Of all the things written about Sir Stephen Spender since his death on Sunday, the least accurate is the contention - repeated in several obituaries - that he was the last survivor of the Thirties' group of Oxbridge writers, and that with his demise, our final link with the unquiet generation of WH Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Louis MacNeice has been severed.
The last survivor of the "Auden Group" - the left-wing, largely homosexual coterie of writers who shot to fame during the "low, dishonest decade" of the Depression - is still very much alive, a retired schoolmaster who lives quietly in a modest Victorian villa on the Isle of Wight, alone since his wife of 60 years died in March.
But Edward Upward, who is now 91, is not surprised to have been overlooked. "I have received a few calls from people since Spender's death, asking me about him," he says mildly, as if to remind himself that he is not entirely forgotten. Yet over the years, Upward has reluctantly recognised that while the literary stock of his contemporaries - particularly Auden - is high and rising, his own standing is more of a person to whom biographers write, asking for reminiscences of his more famous friends.
Upward's is a story of unfulfilled youthful promise. Nearly 70 years ago, he seemed the one marked out for literary success. When he and Isherwood were still undergraduates at Cambridge, Upward acquired a reputation as the most exciting young writer of his generation - a reputation built on the invention of Mortmere, an anarchic fantasy village peopled with sinister conspirators about whom he and Isherwood wrote surrealist, and sometimes pornographic, stories.
Auden, who saw manuscripts of some of the Mortmere tales, was highly impressed, according to Upward, and used ideas derived from the stories in his early poems. Spender was extravagant in his praise, describing Upward's work as representing a "further peak" beyond Auden and Isherwood, while the publisher John Lehmann called one of his Mortmere stories "the most brilliant piece of surrealist literature to have been written in English".
"Christopher Isherwood always said that I was a better writer than he was himself," he says with a smile. "And in one of his poems in Letters from Iceland, Auden made a will in which he appointed me his literary executor: 'To judge my work, if it be bad or good.'" Yet despite all this encouragement, Upward's oeuvre is painfully thin: four novels and three volumes of short stories. His major work, a trilogy of autobiographical novels collectively called The Spiral Ascent, has been stigmatised in the Cambridge Companion to Literature for its "unredeemed heaviness and solemnity".
So what went wrong? The standard explanation is Upward's Communism. He remains a Marxist, although not a party member - he left in 1948 after an ideological dispute. The apparent collapse of Communism has not shaken his faith. "I still believe a lot of people could be made a great deal happier if our present means of production were properly used," he says, adding: "If Communism doesn't come, we are going to destroy ourselves. You see itwith the pollution, the constant wars and massacres that are happening everywhere."
If such talk seems anachronistic today, it was very different when Upward joined the Communist Party in 1934. Then, in the aftermath of the Labour government's collapse of 1931, and with the rise of fascist dictatorships on the Continent, many left-wing literary figures were attracted to the certainties of Marxism. Auden dabbled in it and Spender joined the party, although he swiftly recanted. Upward, however, became a committed Marxist and soon found there was a seemingly irresolvable conflict between his surrealist style and wish to serve Communism through his writing.
It was his desire to break this Gordian knot, he claims, that led him in 1937 to publish a notorious essay, "Sketch for a Marxist Interpretation of Literature", in which he renounced "fantasy writing" and proclaimed that, unless a writer "has in his everyday life taken the side of the workers, he cannot, no matter how talented he might be, write a good book".
This polemic was followed a year later by his first novel, Journey to the Border, which described, with few concessions to plot, an individual's gradual recognition of the necessity of Marxism. With that, he laid down his pen and did not publish another book for 20 years, by which time the burgeoning fame of his contemporaries, and his own obscurity, was a fait accompli. His early supporter, Lehmann, could only mourn "an imaginative gift ... slowly killed in the Iron Maiden of Marxist dogma".
Sitting in his drawing room, which is strongly reminiscent of a Twenties Cambridge set with its carpets over lino and collapsing armchairs, Upward reflects without rancour on his association with Auden and his circle. "I always saw that he [Auden] was the only one who was really good amongst us - the potential giant. But sadly, I don't think he fulfilled his potential. There is no doubt that his work will survive, but he won't have as high a place as I hoped he would."
The reason, he argues, was Auden's lack of moral courage. "He was very bold at first, but this fell away over time and it reflected in his work. He hadn't the courage of Isherwood who came out as a gay in the end. That was the last thing Auden would have done." He also blames Auden's religious belief and the inflexible cast it gave his mind, which seems ironic considering his own iron commitment to Marxism. After all, Spender called him "a religious man whose religion is Communism".
Of Spender himself, Upward is altogether more dismissive. "I don't think his work was terribly good, although he did write some good poems. Anyway, he himself was always the first to admit he wasn't a writer of the first rank. He always dreaded being remembered for one poem, 'I think constantly of those who were truly great'. The funny thing is that the last line - which is the most memorable - was changed by Isherwood. Spender originally wrote 'And left the air signed with their vivid honour' but Christopher persuaded him to move the 'vivid' over to before the word 'air', which is of course much better." He pauses before delivering the barb: "It was very popular with fighter pilots during the War."
There is a strong ideological tinge to Upward's criticisms of Spender - his recantation of the Marxist faith, his period during the Fifties as editor of Encounter, a literary magazine which turned out to be part funded by the CIA. "Spender could be very unscrupulous - he had a great talent for publicity. He always denied he knew what was going on at Encounter but, if that's true, he must have been very simple. I told him years before, 'It's just a Cold War paper.' "
But if there is one Auden Group member beyond reproach it is Christopher Isherwood. The two were friends from their schooldays at Repton and remained so until Isherwood's death in 1986. "Christopher had this marvellous sparkle, and he was always encouraging, never negative," says Upward.
What he particularly admired in Isherwood was his recklessness, it seems. Despite his revolutionary creed, Upward is a courtly and reticent man, temperamentally reluctant to offend others. He repeats with relish the story of how Isherwood had a vasectomy and then told his mother. "She was horrified, you see, because it was the end of the Isherwood line." Even Isherwood's decision to flee with Auden to the United States in 1939 is forgiven, despite Upward's conviction that it was a betrayal of the anti-fascist cause. "He just told me he couldn't bear shooting those German boys he was so fond of, which is at least honest."
The two remained each other's literary mentors until Isherwood's death. But while Isherwood was prolific, for Upward, writing was always a struggle. He says that he has spent too much of his life wrestling with his inner demons - bourgeois guilt, fear of failure as a writer - while other, perhaps lesser men stole the prize that might have been his. But Upward is still writing, and perhaps in his next book, a memoir of his friendship with Isherwood, he will escape their clutches and recapture the surreal Mortmere freedom of his youth.
Virginia Ironside is on holiday.
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