Francis Spufford: The Weather in the Soul

an interview with Francis Spufford by Catherine Coldstream

image: Francis Spufford, credit: Eamonn McCabe

MONK: Francis, your first book, I May be Some Time, was about ice in the English imagination. Why ice, when you could – evidently – have written about so many other things? 

FS: My first book was in some ways a deliberate sideways move. It wasn’t that I was trying to write the thing I most cared about writing, but that I was trying to find something that I could write on and that I also cared about. And I was interested in the unexpected intensity with which I’d been moved by reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World

MONK: When did you first read it, and what was going on there do you think? 

FS: I was a student in the early 1980s, armour plated against that kind of imperial derring-do, and stoical suffering story with nothing but vast numbers of stiff-upper-lipped Edwardian men. But it knocked me over. I thought, hmm, there is something I could creep up on here, to account for the intensity of my own reaction. But I wanted to find a sideways way of doing it, so I chose to write about the way that the whole of our culture keeps alive this particular, unexpected memory, even though it was part of the kind of grand overarching structure of imperial storytelling, all of which had long since gone. And that gave me a way in, to thinking about memory, and about public memory. I was interested in how it works, and how stories remain potent and pick up different meanings, and change, and transmogrify, but go on being told and go on conveying something.

There is a bit of me, deep down, which really believes that, as Virginia Woolf said, the imagination is androgynous … a kind of spark of attention, to make forays into other people’s experience.

I May Be Some Time by Francis Spufford

MONK: So, it was nothing about ice? Or was it?

FS: Well, I come from a temperate country, where Christmas is more often green than white, so for me ice and snow have the quality of a kind of magical transformation.

MONK: A bit of Narnia in it?

FS: Yes. Although ice is less positively represented in Narnia then I would have liked! One of my favourite lines from Alice Through the Looking Glass is where Alice says: ‘I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently.’ Ice and snow mean transformation to me, and I am still excited when it snows.

MONK: But I’m interested in the fact that the book is not so much about what it seems to be about, that is ice, as it is about memory, and public memory in particular. Because that’s something it shares with, for example, the Scriptures, isn’t it? It also shares with those writings something about difficulty and heroism and risk, and possible redemptions and, of course, extreme experience. I think that’s quite telling. It’s a book about life and death.

Ice and snow mean transformation to me, and I am still excited when it snows

FS: Yes, the story of Scott and Co. in the Antarctic was a mortally dangerous story. And yes, public memory and storytelling is also an important concern. I was deeply interested in the costs of some kinds of really extreme stories, and the way that people are able to commit themselves to them, and then pay in ways which it turns out may or may not have been worth it. 

MONK: It’s striking that each of your books is so different, and seems to offer the reader a fully furnished window into a different historical era. In Golden Hill you bring alive the 18th century; in Red Plenty you take us to Russia in the 1950s; and then there’s the Edwardian era in your first book. 

All this leaves the reader with the sense that, while being hugely imaginative, you must also, nevertheless, do a massive amount of research? 

FS: It’s very gratifying to let people think that I am a kind of monster of research, who does a huge amount of thinking, but the actual truth here is that I do ‘just enough’ research in order to glue together the thing I want. But that’s always partly an illusion. It’s to do with the way that storytelling controls the sightlines of the person who is hearing it. So, the story dictates which direction they look in, and what they see needs to be very solid-seeming and very fully specified, when actually that’s all there is. Behind them there could be an empty stage, and me, in a pair of overalls, moving a very short pillar on castors back and forth and hoping they didn’t see me. I don’t necessarily know as much as I appear to know.

MONK: In Light Perpetual, one thing that struck me was the agility of imagination you displayed in getting right inside the heads of your very different characters. Do you have a process for entering psychologically into different personalities? 

 FS: Well, fiction crosses the gaps between people. The underlying power of fiction is that it lets you do what you can never do in the rest of your experience, which is to look through other eyes and ‘try out the view’ from inside other people’s heads. It is the great power of fiction… There is a bit of me, deep down, which really believes that, as Virginia Woolf said, the imagination is androgynous and that when it’s working right, and you’re trying really hard, what you can do is to send out a kind of spark of attention, to make forays into other people’s experience. That spark has no age, and no gender, and no class, and no particular origin, and it is as close as you can get – of course imperfectly – to a state of pure human sympathy.

MONK: I wonder, could you have written the book without the counterfactual element, that is, without showing the reader the ‘actual’ deaths at the beginning? And simply having the ‘possible lives’ as ‘lives’? 

FS: I could, and it would have been quite like the Michael Apted series, Seven Up!, which I have not actually seen, nor was I influenced by, but I am now aware of. If I hadn’t put in the bomb, and the death at the beginning, I’d have got the story of five lives, but I wouldn’t have got that provisional quality, and I wouldn’t have got that sense of the gratuitousness of life, and life being something to be rejoiced in just because it is, life with its kind of frame of death around it. I wanted something which gave you enough awareness of existence as being not inevitable, and that you could notice the kind of ‘feel’ of existence itself between your fingers a little bit. Or, to switch metaphors, what Philip Larkin calls ‘The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here’.

The ‘existence of God’, unless you’re Thomas Aquinas, does not necessarily detain you that much…

MONK: And I guess facing the reader with that gratuitousness, that reminder that nothing can be taken for granted, is actually presenting them with something quite closely related to a position of faith?

FS: Yes, quite so. And it’s also definitely closely related to my faith history. Inevitably I draw on myself, but I wanted it to resonate much more widely … to be palpable without their having to assent to a bunch of theological propositions for it to work. I mean, from my point of view, as a believer, I think that the Holy Spirit is necessarily actively involved in all of those lives in which people don’t think in religious terms at all, because the Holy Spirit is a universal thing not confined to the inhabitants of churches.

MONK: In Unapologetic the big idea is that emotion is a much better way of considering the things of God, and of personal faith, than reasoned argument. I suppose allowing that premise into a novel that does not make overt theological claims is an embodying (or an inscribing) of the same approach?

FS: Unapologetic was a book in which I wanted to move the public conversation about religion as far away as possible from this deadly, rather sterile argument about propositions, in which the existence of God is the most important thing you could possibly argue about. Yes, of course it’s important, because without it nothing else follows. But it’s so abstract. 

The love of God and the mercy of God have actual weight in people’s lives and people’s understandings. The ‘existence of God’, unless you’re Thomas Aquinas, does not necessarily detain you that much… So I wanted to get the conversation out from under the shadow of science, in which ‘not being able to prove stuff’ was supposed absolutely to end any line of inquiry. Our means for navigating those areas are emotional. Not that we can’t deceive ourselves – of course we can deceive ourselves – but that doesn’t mean we can’t try, or that we should cut off that whole part of ourselves.

I’m an incarnational Christian believer, and I think that we have to have our truths embodied, even if they’re imperfectly embodied…

MONK: And it’s actually perfectly natural that emotion guides us in so many ways?

FS: Exactly, and the question to ask is not, ‘Is it emotional?’ but ‘Are the emotions generous emotions, are they kind emotions, curious emotions?’ That’s the humility to be aiming for, not something pious… I wanted to be having that conversation. Over against that, I am quite a reticent English person, and I don’t necessarily find it that easy to talk about emotions.

MONK: And yet I think there are several pages describing the elusive quality of an experience of God, and your description of the Mozart is incredibly emotional?

FS: I think I am emotional. But you use what you’ve got, and no matter how curiously, generously, impersonally you’re trying to imagine your way into other people’s lives you necessarily, and rightly, use your fundamental understanding of what the world is like and how it works. So, since my understanding of how the world works is, deep down, religious, it will show up, whether or not I want it to.

MONK: How much difference do you think there is between emotion and imagination in terms of how we conceive helpfully of God?

FS: Well, emotion is reactive. It’s the weather in the soul. Imagination is the power of making, that in fact draws on emotion. It’s incomplete without emotion but it has its ‘arid plodding across deserts, trying to work stuff out’ aspects, which are very unemotional. And it also has its dependence on discipline and will, when you’re trying to be unlike yourself. And it has its moments of completely unearned, and un-earnable breakthrough, in which something just gets apparently presented to your imagination, with you thinking kind of – ‘ah, that’s the way to do it’.

MONK: But then there’s the mystery of inspiration?

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

FS: Yes. And the subconscious, because it’s part of you, will always connect with that and play a part. In my previous book, Golden Hill, I found that I was inadvertently recapitulating Christian stuff without having set out to do it. That waywhen you’ve got magnets underneath a piece of paper, and you put iron filings on top, they arrange themselves into lines of force without you being able to see the magnet. And in some ways I’ve got the magnet underneath the piece of paper, and my iron filings arranged themselves into kind of slightly Gospel-shaped patterns without me quite willing it. 

MONK: I suppose the imaginative component of faith is not the same as the novelistic imagination?

 FS: And the possibilities for self-deception and projection are very strong. One difference there, is that you never imagine what it’s like being God, at least I certainly don’t, and I don’t think it’s actually possible to do so. So you’re not imagining what the universe looks like from God’s point of view, because, as the Psalmist says, ‘such knowledge is too high for me.’ It cannot be done. What can be done is to have an experience of sort of ‘basking attention’ going in the other direction. I’m taking the idea of basking, by the way, from Rowan Williams and his famous ‘prayer is like sunbathing’ analogy.

MONK: Right. And that’s a wonderful description of contemplative awareness. 

FS: But it does involve some degree of imagination, both in terms of – well, your head is your head, it’s only stocked with the things that it’s stocked with, so if you think you’re having an experience of the presence of God, it uses what’s available there. But the authenticating thing is otherness. The sense of something which is not like you and not even like what you’d think of, or expect to find… I mean – confession alert – I now find it much easier to remember the description of the presence of God in Unapologetic than I do to remember what I actually felt before I wrote it down. It’s as if describing it in some awful way actually ate up the experience, and replaced the plenitude of the experience with just those words. And OK, maybe that was what I was supposed to be doing, maybe I was supposed to be describing it, and maybe even Saint Paul went ‘I’m really not getting it’ as he wrote the epistle to the Corinthians. Maybe that’s inevitable, but there’s still a loss involved in it, because whatever it is, it’s not in words.

MONK: But in terms of how these peak experiences affect faith: Does everyone need to have their moment of revelation?

FS: No, because there are umpteen different paths towards faith, or revelation… And not all of them depend on individual religious experience. I’m not an ‘only the spirit not the letter of the law’ person at all. I’m an incarnational Christian believer, and I think that we have to have our truths embodied, even if they’re imperfectly embodied. And, as a Christian, I think we have a living Apostolic connection back to the events of Galilee and Jerusalem 2000 years ago. So there is a traceable human continuity. The line may be staticky, but at the other end of it there’s still the Divine.

I think I am emotional

MONK: So, we’re back to communal memory again?

FS: Yes, communal memory self-corrected by things which, thank God, don’t actually depend on human goodness. I think we get nudged back towards better attempts at the truth all the time.

MONK: How do you feel about the ascetic idea that faith needs to be purified? That faith completely unsupported by feeling is somehow better or more pure?

FS: I think there is a close affinity in that idea to my sense that ‘attention’ to other people, and imaginative attention, needs to be generous, needs to be dispassionate, needs to be – in a curious way – impersonal. I wrote Unapologetic with a definite, you could say ‘manipulative’ agenda. It’s supposed to be a successful polemic, but a manipulative-with-its-cards-on-the-table polemic, and not a cheating one. It is supposed to make it clear what it’s doing, and to set out its stall. It is a book that deliberately sets out to give a dose of the medicine that I thought a strongly over-rational and over-positivist historical moment needed to have. It’s corrective medicine. It goes: ‘Less Dawkins, more feeling, damn it!’ And it’s also pitched, yes, manipulatively, towards a society which has taken what sociologists call the ‘expressive turn,’ one in which it is the authenticity of personal experience and emotion which strikes people as authoritative. So it’s an attempt to make a case that would carry people away from abstract argument and towards the fullness of God.

MONK: What do you think ‘grace’ means, and do people get it, understand its background – or do we need a new word for it? 

FS: Well, I thought my new word for sin (‘the human propensity to fuck things up’, or – because the word occurred so many times in the book – ‘HPtFTU’) was enough. But grace is a sort of compound of humility, and a practiced acknowledgement of other people’s needs. That’s why the piece of meaning that had slipped out of view, that I was trying to haul back into view in my book Unapologetic, was the scandalous aspect of grace. The kind of ‘you turn up at half past four and still get paid for a full day’s work…’

I’m a word-filled individual, and grace took the form of something which was completely without vocabulary of any kind

MONK: In Unapologetic you’re sitting in a cafe and you hear the Mozart clarinet concerto; and it’s like an epiphany. The Mozart is obviously put forward as a moment of pure grace …

FS: And it’s wordless. Crucially, no pun intended, it’s wordless. I’m a word-filled individual, and grace took the form of something which was completely without vocabulary of any kind. It was not ‘my kind of thing’ – not the kind of thing that I could promptly shuffle into a more pleasing shape.

MONK: Did it have to be Mozart, that day in the café? 

FS: No, it didn’t have to be Mozart. And it certainly doesn’t have to be high art at all that mediates the Divine. I think, at least for me, the ‘high art’ status of that piece of Mozart is a merely cultural evaluation, and is almost completely irrelevant for how it affected me. Although Mozart has a particular brilliance at taking wordless dictation from grace, I must say, and being able to report successfully. 

MONK: I must say, dictation and reporting are wonderful analogies. If they are just analogies, of course. But that’s perhaps my own romantic take on musical inspiration talking. 

FS: Well, I’d say there are actually as many channels as there are modes of music. And there are as many channels as there are different lives, and the light tries its best to get through by any means necessary.

Music in particular has the capacity to get round our conscious defences, but it doesn’t have to be rarefied, it doesn’t have to be abstract, and it doesn’t have to be wordless either. One of the reasons why my new book, Light Perpetual, has got so much music in it, and so many different kinds of music, is that it is trying to be true to the way that music is the popular art. It’s the big serious thing which gets everywhere, and other than firework displays making everyone go ‘ooh’ I can’t think of anything, except music, which reaches into almost all lives. It’s not an accident that that kind of ecstatic experience lies on the other side of dance music, for example, and the whirling dervishes, and people who take a lot of ecstasy, are reporting similar things there. 

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

MONK: I suppose a lot of what we call high art was once popular art. Obviously on one level it’s a construct. But can we say what high art is, and do we need it? 

FS: We need all kinds of art. We need the stuff that’s difficult to assimilate and takes difficult forms, because it’s the only form that delivers to us difficult understandings, and complex or difficult experiences. We need paragraphs by Joyce and Virginia Woolf that repay years of close attention. But we also need Terry Pratchett. 

MONK: Do we need beauty?

FS: Yes, we do need beauty, which, because it’s in the eye of the beholder, has as many complexions and shades and local forms as there are eyes seeing it. The universal thing about beauty is the experience of it, rather than necessarily what is being found.

 MONK: What do you make of Keats’ saying that beauty is truth?

FS: I make of it that Keats was really, really young. It’s not my experience that the world is that harmonious. Some truths are really ugly and still extremely necessary, and some forms of beauty are really deceptive, and misleading, and flimsy. There are things that are lovely and inconsequential, there are things that are lovely and toxic, and there are things that are absolutely nourishing yet are ugly and hard going.

Emotion is reactive. It’s the weather in the soul.

MONK: So, art doesn’t have to be beautiful?

FS: Absolutely it doesn’t. Art should be interested in everything, including profound states of ugliness and disturbance and distortion. What makes art art is not that it is concerned with ‘beautiful things’ and selects them out of the world. It’s that it is serious in its attention to the whole, so far as we can manage it.

MONK: In the arts today, I guess beauty is not talked about as much as it once was. Instead, high praise today might take the form of calling work disturbing or unsettling. What is that telling us? 

FS: I don’t think that’s a sign of deep spiritual malaise at work. I think that’s a demonstration that every era has its catchphrases. And yes I agree, ‘unsettling’ is a big one at the moment. Transgressive and subversive used to be big, but are slightly losing their hold, I think. If you look at those changing terms, in each case the thing that’s being rewarded is the idea of vision refreshed by paying attention to awkward stuff that doesn’t fit within some imagined truth which is complacent and therefore needs to be unsettled. It’s very comfortable to imagine that you’re afflicting the comfortable. It’s extremely complacent to think you are surrounded by complacency which needs to be administered hard, self-righteous jabs. So, I’m not going to say we ought to have more sense of beauty, because in some ways suspicion of beauty is absolutely justified. Beauty devolves into prettiness very, very easily…

MONK: So, it’s a continual expanding of the canvas of what we see?

FS: I think a lot of this comes under the heading of ‘things where if I think about it I’ll turn out to think ‘this’, but where I’m usually too busy doing stuff to bother to think about it.’ (Proust said that works of art based on theories were like ‘hats which still have price tags on.’) You really can overthink this stuff…

MONK: You’re married to a priest and part of your life is lived in London at Goldsmiths College, which is very much at the forefront of the secular and perhaps the edgy. Do you find it difficult to hold these two things together?

I’m not somebody who feels like a fish out of water in a secular environment… I wouldn’t want to be living in a monastery…

 FS: I don’t find Goldsmiths religiously hostile. Like everything in an ostensibly secular world it is threaded through, on the quiet, with little strands of the presence of other stuff, and in unexpected people. More of my Goldsmiths colleagues than you’d think have a religious life of one kind or another. I have gone off through corridors full of people in the middle of their finals, doing various things which are edgy and subversive and transgressive and unsettling, and all of that, and had an ash cross drawn on my forehead on Ash Wednesday, in a room which is mostly used by Muslim students quietly maintaining an active prayer life, and that’s part of the place as well. In some ways Goldsmiths just seems to me to be like London itself, in its spiritual and earthly complexity. I’m not somebody who feels like a fish out of water in a secular environment. I am fairly marbled through with secularity myself, as well. I wouldn’t want to be living in a monastery.

MONK: So it doesn’t feel uncomfortable straddling those two different worlds?

FS: Every now and again there are bits of mutual incomprehension… but my experience of both my own faith, and my experience of religion, has been very strongly that it adheres to the reality principle, in that it is not involved in getting off into some separate little world where only religious things are talked about, in hushed voices… Holiness is the turning of all the reality you can stand towards the sacred, not a denial of the untidiness of living, and not a reason to stop being curious. People are interesting. The world is plural. Priests are supposed to be tending to that. The ones I know best, like the one I am married to, are in that business.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

MONK: I wonder had you not had that life-changing experience that you talk about in Unapologetic, what kind of novelist might you have become?

FS: I don’t know. OK, that might sound perverse, in that I’ve just written Light Perpetual, which is exploring counterfactuals and flatly asking that kind of question about other people’s lives. I can remember what it was like being an atheist in my 20s and 30s, but I don’t know what it would have been like to go on being atheist in my 30s and 40s and 50s, because I haven’t been one.

MONK: But you really can’t imagine what sort of novels Francis Spufford, atheist and novelist of the 21st century, would be writing?

FS: Well, he’d see the patterns differently, but he’d still be me, so I hope he’d be paying attention to some of the same stuff. And – if I’m allowed to engage in underhand ironies here – Version A of him, the one who’s talking to you and who does have faith, very much hopes that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t have given up on Version B of him, and that his attention would still be being drawn to various forms of redemption. I’d hope that he would still be interested in the unexpected kindnesses, as well as the unexpected cruelties of the world, even if he never applied a single religious label to it. I like to think he would still be paying attention as best he could to the untidy subject matter of the world, and living in it. But the true answer is: I haven’t a clue.

MARCH 2021 Catherine Coldstream MONK

1 thought on “Francis Spufford: The Weather in the Soul

  1. This is a brilliant, thought provoking interview. It makes me not only love Francis Spufford with his profound and beautiful mind, I want to read his books.


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