No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016/80: Golden Hill -- Francis Spufford

It had been his study to fit whatever part of the honeycomb housed him. But here – though it would suit him now... to fall in with the merchants’ preferences, whatever they might be, or at least not to flout them too scornfully – he must study not to fit. He must remain the mercurial, the unreckonable stranger.[loc. 619]

New York, 1746: the mysterious Mr Smith arrives from London, with a bill of exchange for a thousand pounds and a smiling disinclination to reveal anything whatsoever about himself, his purposes, or the purchases he hopes to make.

Smith -- handsome, competent, eloquent and amiable -- is taken up by New York society, and makes a number of friends and acquaintances. He attracts the attention of the Governor; of banker's daughter Tabitha Lovell; of Septimus Oakeshott, who knows more about a recent theft than he admits; of Mrs Terpsichore Tomlinson, a former actress who is now an officer's wife. And meanwhile the sixty days between the bill of exchange being presented and its falling due are ticking past.

In the best traditions of the picaresque novel, Smith finds himself duelling; escaping over the rooftops; wooing a difficult woman; seduced in a bathhouse; gambling for high stakes, feasting, appearing in a play; observing, at every moment, the social mores and institutionalised iniquities of New York life. Golden Hill, indulging these traditions, also plays with their conventions. There are three passages -- a card game, a duel and the bathhouse seduction -- where we're shown the novelist's exasperation at trying to describe their character experiencing something of which they, narrating, have no first-hand knowledge. There are also occasional observations on Smith's naivete and impetuous behaviour: hints, perhaps, that the author of this picaresque has mixed emotions about Mr Richard Smith.

I was, I think, expecting something along the lines of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle: certainly, at least for the first few chapters, Smith is very much concerned with matters of economics, currency and trade. But it gradually became clear that this was an altogether different kind of novel: and though Spufford gives us all the information necessary to contextualise Smith's behaviour, I confess I didn't foresee the denouement. Nor -- because of my ignorance of this period of history -- did I realise just how catastrophic a certain revelation would be.

Golden Hill is clever, witty, compassionate and splendidly written. There are a lot of likeable characters (I think I actually cried at the fate of one of them), and plenty of complex motivations. Smith, in particular, is most interesting when he's at his lowest: his miserable anger at losing his right to chose, his self-flagellation for making the wrong decisions. (" – It will be observed that these realisations were coming rather late," remarks the novelist dryly.) The immediacy of Spufford's descriptions of eighteenth-century New York is breathtaking, and I seldom felt that he was including anything merely for the sake of including it. Delicious.

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