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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.

Richard Canning
Monday 30 July 2012 16:30 BST

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.

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