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Interview with Francis Spufford: Eternity in a second

by
26 February 2021

Francis Spufford talks to Rachel Mann and answers readers’ questions about eternity, doubt, and his new novel, Light Perpetual

Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto

Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford: The origin point of this novel, Light Perpetual, was the endlessly repeated experience of walking to my teaching job at Goldsmiths College, in south London, past a very ordinary-looking, 1950s-brick, branch of Iceland, which has got an extremely small, discreet plaque on it — mostly hidden by a CCTV camera — which memorialises the 168 people killed when a V2 German rocket fell on to a branch of Woolworths that was standing on that corner in November 1944. Single largest loss of life in this country from a V2 and — characteristic of the way that London folds its history away in plain sight — an enormous tragedy, which is now part of the ordinary fabric of a south-London shopping street.

And I’ve been particularly haunted by the thought of the 15 children under 11 who were among the dead because it was a Saturday lunchtime, and there had just been the first delivery of new saucepans in years, and a great many mothers took their under school-aged children along to try and get hold of a pan.

And they died in a tiny fraction of a second and did not get to live to see the rest of the 20th century in London and the extraordinary changes that the city has been through since then.

So, I wanted to write a book which did several things at the same time, which performed a kind of ambiguous literary resurrection, just by waving the hand of fiction over it. Not over those literal children’s lives, because those are real people whose families are still around still being remembered, in some cases still mourned.

But I also wanted to do something more complicated involving the relationship of time to eternity. I wanted to write about a piece of time. You could see this as the background of death time is happening against, but, if you are a person of faith, then what time goes with is eternity.

As Blake said, eternity is in love with the productions of time, and what we see — passing, mortal, precious, brief — is something that God values because it is those things. I think of C. S. Lewis saying that God approves of matter: he invented it.

And the same thing applies to time. And without committing the terrible and creatively impossible blasphemy of trying to see the world from a God’s-eye view — there is no such thing except for God — I wanted to do something a little strange that took us half a step out of our ordinary experience of time, reminded us of how of how odd time is, when we come to think of it.

As St Augustine said, “I know exactly what time is, until anyone asks me.” I wanted the strange fabric of time in which we live to become apparent, palpable, in a piece of fiction.

And I wanted to pitch the fiction in between death and resurrection, so that it can end on a note which, if you are a person of faith, is the sound of eternity consummating its love for the productions of time, and, if you aren’t a person of faith, is just a kind of elegy for mortal us — for what Philip Larkin, a great fearer of death and sometimes its celebrator of life, called the million-petaled flower of being here.

The trouble is that all of this sounds extremely grand, and the lives in question are five working-class lives in south London during a time of enormous social mobility and sudden cultural change. I didn’t want to do something in which the architecture of the book made it seem as if the lives in question had to be exceptional ones, because the whole point about eternity is it’s the backing for all of time.

The whole point about the City of God is that every human city is a suburb of it. Every south-London borough — probably not the imaginary ones! — is an outlying suburb of the City of God.

So it’s not that I wanted remarkable and exceptional lives — except that all lives are remarkable and exceptional if you look at them close up. I wanted lives that lay bare the range of ordinary human experience and its richness and its pity and its terror and its humour, and then carry us in the end towards something — towards death, since we’re mortal creatures, but possibly towards life, as well.

 

Rachel Mann: There is a kind of generous, gracious “Praise him” that you offer at the end of the novel. And it seems that so often, certainly in church settings, praises get so constricted and constrained. What is it about the possibility of the novel — what is it about you — that just wants to shatter that?

FS: I think, if there’s a carry-over from what I was doing in Unapologetic a few years ago into what I’m doing in fiction, it’s a sense that there’s a kind of really serious category mistake in thinking that praise should be confined to some kind of narrow little domain of dignified and churchy emotions.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that gets made within churches that much, but it’s a mistake that’s frequently made from outside, looking in. It assumes that we are kind of the brigade of niceness and politeness, and that the prettiness of churches suggests that we’re only open to some narrow and polite and decorated band of human experience — whereas, actually, the impulse to praise — just look at the bloody Psalms! — is rooted in an enormously wide and rich and sometimes terrible width of human experience.

It’s polite, among other things, but it’s not polite in total. On the contrary, praise is even more unruly than my beard at present.

The impulse to praise springs out of the worst and the best and the boring- Wednesday-mornings-in-between of human experience — and that seems to me that something fiction can get to.

 

The way in which the story is framed, you offer five fictional members of that cohort of death an afterlife. Is that the most we can offer in terms of afterlife? Is it for novelists to provide them? Is this the best of religion, actually?

All that fiction can do — but it’s quite a lot — is to provide some sort of imaginative purchase on what we hope that the Holy Spirit can do. There’s a limit to what I can do; I’m making things up, here.

But one hopes there’s not a limit to what to what the Holy Spirit can do. I can reflect what I hope is a faint, remote, partial glimpse of a kind of rose window of divine action, which is going on with far more resources than me making stuff up.

 

A reader, Alison, says your opening dissects time down to tiny segments; the lists slow down the experience of reading. What books do you devour quickly, slowly? How should we read? And dare I ask you to just say a little bit about what is, for me, one of the most bravura openings of a novel I’ve ever read?

The opening happens in extreme slow motion as a way of getting into the strangeness of time and the strangeness of a real physical event that happens so quickly that it’s completely below the threshold of human perception and yet is decisive because it kills these people.

It’s a piece of real cause and effect happening off the scale at which human beings can perceive time, which struck me as both something that the microscopic powers of fiction to slow time could get us a little bit inside and something which could show us, in a way, how limited and arbitrary the window through which we ordinarily see time is.

Our music, as human beings, only make sense because we operate at a certain number of beats per minute. Were we oak trees, our songs would last for hours, just to get the rhythm going. Were we mayflies, they’d be over in an instant.

But time exists on all its scales, and an extreme clinical slowness seemed to me to be a way to start the strangeness of a V2 missile appearing among the knitting patterns and saucepans of a branch of Woolworths, because in order for the thing to go off, there had to be a moment when the shoppers were standing here, and the missile was appearing over there, having come through the ceiling sharp point first.

And that’s a real instant, only a 10,000th of a second long, but it really happened. And, under something like the eye of eternity, that kind of moment is held as firmly as time on the scale we’re used to seeing it at.

The rest of the novel runs at something more like human time, except that it jumps onwards in 15-year intervals, because I wanted to get the long rhythms of life as well as the extremely short ones. And I wanted to keep reminding us of scale by jumping between scales.

I wanted to have multiple paces in it. Hugely overlaid, different kinds of rhythm, which with any luck, add up to something coherent. In terms of reading, I also like books that go at wildly, wildly different speeds, and I’m married to somebody who is a genuinely very fast reader and likes Victorian novels because they will last her a whole day.

Middlemarch does not last me a whole day: it lasts me a whole week. But I love the kind of the kind of book where I can read 20 pages and then my brain is full. I’ve just read the newest Marilynne Robinson, Jack, 20 pages a day, and my mind was completely full and even straining slightly by the time I got to the 20th of the daily pages.

At the same time, I also love books that go down so fast that they scarcely touch the sides.

 

Should the Church get more comfortable with giving people space to explore and doubt?

Yes; but let me enlarge slightly on the on the “yes” there, because how the Church gives space to people with doubt seems to me to be very important. Not a priest, not in charge of anything, thankfully. But this allows me to make irresponsible suggestions.

Many of the ways in which the Church of England has tried to build a bridge for doubt has had the unwanted effect of making everything look less certain, less plausible, and less inviting.

There’s no point in meeting doubt halfway by generating doubt about your own creed. The doubtful thing is not what Christianity has got in it, over there; the doubt is about whether individuals can assent to it, and whether it makes sense to them.

But I think you respect doubt and make a place for it by offering something firmly and poetically provoking — and then by not hassling people about it.

You offer them a piece of liturgy, which is rich and deep and has room in it for whatever people bring to it. You offer them a welcome, which is warm, but not bullying. You say: we’re over here, and you can take all the time you need to discover whether you want to come towards us or not. But you don’t have to perform doubt to doubting people, I think.

 

The novel begins in a great explosion. Diana asks: do you see God as a great explosion of words?

Well, I would do, wouldn’t I, given the linguistic bias of my job? But, whether that says anything decisive about God, any more than musicians would tend to see God as great explosions of powerful music, or scientists would tend to see God in the kind of the extraordinary intricacy of physical law, or mathematicians would see God in pure pattern, or people whose job is setting crossword puzzles would see God as the answer to the ultimate cryptic clue.

The power of language is also to do with its range and its fidelity to the range of things language can show. You can have explosions of powerful language, which are about paying your taxes. It’s very difficult, but David Foster Wallace showed it could be done in his last, never completed novel, because the Internal Revenue Service of the United States was quite a large challenge, even for him; but, language is a lens and the things that it shows feed power through it.

From working with language, the texture of it is immensely fiddly and quite resistant. Attention to its tiny words, and the minute adjustments that get you nearer, but not quite all the way, to where you can kind of see that you’re going to get are part of respect to the medium, and the power of it lies in the fact that it won’t quite do what we tell it to.

It can be loved into shape, but it’s never a perfect shape, and never just the shape that our will wants to give to it, because language is shared between all the mouths that use it. It doesn’t ever just belong to the person who, that minute, is trying to operate it.

 

Here’s one more question from a reader, from Simon: How do we share Christian hope and resurrection faith today? What does heaven mean? And what does it look like for you?

Well, as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents, I think. With as much wiliness as we can come up with in the means, but as scrupulously as we can with the wiliness. By behaving as if we really think its true, which means the implications of it in the way we practise our professions and arts, as well.

I tend to say I’m not a Christian writer: I’m a writer who happens to be a Christian; but that’s too simple, because, if you’re a Christian, then your fundamental and underlying shape of what the world is like necessarily comes into your writing, but it doesn’t have to be an active preaching process. It can also be a witnessing fidelity to what things look like and to the reality of other people.

As to what heaven looks like to me . . . I think there’s a lot of light in it. But as ever, I’m aware that it’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine eternity within time. I don’t know what the city that needs no sun and moon because it has the Lamb is like.

I can see what it’s like to imagine through words, but its not words we’re talking about there; and “a blaze of light” is the best I can do. I would hope that there are joyful meetings there as well, but who knows what we’re like in the light of eternity?

 

This is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place as part of the Festival of Faith and Literature last Saturday. Listen to the full conversation on the podcast.

Forthcoming Events

13-14 September 2021
Festival of Preaching
Speakers include Barbara Brown Taylor, Alister McGrath, and Sam Wells.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

More events

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