and others.
Even though the subject of faith is so personal, Spufford mostly succeeds in these essays in deflecting the focus away from himself (although occasional details slip out, such as the fact that his wife Jessica is ordained and works as a canon at Ely cathedral). In other work, such as his “inward autobiography” The Child That Books Built, he uses a different mode entirely, revealing the painful truth that he used to read obsessively as a child to “evade guilt and avoid consequences” – a habit that began as his baby sister Bridget struggled with a rare and terminal genetic illness.
Any tendency towards leaden polemic in the essays is utterly eradicated by the lightness of Spufford’s language. At one point, he commends Matthew Henson’s 1912 exploration memoir Negro Explorer for its “high flights secured by humour” – an approach very close to Spufford’s own. Hence his description of the fractious relations between famous polar adventurers: “even Oates, up whose nose Scott had got so far that practically only his feet projected”.
Pop culture references sit alongside his more conventionally intellectual vocabulary – Grouty from Porridge and Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman both make appearances. And in his obituary for Iain Banks, Spufford makes a compelling case that Banks’s science fiction, with its inclinations towards the tropes of pulp fiction, far surpassed his literary efforts.
In “Borealism”, Spufford recounts the tale of Henson’s part-Inuit son, latterly revered as a bastion of multiculturalism – a part-African-American inhabitant of the frozen north: “It is a wonderful story. Why so wonderful, though?” His instinct is both to convey the world’s marvels but also to interrogate why they inspire these feelings in us. What does it say about us that we respond with amazement to the story of a mixed-race man born in Greenland? Lingering ideas of Inuit tribes as a form of “human archeology”, or a “pure” race from an earlier age, lead to assumptions that such modern interactions as interracial relationships must be rare and remarkable.
Spufford has a knack for blending fact with fiction, to be sure, but also for threading through his stories a sense of his own uncertainties. Here’s the story, his writing seems to say. Make what you will of it.
True Stories & Other Essays
Yale University Press, 336pp, £20
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions