Review – Edward Upward: Art and Life

Andrew Stone reviews a recent biography of the left-wing writer Edward Upward,  Edward Upward: Art and Life by Peter Stansky

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Edward Upward was one of the less-feted members of the ‘Auden Circle’, a generation of politically engaged writers of the left during the 1930s. Of its leading members, Auden was to move decisively to the right, while others such as Upward’s close friend Christopher Isherwood were oppositional largely by temperament and lifestyle (he may have pre-dated the motto that ‘the personal is political’, but he perceived his homosexuality in these terms). Stephen Spender reported for the Daily Worker during the Spanish Civil War, but became disillusioned after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, contributing to an influential set of essays by ex-Communists called ‘The God That Failed’ before founding a literary magazine (Encounter) that he belatedly discovered was covertly funded by the CIA and MI6.   

Upward, who joined the Communist Party (CP) in 1932, was arguably the most committed and consistent in his politics. He was an active, though low-profile, member until an internal dispute over the party’s line in 1948 led to his resignation. Thereafter he still considered himself a ‘fellow-traveller’, but increasingly identified that the CP had moved decisively away from its Marxist origins. (Stalin’s anti-Semitic paranoia about a ‘doctor’s plot’ and his successor Khrushschev’s subsequent ‘secret speech’ about his crimes were two key milestones in this realisation.) He became active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and was friendly with the anti-Stalinist left, for example offering Socialist Worker an obituary of Auden (which was turned down).

Upward’s remarkably long life (he was 105 when he died in 2009) is thoroughly researched in this engaging and professional biography. Stansky has made effective use of Upward’s extensive personal diaries, as well as surveying a range of published reviews and the accounts of his contemporaries (for example in Isherwood’s autobiography ‘Lions and Shadows’). Most of Upward’s work is thinly-disguised autobiography, providing ample material to dissect a talented writer beset by anxiety and self-doubt.

Upward initially honed his skills at Cambridge University, sharing with Isherwood surrealist stories set in a macabre village called Mortmere. Upward, the son of a doctor, was no proletarian, having attended private boarding school, but the stories targeted the pretensions of their ‘poshocrat’ peers. This theme would flower into a commitment to fight unemployment and fascism, as documented by his alter-ego Alan Sebrill in the trilogy The Spiral Ascent.

While Upward / Sebrill initially finds this vocation inspirational, the trilogy recounts how quickly this turns into frustration as he tries to combine ‘the poetic life’ of being a good writer with the time and stylistic restraints of his commitment to the CP. Upward felt that he had to relinquish the fantastical elements of his early work, and write in a pared-down style accessible to the average worker. This was a key tenet of the Stalinist dogma of ‘socialist realism’, which Upward wrote a defence of in his 1937 essay ‘Sketch for a Marxist Interpretation of Literature’. Although recognising that the quality of past literature was not reducible to its writer’s political approach, this asserted that  ‘no book written at the present time can be “good” unless it is written from a Marxist or near-Marxist viewpoint.’ Upward later regretted this simplistic formulation, but the style of The Spiral Ascent remains constrained by the desire to write plainly. He only begins to flex his descriptive muscles in the final instalment, No Home But the Struggle (1977), with some evocative nostalgia of his early life, and more so in subsequent  short stories.

Given its self-imposed limitations as literature, what can modern readers find of interest in Upward’s work? Both Journey to the Border (1938) and the first volume of the The Spiral Ascent trilogy, In The Thirties (1962), attest to the period of  crisis and polarisation in the run up to the Second World War through an individual’s perspective. The internal struggle of Upward as a tutor and teacher respectively is also engaging. Teachers today thankfully do not have the option of corporal punishment, which Sebrill is expected to use, but we do have to work within a system that is very far from the liberatory education that many of us would like, and Sebrill’s agonising about how to maintain classroom discipline will be recognisable to many.

The Rotten Elements (1969), the second instalment of The Sprial Ascent, explores Upward’s break with the CP over its post war ‘revisionist’ line of support for Labour. This was dictated by Stalinist real politik, that saw revolution in the West as a danger to the Cold War balance of power. In the book Sebrill begins by identifying the departure with Leninist theory. He then tries, with his wife, Elsie, to question the basis of the policy, but they are met with hostility from the party leadership. Perhaps most interesting though are the pen portraits of the ordinary party members, and the psychology of self-denial and delusion that they – and Sebrill – exhibit, in the name of party loyalty. The novel is also notable for the time for the prominent role given to Elsie (Upward’s wife, Hilda), who comes across as a more decisive and articulate activist than Sebrill.

The conclusion of the trilogy, No Home But the Struggle (1977) was intended as the synthesis of the conflict between politics and art played out in the preceding two volumes. Sebrill, now writing in the first person, reviews his early life to inspire his writing in the present (the 1960s), while internally debating his involvement in CND. It gives an insight into the rarified and sometimes brutal world of private boarding schools, and reflections on how to maintain political commitment when you have ‘lost your faith’ in a party.

Upward was very sensitive about his place in the literary canon, and  sometimes considered himself ‘an umentionable man’ (as one of his pieces was called) due to his political commitment. In fact by the end of his life publication of several sets of short stories, including The Mortmere Stories with Christopher Isherwood, had gained him greater recognition. Stansky’s biography is a thoughtful engagement with an artist who struggled with his own internal contradictions while seeking to resolve the wider contradictions of class society.

A range of Upward’s work, including the Spiral Ascent trilogy and ‘Sketch for a Marxist Interpretation of Literature’, is available free online at www.edwardupward.info

There are 7 comments

  1. lives; running

    Would heartily recommend the 1969 collection The Railway Accident which is the best intro to Upward as a writer: compelling, visual with a surreal undertone. The Spiral Ascent is valuable for historians of the CP, but there’s a verve to Upward’s writing in the 1930s which he lost in the experience of defeat

  2. johngeoffreywalker

    “The [Rotten Elements] is also notable for the time for the prominent role given to Elsie (Upward’s wife, Hilda), who comes across as a more decisive and articulate activist than Sebrill.”

    Actually, in “In the Thirties”, Elsie is a member of the CP before Sebrill joins and is treated there as perhaps a more seriously committed member. Certainly Sebrill thinks that. he’s intimidated by her at first.

    Incidentally, the picture Upward paints of the CP branch that Sebrill joins – the variety of members and experience – was exactly what I found in my first SWP branch, back in the late 1970s. It’s an excellent picture of a revolutionary party before the hacks take over.

  3. Andy G

    I stumbled across Upward via my Dad, who was also a member of the CP, albeit much later on that Upward! I found the accounts of the CP in the thirties and forties fascinating, especially the section in In the Thirties where a Trotskyist within the CP is expelled. The sections of the second book dealing with the Sebrills’ fight against “revisionism” in the CP is great too, although it is hard not to be aware that they are criticising Stalinism from within, as it were

  4. ihbirchall

    I was fascinated by the reference to Socialist Worker rejecting Upward’s obituary of Auden. Auden died in September 1973. Roger Protz was still editor of SW – but aware that Cliff was thinking about how to remove him. Jim Higgins had just been sacked as National Secretary and had been transferred to work on SW. I have a very vague recollection that Upward had had some previous contect with IS, and that Higgins had been very hostile, believing him to be an unreformed Stalinist. So it might be that Higgins advised Protz to reject Upward’s approach, or that Protz didn’t want to take the risk of something that might subsequently be used against him. In any case a very unfortunate decision. Of course there was a lot else going on at the time – build-up to the miners’ action that brought down Heath – so any discussion of the offer simply got lost amongst more “urgent” matters.

  5. andrewstoneweb

    @johngeoffreywalker – fair point, Elsie’s prominence is established in the first novel. I think i just found it more impressive in the second as Alan Sebrill was far from a new initiate and therefore might be expected (under gender norms prevailing at the time, and the temptation for the author to varnish his own role) to have taken on the mantle of prime protagonist.
    @ihbirchall – I was also very taken by this detail, which unfortunately the author didn’t expand upon or explain. Very interesting to hear your thoughts on why it might have been.

  6. Brian Parkin

    During my brief dalliance with the CP (as a member of the YCL) we young communists were persistently warned against revisionists and reactionaries who had become ‘anti-Communists, and by ‘association, dupes (or worse) for the CIA and the advocates of cold war anti-Soviet reaction’. Of these (apart from EP Thompson, Christopher Hill, Peter Fry, Christopher Isherwood….the list was endless), the real villain was Edward Upward. Needless to say, I remember after one (quite heated) ‘indoctrination’ session going to WH Smiths (then in Briggate, Leeds) and buying a copy of The Rotten Elements. And thoroughly enjoying it. Since when my road to heresy and perdition was assured.

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