The Captive Mind

Edward Upward was one of the only writers of the ’30s to deal with Britain’s elephant in the room—fascism—but his career was forever warped by his communism.

Illustration by Alex Williamson

Early in the 1930s, when he was managing the Hogarth Press for Leonard and Virginia Woolf and preparing the anthology—New Signatures—that would be received as a species of generational manifesto, John Lehmann wrote that he had

heard with the tremor of excitement that an entomologist feels at the news of an unknown butterfly sighted in the depths of the forest, that behind Auden and Spender and Isherwood stood the even more legendary figure of … Edward Upward.

In that reference to the literary-political celebrities of the ’30s, Upward received his due. In a once-famous attempt to get the whole set into one portmanteau term, which was Roy Campbell’s coinage of MacSpaunday to comprehend the names of Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, and Cecil Day-Lewis, Upward was omitted altogether (as was his friend and closest collaborator, Christopher Isherwood). On the eve of Valentine’s Day this year, at the age of 105, the last British author to have been born in the Edwardian epoch died. If Upward is not better known than perhaps he ought to be, it is probably because he helped instill the Communist faith in his more notorious friends, and then not only outlived them and their various apostasies but continued to practice a version of that faith himself. (For purposes of comparison, MacNeice died in 1963, Day-Lewis in 1972, Auden in 1973, Isherwood in 1986, and Spender in 1995, so with Upward’s death, the last link to that era is truly snapped.)

His traces and spoor and fingerprints are to be found all over the work of those whom he so strongly mentored. Auden dedicated “The Exiles”—one of the Odes in The Orators—to Upward, and made him an executor of his will when he set off to take part in the Spanish Civil War. Upward also makes an appearance as a character in Auden’s charade, Paid on Both Sides, published in T. S. Eliot’s Criterion in 1930. In the same year, Auden sent Upward a copy of his Poems and wrote, “I shall never know how much in these poems is filched from you via Christopher.” With Isherwood, who fictionalized him in Lions and Shadows under the name of Allen Chalmers, Upward co-invented the weird dystopia of Mortmere, and co-authored the fantastic gothic tales—surreal medievalism was Upward’s term for the genre—that became grouped under that name. Isherwood dedicated All the Conspirators to him. Spender, in his 1935 study, The Destructive Element, presented Upward as an English Kafka. In 1938, the Hogarth Press published Upward’s novel Journey to the Border, which was thought of by many as the only English effort at Marxist fiction that was likely to outlast the era in which it was written. And then … silence. There was some rumor of a “nervous breakdown.” Nothing was heard from Upward until the early 1960s, when he abruptly produced a trilogy of didactic and autobiographical novels, each illustrating in different ways what a commitment to a Communist life could do to an aspiring author. (When I read them, I was put in mind of something Doris Lessing once said to me about the Communist Party’s “Writers’ Group,” of which she had once been a member: everybody liked to talk about the “problems” of being a writer, and most of the “problems” came from being in the Communist Party in the first place.)

A decade or so ago, becoming aware that Upward was still alive and still writing—and bethinking myself that if I wanted to interview this soon-to-be centenarian and last survivor of his generation, I had better hurry up—I made a voyage to the Isle of Wight, that little diamond-shaped island off the southern coast of England that helps form the natural harbors of Portsmouth and Southampton. In this almost parodic picture-postcard miniature of deep England, Upward had chosen to literally “isolate” himself. The Isle of Wight is where Tennyson came to write Crossing the Bar. It is where Queen Victoria kept her favorite home, Osborne House, and it is where she died in 1901, two years before Upward was born.

In a vicarage-style house not far from the railway station in the small town of Sandown, Upward received me and led me to a side room. He explained without loss of time that the main rooms of the little home were out of bounds because his wife, Hilda, was in the process of dying there. “I shall miss Hilda,” he said with the brisk matter-of-factness of the materialist, “but I have promised her that I shall go on writing.” Attired in gray flannel trousers, a corduroy jacket, and a V-neck jersey, he reminded me of something so obvious that I didn’t immediately recognize it. On a table lay the Morning Star, the daily newspaper of the Stalinist rump organization that survived the British Communist Party’s decision to dissolve itself after the implosion of the Soviet Union. It is entirely possible that Upward was the paper’s sole subscriber on this islet of thatched cottages and stained glass and theme-park rural Englishness. Seeing me notice the old rag, he said, rather defensively, “Yes I still take it, though there doesn’t seem much hope these days.” When I asked him if there was anyone on the left he still admired, he cited Arthur Scargill, the coal miners’ thuggish leader, who was known to connoisseurs as the most ouvriériste and sectarian and demagogic of the anti-Blair forces in the Labour movement. Yet to this alarming opinion he appended the shy and disarming news that the last review he had had in the Morning Star had been a good one, precisely because it stressed that not all his work was strictly political. “It particularly mentioned my story ‘The White-Pinafored Black Cat.’” I inquired if he was working on a story at that moment. “Yes I am.” “And may one know the title?” “It’s to be called ‘The World Revolution.’” At this point and in this context, I began to find the word surreal recurring to my mind.

As so often, this feeling was prompted by a banal detail. Upward, in his flannels and corduroy and jersey, looked exactly like what he was: a retired schoolteacher. And yet, of all the figures detested by his set in the ’30s, the schoolmaster was perhaps the most reviled. Auden in particular wrote that he understood fascism because he had experienced an English public school, and in his letters home from Hitler’s Germany he described the place as being run “by a mixture of gangsters and the sort of school prefect who is good at [Cadet] Corps.” But Upward had volunteered for a lifetime of schoolmastering, and of activism in the teachers union. It was as if he had determined to turn away from the magic realism of Mortmere, and concentrate on the quotidian. Confirming this, and sounding very much the schoolteacher, he said to me, “Writing is not a pleasure. It’s a discipline.”

The beauty of Mortmere as a name is its evocation both of dead and stagnant water and of a slightly macabre name for a bucolic setting. (That it also evokes “dead mother” did not occur to me until I read Katherine Bucknell’s brilliant introduction to the most recent edition.) The Mortmere stories are fascinating because they take the classic English village and people it with psychopaths, revealed in titles like “The Leviathan of the Urinals.” The vicar is a sicko. The choirboy is far from innocent. And as for the squire in the moated country house, or the headmaster … It seems to me that Upward took a conscious decision to rid himself of this hedonism and to become a fiction writer with a mission. In his contribution to Cecil Day-Lewis’s anthology The Mind in Chains, published in 1937, he wrote sternly:

A modern fantasy cannot tell the truth, cannot give a picture of life which will survive the test of experience; since fantasy implies in practice a retreat from the real world into the world of imagination.

This repudiation is expressed with equal severity in the trilogy of novels on which Upward worked after he dropped from view, before the Second World War. Collectively titled The Spiral Ascent, and individually titled In the Thirties, The Rotten Elements, and No Home but the Struggle, the novels tell of the distraught life of a Communist schoolteacher named Alan Sebrill, who discovers to his horror that the Communist Party has become insufficiently revolutionary. To give you an idea of how far away we are from the playfulness of Mortmere, the bleak, admonitory subtitle of the second volume is A Novel of Fact.

But Alan Sebrill has a secret. In addition to being a good Communist, he desires to be a good poet. (Upward had won a prize for poetry while at Cambridge University, but when Auden advised him to give up, he did so without demur.) There is even a desperate hope that Sebrill can fuse the two ambitions. Of the party, he tells himself:

It was the enemy of his enemies: it aimed at the overthrow of a society which was dominated by poshocrats and public school snobs and which had no use for the living poets. It demanded that its converts should believe not in the supernatural nor in anti-scientific myths but in man. If he joined the Communist Party he might be able to write poetry again. [Emphasis mine.]

Yes, well of course you know what’s going to happen, but Sebrill doesn’t, and I am not even sure that Upward did. In his memorial poem for Yeats, Auden famously wrote, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” In the world created by Upward for Sebrill, nothing makes poetry happen. And so fantasy keeps on breaking in again, in an unintended way, as the wretched protagonist suffers from hallucinations, nightmares, paranoia, thoughts of suicide, and despair. If Upward had himself hoped to be Maxim Gorky, he ended up vindicating Spender’s comparison of him to Kafka.

In one respect of “realism,” though, Upward deserves great praise. It is a deplorable fact that the English literature of the 1930s contains scarcely a mention of the phenomenon of fascism. Anthony Powell’s long excursion through the upper crust doesn’t turn up a single Blackshirt (something of a shortcoming in point of verisimilitude, as he might have phrased it). Evelyn Waugh avoids the subject. Graham Greene’s fascists are not English. But for Upward, especially in his first volume of The Spiral Ascent, the miasma of fascism is in the very air that his characters breathe, and a direct clash with the Blackshirts conveys the intense and local reality that this force sometimes possessed in Britain. Upward at least faced what many shied away from.

I am not sure that this will excuse the langue de bois in which Sebrill’s crisis of Communism is set down. I collect the dates and occasions on which various writers and intellectuals decided to “break” with “the Party,” and these range from the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 to the suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. There are some specialized ones as well, such as Eric Hobsbawm’s decision not to renew his party card after 1989. In these annals, Upward stands alone for resigning his membership in 1948, on the grounds that the British Communists were insufficiently Stalinist! It makes him quite a collector’s item. The experience was evidently a shock to his system, as it was to that of his main character:

He found he could stop his trembling by thinking of Stalin and by speaking the name of Stalin, repeatedly but not quite aloud, much as a religious believer might have called on the name of God. Yet though this was an effective method of suppressing the physical symptoms of his anxiety it did not help him in the least with his writing.

Understandably. Upward may have been many things, but he was never an ironist.

Our conversation on politics was likewise arid, but things invariably improved when he discussed his relations with his departed comrades. He had, for instance, recently had a visit from Isherwood’s longtime lover, Don Bachardy (“Yes, I keep in touch with Don”), and at first I had difficulty picturing a friendship between this austere provincial Englishman and a gay Bohemian painter in Santa Monica. But then, Upward had been the first to spot Isherwood’s quirky genius (“even though I didn’t know or realize that he was homosexual”). With the others, the contacts (and eventual reconciliations) were conducted through the medium of … fantasy. In a strange little story called “An Unmentionable Man,” Upward’s rather self-pitying character encounters a former associate who is obviously Stephen Spender, and at first treats him with great bitterness:

I may not have read every article you’ve written or television talk you’ve given about the ’thirties, but I have read and heard more than a few, and there wasn’t one of them that didn’t completely ignore me.

Yet after a few sharp exchanges with “this copiously white-haired broad-shouldered ruddy-faced man,” he abruptly comes to view him as “someone he must not die unfriendly with.” Upward’s accommodation with Auden was, alas, posthumous: he could never forgive him for having called the ’30s “a low, dishonest decade,” but carried on a conversation with him in his head, and eventually conceded,

I ought to have recognized that my indignation was less against the injuriousness of his opinions than against him for holding them. I could not dissociate him from himself as the young poet who for me and for other poets of his generation had been the only potential giant among us.

Our knowledge of the literary and ideological generation of the ’30s is radically incomplete without some awareness of its founding father, or perhaps better say founding brother.