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Edward Upward

Art and Life


Peter Stansky


London: Enitharmon Press, 2016

Hardcover. 368 p. ISBN 978-1910392843. £25


Reviewed by Stan Smith

Nottingham Trent University





For the twentieth-century Jewish radicals who are the subjects of Revolutionary Yiddishland, Communism was ‘far more than simply a political label, a programme or a form of organization’. Rather it provided

a kind of constant perspective in which the notion of another possibility is embedded, a field of radical heterotopies in the face of a present condemned to disaster.… a reference that mobilizes and inspires … well beyond the limits of belonging to a particular milieu – the communist movement or communist parties.… The fact that this perspective was most often blocked by defeat, calculations of realpolitik, the strategic blindness of bureaucracies, etc. in no way changes the fact that this article of faith is embedded at the core of the hope of these men and women, in their activity on every front of struggle: another world is possible, and the generic name of this other possibility is ‘communism’. A distinct philosophy of history gives this term consistency: it is possible to be radically different from the present (of oppression, misery, injustice) …. History is open, the future is the surface on which the human possibility of emancipating itself from the present is inscribed. And once again ’communism’ is not simply the name of this unbounded freedom, but its master signifier.(1)

John Lehmann wrote in The Whispering Gallery (1954) of first learning of Edward Upward as ‘the even more legendary figure’ who, in the 1930s, stood behind Auden and Spender and Isherwood, a kind of éminence rouge from whom they drew their inspiration and ideas (and in Auden’s case at least, some of his best lines and images). Fictionalised by Isherwood as his collaborator and guru Allen Chalmers in Lions and Shadows (1938), Upward assumed for a decade almost mythic proportions in the world of the British literary left. And then, as fashions changed, he sank into almost complete obscurity, becoming in a formula Peter Stansky repeats, ‘very well known for being forgotten’ [326].

Though he was not himself Jewish, the world described by Brossat and Klingberg was the one through which Edward Upward lived and moved for his whole, remarkably long, adult life (he died in 2009, aged 105), a world in which ‘Communism’ constituted the absolute horizon of thought. As the title of the last novel in his trilogy The Spiral Ascent affirms, there was for him ‘no home but the struggle’, and any existence outside of that specific ethos was unimaginable. However, as Brossat and Klingberg observe, what is ‘epoch-making in our present is the horrified rejection of any such presupposition’ in ‘the age of the supposed universality and eternity of the democratic paradigm,’ where the notion of transcending the given order of things becomes itself almost unthinkable. In the extended catastrophe through which Upward and his dwindling number of comrades lived, as the era of anti-fascist struggle mutated into a half-century of Cold (and sometimes hot) War, they saw their values become ‘enigmatic in the eyes of the great majority of [their] contemporaries’, and the signifier ‘communism’ lose all its power, shrinking to ‘the dimensions of a pejorative signifier, synonym of everything that … bears the mark of the unreasonable and monstrous’.(2) How Upward came to terms with this epistemological and moral crisis is a central theme of Peter Stansky’s new and substantial critical biography.

Reading Auden’s Selected Poems in 1958, ‘a grief came over me’, Upward wrote: ‘How I have wasted my life, how irrevocably and how far I have gone astray from myself. How deeply the poet in me has been buried beneath years of uncongenial work’ [130]. Thwarted by a series of writing blocks which held back the great poetry he believed himself capable of, Upward blamed his thirty-year career as a public schoolmaster, his duties as husband and father, and the unremitting pressures of Party loyalty, for his literary failure – demands which were the cause of more than one nervous breakdown (the worst in that fateful year of Stalin’s death, 1953). Somewhat grandiosely, however, he created in his fiction what Isherwood called ‘his own personal myth’, verging on paranoia, of himself as ‘an illegal underground worker’ [288]. The times were out of joint (America’s global ascendancy and its military-political assault on the Soviet Union); his former comrades on the literary left had abandoned him and sold out to capitalism in its brashest imperialist form; the critics had turned their faces against his unrelenting Communism; and the British intelligence agencies were conspiring to make him persona non grata to the big publishing houses. In fact, as Stansky’s diligent research in the archives reveals, the extensive files held on him by MI5 and Special Branch found little of interest in his activities and no evidence of anything but the mildest political agitating, in the Anglo-Russian Friendship Society, for example, or in organising public meetings, protests and everyday union activity on behalf of the CP, or, during his wartime relocation to Blackpool, his attempt to build a Communist cell in the Pensions Office of the civil service. Altogether a blameless petty-bourgeois life – one which is reproduced with some tedium in the endless empty disputes about Soviet policy conducted by The Spiral Ascent’s autobiographical protagonist Alan Sebrill. In fact it is likely that it was the very banality of his everyday existence which drove Upward to such internalised fury, in the years since that moment of incandescent hope in the 1930s when Revolution seemed round the corner and a brilliant career as its apostle ahead for him. The upheaval passionately desired during that brief period of revolutionary delirium, prefigured at the time, it seemed, by the surreal catastrophe which concludes his most famous fantasy, ‘The Railway Accident’ (1928), never happened. The rest of his writing life seems to have been spent waiting on the platform for a train which, unlike the Mortmere Express, never arrived.

Upward famously protested in the 1950s that he had become an ‘unmentionable man’, a title which he subsequently gave in 1994 to a late collection of inter-related short stories. He attributed this largely to the idea that his continuing Communist commitment had become anathema to the renegades such as his old friend Stephen Spender who had now deserted the cause to become pillars of the British literary establishment. ‘With Alan to the Fair’ in An Unmentionable Man depicts his alter ego Sebrill complaining to a hostile critic (based on Valentine Cunningham, who had even misnamed the trilogy, Upward thought maliciously, as The Upward Ascent) that ‘I tend to be neglected because most of my poems are political and, worse still, my political views are contrary to those that are dominant in this country now’ [302-303]. Despite his initial concessions, Sebrill’s anger at this ‘abhorrence of my politics’ swiftly degenerates into a physical assault on the unfortunate critic. The abrupt transit from frosty politeness to querulous violence follows the same trajectory as the narrative of ‘The Railway Accident’. It is in a sense the pattern of all Upward’s writing, where a succession of banal, increasingly anxiety-laden encounters slowly accumulates to erupt in a sudden libidinally charged release of aggression. At the end of this story Sebrill arrives at the Anti-Nazi stall he has been struggling towards throughout the narrative only to be thrown into the air by the explosion of a terrorist bomb. But the violence of these previous moments is then revealed as no more than a dream sequence, from which he is awoken by his wife’s voice telling him he’s going to be late for the fair. A similar pattern underlies the four stories which take up the larger part of An Unmentionable Man, in which an elderly writer, Stephen Highwood, mugged in the street, journeys in his coma through a series of increasingly bizarre and troubling incidents, in which excrement and disgust are recurring motifs, until he comes round to his wife’s reassuring presence by his hospital bed. In the vaguely Kafkaesque narrative of Journey to the Border (1938) an unnamed private tutor traces a similar path through mounting existential anxiety to a border which is ambiguously that both of madness and of revolutionary commitment. It culminates with the resolve to ‘get in touch’ with the local Workers’ Movement and then resume work as a hired tutor, ‘but with a difference’, for now ‘he would have come down to earth, out of the cloud of his irresponsible fantasies; would have begun to live’, transformed by his new allegiance, though to all outward appearances nothing has changed. It is not difficult to discern here a kind of dual consciousness which is the strategy for survival in a world that has not delivered the hoped-for millennium. That prospect remains as an ‘inner light’ sustaining the mediocre present, like Highwood’s comatose fantasies or Sebrill’s dream of retributive violence. Many critics have commented on the unrelentingly pedestrian nature of Upward’s later writing, in contrast to the vivacity of his thirties fiction. What is less remarked on is the way that that transgressive moment, figured by the train crash of ‘The Railway Accident’, in which the fabric of the ordinary is ripped apart, remains the sustaining fantasy of even his dullest narratives, the rumour that another world is possible.

In truth, the political opinions of a once famous ‘Red’ intellectual, conscientiously slaving away for decades as an English teacher in a minor public school, represented no kind of threat to the renascent British state. In this collection’s penultimate story, ‘Fred and Lil’, an apolitical pastoral, Fred hangs on the wall of their retirement home a plaque inscribed with the kind of folksy platitude which reconciles the mildly discontented to their lot: ‘It’s easy enough to be cheerful / When life flows on like a song, / But the man worth while / Is the man who can smile / When everything goes dead wrong’. There is no doubt that by the 1950s Upward thought everything had gone dead wrong, whether with his writing or his politics. What precisely did happen has been much argued over. For Spender, Isherwood and others, Upward had sold out his considerable imaginative talent to the rigid bureaucratic prescriptions of ‘socialist realism’. In ‘With Alan to the Fair’ a former pupil, reimagined as a secret policeman, acts as a projection of Sebrill’s own self-rebuke for ‘the wrong you did, the harm you did, to your own nature, to your true self’. But while Sebrill ‘would agree that my politics weakened my poetry’ and stopped him writing, it was, he says, because ‘the Party line I loyally followed went rotten’. Volume 2 of The Spiral Ascent was entitled The Rotten Elements, a phrase deployed against dissidents by the Party establishment, which in this novel is turned against that establishment in depicting Sebrill’s (and Upward’s) break with the Party in 1948. In both fiction and life, this was not a reaction to revelations about the brutality of Stalin’s USSR. On the contrary, his animus was directed towards the Party’s timid social-democratic reformism in tail-ending the Attlee Government. For Upward the Party had reneged on the authentic Communist commitment to a violent overthrow of the bourgeois state, advocating instead a peaceful ‘British Road to Socialism’.

As for many of his fellow intellectuals, Upward’s politics were only contingently ‘Marxist’. His truest impulse was a form of ultraleft anarchism which wanted to see the whole rotten edifice brought down, and latched on to Communism as the most likely vehicle to bring this about. Unlike most of his contemporaries however, Upward remained fiercely loyal to the fantasy of revolutionary transgression which informed his earliest commitment. Stansky cites a passage from a 1931 notebook which spells out with startling clarity the ferocity of his hatred: ‘There is only one way to escape – by revolution. Fire and blood, bishops floating, arse upwards in the ruddy river… The liberation of the working class is the liberation of poetry’ [174]. While his views may have mellowed with age, tempered by all those interminable and tedious Party debates about policy, Stansky suggests that what Upward calls here the ‘determination to destroy and rebuild… Destroy what is known as Western Civilisation’ [175] remained his determining passion. Stansky cites Isherwood’s remarks in his memoir Lost Years about the Upwards’ ‘drab little home’ in Dulwich, and their lack of ‘a certain fashionable urban sophistication’ in leading a ‘political life’ which was an expression of their ‘simplicity’: ‘They didn’t advertise their activities, didn’t use left-wing jargon, didn’t make a show of righteous indignation or enthusiasm, they just went ahead with dull routine jobs, attending meetings, selling the Daily Worker, etc.’, Isherwood observed [240]. But it is clear from the writings that such surface equanimity was achieved at great personal cost in self-repression and internalised rage, much of it directed at himself. In ‘The Falling Tower’, his 1941 riposte to Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Leaning Tower’, Upward had written that, while committed writers would of course engage in ‘ordinary political work’, they should not be required to ‘spend all their time in committee meetings or door-to-door canvassing or in composing propaganda leaflets’ [230]. By the time he began to write The Rotten Elements, this idyllic vision of the dedicated writer’s life had undergone ‘a serious deterioration’, he wrote in the opening pages of that novel:


What sort of poetically creative mood was this [Sebrill asks] that had brought him to the verge of revulsion against the necessary day-to-day work which as a Party member he ought to be always eager to do? It was a would-be deserter’s mood, wholly impermissible, it was the mood of some renegade-in-the-making, capriciously weary of the door-to-door canvassing, the jumble sales, the small public meetings, all the unspectacular duties that must unceasingly be performed at this stage of the struggle for the future happiness of humanity.

Isherwood wrote in his 1949 introduction to ‘The Railway Accident’ of Mortmere as ‘a sort of anarchist paradise in which all accepted moral and social values were turned upside down and inside out, and every kind of extravagant behaviour was possible and usual’. If the inner light of Mortmere still burned within the Upward bosom, it had now sunk desperately low amidst the diurnal plod of Party business, in a world where, as Brossat and Klingberg put it, Communism had become ‘enigmatic in the eyes of the great majority of [their] contemporaries’, ‘a pejorative signifier, synonym of everything that … bears the mark of the unreasonable and monstrous’. It is perhaps perversely to his credit that at the end of The Rotten Elements Upward/Sebrill, free from what he calls his ‘persecutory imaginings’, should resign himself to ‘the prospect of living neither the poetic life nor the Party life but the ordinary life, the schoolmaster’s life’, not however ‘complete enough to free him from a persistent sadness, a feeling as of bereavement, which did not lessen as time went on’.

Peter Stansky has performed a valuable service to the memory of Edward Upward, in a biography which is a portrait not only of the man but of the troubled times through which he lived. In its equable thoroughness he has told us all we are ever likely to need to know about this conflicted and in many ways admirable man, whose writings, and his hopes for revolution, never lived up to their early promise. If, at times, the narrative is a little implacable in recording the mundanities of an existence in which little of distinction happened, that is because Upward himself spent his days waiting for a Godot who never appeared, in a life in which, to adapt a famous comment on Beckett’s play, nothing much happened, on a regular basis.


(1) Alain Brossat & Sylvia Klingberg, Revolutionary Yiddishland : A History of Jewish Radicalism, London: Verso, 2016 : xi-xii.

(2) Ibid.: xii-xiii.


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