Remembering Edward Upward
By the time he had won a cult folowing as a homegrown surrealist, Upward had come into the orbit of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which had by the mid-thirties embraced a set of moderate 'Popular Front' policies and begun to sell itself to intellectuals as a supporter of the arts and the guardian of the best parts of Britain's cultural heritage in an era of philistine capitalism and nihilistic fascism. Many of the intellectuals who were drawn towards the party's pose as a defender of civilisation against barbarism were fairly quickly disillusioned, but Upward was soon far more than a 'fellow traveller'. In his 1937 essay 'Sketch for a Marxist Interpretation of Literature', the young communist advocated the strict subordination of art to politics: only by serving the party and the proletariat could the writer prosper.
Upward himself published nothing literary between 1938 and 1962, when the first volume of his autobiographical trilogy of novels The Spiral Ascent appeared. He appears to have stopped writing altogether in the forties, when he frequently felt uncomfortable with the direction in which the Communist Party was moving. In 1948 Upward and his wife Hilda left the party, after accusing it of abandoning Leninism. The Upwards were unhappy that the party had renounced the notion of seizing power by force. The Spiral Ascent was followed by a trickle of short stories in the eighties, nineties, and noughties, and by the time he turned one hundred in 2003 Upward was being hailed as 'Britain's oldest living writer'.
As someone who admires writers who are unable to toe party lines, I'm honoured to find that the obituary for Upward in the present-day Communist Party of Great Britain's paper includes a lengthy criticism of me. The Weekly Worker's Lawrence Parker doesn't agree with some remarks I made in a review of The Rotten Elements, a literary grouping inside today's Communist Party which takes its name from the second instalment in The Spiral Ascent trilogy. In my review, which appeared on this blog and in the 36th issue of the literary journal brief, I contrasted the dour realism of The Spiral Ascent with the wild and weird Mortmere stories, and suggested that the two styles are brought together in an effective way in Upward's late work. Parker thinks I have missed a strong undercurrent of surrealism in The Spiral Ascent:
Hamilton (who should really know better) has, I think, been misled by a very traditional ‘leftist’ mistake. A surface of politics has been perceived, and as this surface is unattractive to the interlocutor, there is then the attempt to read from this a set of aesthetic judgements. What, after all, could be worse than “page after page of explanation of the minutiae of Communist Party politics”. And, in reality, the book is full of terse confrontations between revolutionaries and CPGB leaders, and rank and filers who want to defend the party’s reformism.
The point that struck me first on reading this is that Hamilton had read a different book. Where in all this is the developing paranoia and claustrophobia, the nightmare world of the CPGB bureaucracy and the struggle for an aesthetic relevant to a party that can only think in terms of deadening abstractions? By my judgement, The rotten elements is possibly the weirdest (and most remarkable) political novel ever produced...
Upward’s poetic imagination, seen through the eyes of his semi-fictionalised self, Alan Sebrill, constantly threatens to overturn the lead character’s Zhdanovite denial of an aesthetic in the cause of writing a political poem for the CPGB. Thus, in the first chapter, which begins after a CPGB branch discussion on Lenin’s State and revolution, there is an intensification of the narrator’s intimate perceptions of the view from his back garden, which he eventually sees as a “huge illuminated stage on which episodes from the days when his imagination had been creatively awake were about to be re-enacted”...The rotten elements is thus the heir of Mortmere and the interpreter ignores this at his or her peril.
Whereas I prefer the stories of Upward's last decades, Parker thinks that The Spiral Ascent is the apex of his achievement. But I enjoy some of the very qualities that Parker dislikes in the late stories - the slightly awkward way realism and fantasy are mixed, the unconvincing nature of some of the author's attempts at political self-justification, and Upward's bouts of wish-fulfilment (in one story the narrator escapes from a home for the aged and infirm, and after a series of lucky accidents takes up with a nubile young woman who suffers from gerontophilia). For me, a large part of the appeal of Upward's late work comes from the failure or refusal of the author to integrate his imagination and his political sympathies.
Perhaps the lesson of Edward Upward's long life is that there is a danger in trying to turn aesthetics into a political programme with the sort of dogmatic statements that mar 'Sketch for a Marxist Interpretation of Literature'. Art, by its very nature, is always opposed to such dogmas. The imagination can't be bound by political prescriptions - it has to have the freedom to wander where it wants. The artist should be like Shakespeare's clown - an odd man (or woman) out, not a follower.