Faber & Faber, £45 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

New Selected Journals, 1939-1995, By Stephen Spender (edited by Lara Feigel and John Sutherland, with Natasha Spender)

Overshadowed in life by friends and peers, the poet and public thinker shines in his diaries.

I think continually of those who were truly great": Stephen Spender's (sole?) oft-quoted line captures perfectly the sensibility of this 1930s writer, who flourished around WH Auden yet was eclipsed by the latter's exceptional poetical talents. In 1994, Spender told an anecdote concerning "Wystan" which further emphasised his modest self-questioning, and the counter-example Auden constituted.

As a prep-school boy, Spender had imagined his peers as a solar system of talents and achievements – some larger and brighter, some smaller and dimmer. He told Auden that this had clarified his "position" towards them. Auden only replied: "How extraordinary. I always realized I was brighter than anyone else."

Spender's later years were marked, as this enlarged edition of his journals reveals, by much introspection as to why he felt he had underachieved as poet, dramatist and novelist. He sought solace, true, in forms of public recognition such as the Thatcher-instigated knighthood and numerous teaching appointments – here at UCL, and subsequently across the US.

He can be said, covertly, to have been among the first to introduce Creative Writing to Britain, characteristically through a surreptitious route. His writing seminars were supposed to help his London students in their scholarly activities, but became far more wide-ranging. He is rightly acclaimed by his editors as among the last English public intellectuals. These journals, fittingly, accord with this estimate, announcing their author as an unconceited enquirer after truth, a born sceptic and, when it was generally unfashionable, an ardent internationalist.

To list a few of the "truly great" with whom Spender struck up relationships illustrates key differences between himself and that other Auden intimate, Christopher Isherwood: Philip Toynbee, Forster, Eliot, Woolf, Hugh Gaitskell, Cyril Connolly, Isaiah Berlin, Rosamond Lehmann, Lord Longford, Lucien Freud, AJ Ayer, Robert Lowell, Susan Sontag, Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Alfred Brendel. Though there were overlapping figures like David Hockney, Spender's closest set was less glamorous than Isherwood's in California.

In fact, the most glamorous figure in Spender's life, Barry Humphries, became familiar only by marrying his daughter Lizzie. Son Matthew also married interestingly – to Maro, daughter of artist Arshile Gorky.

Spender's people were, fundamentally, more intellectual, though there are other contrasts. Isherwood began proselytising as a gay rights advocate; Spender, following a mostly homosexual youth, married twice – successfully, in 1941, to Natasha Litvin, a concert pianist. Isherwood notoriously crossed the Atlantic in 1939, returning to England infrequently and reluctantly. Though Spender travelled unceasingly, he remained essentially English in outlook.

Neither could Spender shake off his admiration for boyish beauty. Among the most engaging narratives here is the evidently erotic relationship with a 20-year-old Floridan biology student, Bryan Obst, whom Spender met aged 68. His whispered devotions by telephone to Obst caused Natasha great hurt.

His self-estimate as a "nearly man" of letters might lead one to expect littlefrom these self-consciously non-private records. In fact, Spender comes to write both well and succinctly about the many people he encounters – in contrast to the protracted grumblings of the Isherwood diaries. Michel Foucault, he discloses, had "the look of a waiter in a Mediterranean café". Edward Albee resembled "a melancholy drum major". Germaine Greer was "a great overgrown girl who has won all the prizes".

Scrupulously edited and footnoted, the Journals prove among Spender's finest publications. Other titles, such as his account of the foundation of Israel, Learning Laughter (1952), deserve greater recognition. Moreover, he can legitimately be said to have mastered all literary genres. One reservation: Faber's pricing policy may put off curious readers who shy away from digital formats. These writings by a bibliophile are, suitably, beautifully produced – but priced either towards the wealthy or already committed.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory