Francis Spufford's True Stories and Other Essays: an eloquent defence of God
The God Delusion, he avers, ‘is one of those rare books with the power to make those who read it stupider’
Francis Spufford. Photograph: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images
True Stories and Other Essays
Francis Spufford’s first novel The Golden Hill, set in 18th-century New York, was awarded the Costa First Novel prize last year. Spufford, born in 1964, previously published books on polar exploration and on Soviet Russia, among other enthralling topics. But he is best known for his stance on religion: he is a fervent defender of Christianity and theism, known for his debates with contemporary atheists Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
This selection of 37 essays, talks and book reviews was written between the early 1990s and the present. It’s divided thematically into five sections – Cold, Red, Sacred, Technical and Printed – in addition to an introduction entitled True Stories. So quite a mixture. The introduction, written in the enthusiastic, rather quixotic style that is Spufford’s hallmark, pinpoints one of the main themes, running through the book like a little stream, and roaring like a waterfall in the section on religion. That is the distinction between fact and fiction, between truth and fact, and the importance of imagination versus evidence.
“‘The imagination,” said Coleridge, ‘is the power to disimprison the soul of fact.’ Except he didn’t. Say it ... it’s such a tempting idea, especially if you yourself work by choice in the kinds of writing that cross backwards and forwards between what’s factual and what’s not.”
My favourite section is Cold, in which he writes about the Arctic and Antarctic. There are some lovely poetic reflections on snow and ice, but the substantial pieces, especially Worst Journey and Borealism, represent him at his impressive best. Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book, The Worst Journey in the World, which chronicles Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1910-13, triggered Spufford’s interest in polar exploration – and led him to read widely in the extraordinary literature in this field, and to visit Antarctica and Greenland. Worst Journey makes you want to rush out and read Cherry-Garrard’s book.
“It is written in an idiosyncratic homemade prose which somehow conveys the emotional pull of its age’s grand talk about heroism without itself being captured by any of the heroic poses. It is not grand; it does not strut or mythologise.” (Scott’s widow didn’t like it.)
Borealism, focusing on the north, is also thrilling. In this, Spufford discusses the experience of Allen Counter, an American neurophysiologist who heard a rumour that Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, who reached the North Pole in 1909, had fathered children in Greenland. Curious, Dr Counter visited the country, and met two men who were the sons of Peary and Henson. This was in the 1980s. Matthew Henson was black (as is Counter). Spufford follows the account of the “discovery” with reflections on racism – Henson was more or less written out of the historical narrative – and what the idea of the Arctic meant: exploration was motivated by the scientific desire to discover and map, so characteristic of the late 19th century, but Spufford convinces that there was more to it than that. These icy deserts were like the unconscious, or like blank white paper on which to write ones ideas about heroism, nature and humanity.
Men and their ideas
There is, however, a blind spot in this particular essay about the relationship of black men and white, explorer and explored. No women. Who were the mothers of the sons of Peary and Henson? Neither their sons, or Counter or Spufford appear to have given them a moment’s thought. (How did they feel about bearing the children of American explorers who dropped by on their way to the North Pole, as it were, and then vanished?)
Indeed the book in general is about men and their ideas, although Spufford does mention that his wife is a very clever Anglican minister. This complimentary reference is in Sacred, the section dealing with religion. Essays such as Contra Dawkins, Unapologetically Yours are cogently argued, and will be of interest many readers.
“I’m used to being one of the very few Christians in the room,” is the opening of Contra Dawkins, in which Spufford maintains that Dawkins’s The God Delusion “has been profoundly destructive. It is one of those rare books with the power to make those who read it stupider.”
Clearly there is much food for thought and debate, especially in the Sacred section. And there is so much else to savour. The articles on Russia are wonderful, as are the insights into literature and the art of the writer. In what is an unusual, courteously provocative, collection we get to know a person who is exceptionally thoughtful, well-read, cheerful and imaginative. A unique mind: excellent company by the fireside on a winter’s night.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest book is Selected Stories (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017)