21 October 2017

‘A Batmobile when the market demanded a bus’: Francis Spufford in the London Review of Books

Posted by the Bookshop

EVENT: London Review of Books contributor Francis Spufford will be at the Bookshop on Wednesday 25 October to discuss his new book True Stories and Other Essays with London Review of Books editor Daniel Soar. Book tickets now.

Francis Spufford has a long history with the LRB. As well as being reviewed himself in its pages (by Jenny Diski, Thomas Jones and Christopher Tayler, amongst others), he has contributed many pieces to the magazine, on topics ranging from the Inuit to Concorde. Here’s a selection of just three of his pieces worth discovering.

The insufficient wonderfulness of things as they are

Spufford explores poet Tom Lowenstein’s fascination with the Inuit of Point Hope, considering along the way the thorny question of cultural appropriation:

It isn’t clear that Western poetics provide the appropriate ground on which to reconcile this necessary diversity of voices. In particular there looms the danger of a Modernist appropriation of a remote culture, of the kind which tells you far more about a literary programme than about the faraway object of scrutiny. Pound pounced on ideograms and Charles Olson seized Mayan glyphs as wished-for evidences of concrete, unalienated writing: language apparently conducted so that the sign itself for flint was rocky, and comb sprouted visual teeth. Both men can be counted as ancestral influences in Lowenstein’s own poetry.​

Synoptic intensity

Reviewing A.S. Byatt’s short story collection Sugar, Spufford sets out to elucidate the novelist’s modus operandi of emotional and visual extremity:

With monumental clarity Byatt takes her readers to places in the soul they had not imagined could be so well-lit for their observation. If at times one cannot believe, quite, in the normality of her characters, their disease is that useful ailment, a disease of lucidity. Other writers may give us a madness, or a wedding-night, or the reading of a poem, but only Byatt consistently delivers intellectual madnesses, love-making as reflective as it is tumultuous, poems considered with painful experience and the whole resources of a mind.

Love that Bird

Finally, Spufford has long been noted for his ability to bring to life the real excitement of technology and innovation, and his 2002 survey of Concorde’s history somehow succeeds in making the details of governmental negotiations fascinating:

It was becoming painfully clear that Concorde had been a brilliant exercise in providing an unneeded product. Concorde was redundant to exactly the degree that it was superlative. It was a Batmobile when the market demanded a bus.

True Stories and Other Essays’ is published by Yale University Press, price £20. Francis Spufford will be in conversation with Daniel Soar on Wednesday 25 October. Book tickets here.