Monday, March 02, 2009

Remembering Edward Upward

There has been a lot of debate on this blog lately about whether or not there is such a thing as a distinctively 'left-wing' form of culture. The life of Edward Upward, the English writer who has just died at the age of 105, suggests that there are no easy answers to this question. Upward studied at the same Cambridge college as Christopher Isherwood, and the two filthy-minded young men invented a violent, bizarrely erotic world called Mortmere, where all the pieties of the Home Counties were mocked. Although the many stories Ishwerwood and Upward wrote about Mortmere remained unpublished for decades, they were read in manuscript by WH Auden, who credited them with inspiring the disturbing portraits of 'England, this country where noone is well' in his poems of the early thirties.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish to merely record how it was in rather bizarre circumstances that my path crossed with that of Edward Upward. The remarkable thing was that the day that I met him 1981 I had just the previous night finished reading the third volume of the dialectical triad 'The Spiral Ascent' so it was rather like finding oneself talking face to face with the main character from the book that you have just finished reading, which was a little surreal, I also met his wife Hilda who is of course a key figure in the novels, which does not try too hard to pretend that the characters are all fictional, it is clear that the three volumes, 'In the Thirties' 'The Rotten Elements' and 'No Home but the Struggle' were all pretty close to auto-biographical.
Anyway I was selling a quire of the Morning Star in Kings Heath high street in Birmingham with a girlfriend and comrade. I was approached by a well spoken elderly man in navy blue corduroy cap, who stood looking at me and said after a while...'I used to do that a lot'...fearing he was a'nutter' or at best a current opponent , I ignored him...He repeated the comment and added "my wife and I used to do that an awful lot you know"...convinced now that he was indeed 'a nutter' of some sort I asked him what he was on about and he started to chuckle..I then realised he was having a bit of sport with me..'selling the Daily Worker of course, you two remind me so much of us at that age'..Well a conversation commenced and I as it happened just happened to mention that I had just finished reading an excellent triad of novels about life in the CPGB in the 30's and 40's which I supposed, he being an elderly former CP member might find of interest. He started to laugh once again and said...'really now what were those books called?' and asked me to tell him more about them. At length I twigged that he knew about them and in a while he revealed that he was the author, this was getting very very bizarre.... He invited us back to his son's house 'for tea and cakes', his son was a lecturer at Birmingham and is since sadly now deceased also . I was charmed by Edward Upward's gentle humour and his wonderful diction and beautifully precise speech. I was also fascinated by his life story and his encyclopedic experience of the literary world. He told a hilarious tale about going to the Woolfs home in Bloomsbury for a meal and to be given his cheque for a contribution he had written for their journal. Virginia instructed hubby to draw up the cheque but Upward recalled, ' it visibly pained him, and his hand shook and his face was agonised as he slowly drew out the cheque, at long last, reluctantly handing it to me before I left for home'...he also recollected his close association with the likes of Auden, and Spender, the latter he was scathing about for his political conversion to the right and his association with a CIA sponsored magazine in his latter years. Christopher Isherwood he spoke of with great warmth though. On another occasion I, forgetting precisiely his age, asked him had he known Burgess or Philby et al..he said ' oh no...I had long left Cambridge before they came up'...a comment which emphasised to me his extraordinary longevity...he was already the senior member of the group consisting of Auden, Spender and Isherwood at that stage and they regarded him as THEIR mentor. I am glad to say, that with the exception of a gap in the 1990's which was my fault, we maintained contact until he moved to Pontefract from his beloved Isle of Wight. He liked greatly the retrospective of his life which I wrote about him in in the Morning Star,which I was particularly pleased succeeded in appearing on his 100th birthday, He joked to me that it felt a little like a sort of 'rehabilitation'. He would talk at length about a wide range of subjects, and never lost the political edge that his grasp of Marxism and Leninism afforded him.He was convinced that the US 'empire' was in terminal decline, drawing parallels in his conversations with me to the fate of the Roman Empire. He had an utter contempt for Tony Blair, who he referred to only as 'Toady Blair'..I thought at first that he had a slight head cold when he said this first , but after the joke was repeated a number of times, I realised it was not just a humorous play on words but a studied insult that he delighted in.
The last thing he asked me to do was to take down a message from him to be written into the memorial book on his behalf at the visitors book at the museum to the International Brigade in Spain, which I did. I was honoured to have met him, I am pleased that I will be able to continue to read his wonderful novels and short stories long after his passing...I am convinced that his stature as a writer will continue to grow long after his death, I also believe that much of the negative criticism of his literature was in fact a literary and critical form of political opposition to his chosen form of creativity, and of course a dismissal and a contemptuous dismissal at that, of any attempt to employ the socialist realist or written documentary form. A dismissal that was primarily political in its motivation, in reaction of course to the profoundly political issues raised by his writings and his aesthetic sensibilities themselves. Whilst he did indeed suffer from writers block, it is wrong to ascribe this to his embracing of Marxism. On the contrary in the conversations I had with him he was always clear that it had been his political commitment which had saved him from the powerlessness which could so easily, he knew, slump into depression.Upward related that, "in those days, even using the word 'capitalism' was enough to damn you, so not much was said. But I carried on my political work in the evenings selling the Daily Worker, and politics was my salvation. I was miserable and couldn't have borne the life of a teacher without it."

2:24 pm  
Blogger stephen said...

"The imagination can't be bound by political prescriptions - it has to have the freedom to wander where it wants. "

The very notion of a wandering imagination smacks of bourgeois individualism. After the revolution, the imagination will only wander for collective benefit.

2:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If your happy Upword lived to be 105 then you should be born again. Adam and Eve's genes were perfect, as they were created perfectly. When they fell, their genes began to break down. As errors began to be passed down from generation to generation we are to the point today where genetically we are “running on fumes.”
Job, who lived after the flood said that their contemporary life spans were a “shadow” of their ancestors. Evolution teaches us that we started from slime and are evolving toward being beings of light. The exact opposite is true. We are falling apart faster than a Chinese motorcycle. In the Old Testamanet Upword would be very very young.

2:54 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

This reminds me of a joke that used to make me giggle when I was a wee tacker. In Italy we have a saying that goes more or less "drink beer and you'll live to be a hundred". When Methuselah heard it, he said "so it's a poison then?".

Oh, give me a break, I was ten years old.

There has been a lot of debate on this blog lately about whether or not there is such a thing as a distinctively 'left-wing' form of culture

Really? And who's the mug who argued otherwise?

3:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the Bible EVERY TIME an angel visited someone the FIRST thing the angel did was to make sure that they were unafraid and then the fear was gone.

According to Muhammad’s story in the Koran, when he was visited by an “angel” he stayed cowering in a cave with fear for days afterward. I have little doubt that Muhammad was visited by an “angel”, but it was an angel of Satan.

3:50 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Onward and upward!

1:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.

~Andre Gide

2:02 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard Taylor in answer to youre question on the other thread, God created the earth 6000 years ago with materials that have existed for billions of years, some of which were part of another planet that had life on it. A dinosaur planet.


3:05 am  
Blogger Nathaniel said...

Oh come on, that isn't even Christian fundamentalism.

8:56 am  

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