Upward was always too political and too experimental, even for his
literary peers, which included Auden, writes John Calder
Upward with renegade Edward
A Renegade in Springtime
by Edward Upward
The last surviving member of the Auden generation is still alive and
writing at 100. When an undergraduate at Cambridge he created, together
with his friend Christopher Isherwood, fictional stories about an
imaginary village, Mortmere, typical of Home Counties England, and
although they wrote separately their styles are remarkably similar.
Upward was a major influence on the poets and novelists we associate
with the 1930s, has himself written much but published little, and
we must be grateful for the excellent Enitharmon Press for their valiant
effort to reprint and to present new work.
An idealistic communist from the days when it was intellectually fashionable,
he remains unreconstructed, never turning publicly against ‘the
God that failed’ as did Spender, Koestler and so many others
during the 1940s when the cold war came into being, and his commitment
to the left continues up to the present. Inevitably, this collection
of stories, ranging from 1928 to the millennium, are dated in background
and subject matter, but the style is always elegant and readable if
perhaps a little long-winded for modern taste.
The author goes in for atmospheric description to set the milieu of
his stories and his characters, which are obviously based on his own
life and observations and those of his friends and old comrades.
The political commitment is always there, but it is the polite and
muted attitude of the Cambridge apostles, Fabian rather then revolutionary,
and very intellectual middle-class, that surfaces. The non-English
movements of the 20th century have passed him by. There is no expression
or stylised Beckettian realism, no misogynist conflict, no fantasies
involving time or the vagaries of human thought and stream of consciousness.
Edward Upward is an impressionistic naturalist writing at a distance
from events. The first story The Railway Accident sees horror in a
train crash but it hardly touches those lucky enough to escape and
go to a vicarage tea. Another train story closes the volume, but this
is a fairground train and it is nostalgia and grief for the dead,
not unmixed with guilt at one’s own forgetfulness, that is the
Mr Upward has seen more than one generation pass away and this knowledge
is always apparent in the later work.
But although there is no obvious anger in these stories, there is
much regret, especially at the failure of those seeking a more just
and happier world to bring this about up to the present, and at the
continuing presence of poverty, ignorance and growing inequality.
And there is also a wistful look at his own career with its many years
of neglect, which in one story he depicts as the corpse of a painter
at a funeral procession. An established and successful artist explains:
“It is the corpse of the better artist you had it in you to
be, but never were.”
He goes on to say that he might even have become in some ways better
in a later style, but the style did not catch on.
“It is the same for all of us – not just the artists,
but everyone alive in this century, even the luckiest of the lucky,
and three quarters of the human population of the earth are not among
the lucky. We are none of us able to be what we have it in us to be.”
It is impossible to say if the name of Edward Upward will rank with
his peers, not just Auden and Co but the likes of J B Priestley, Evelyn
Waugh, Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley. He has most in common with
George Orwell in temperament and outlook, although Orwell turned against
the left in bitterness. Even his old friend Isherwood is now largely
forgotten, his novels out of print, best known for a musical Cabaret,
based on one novel.
But Upward deserves to be remembered and read, because there is a
sincere artist at work in these stories and in the other work that
his publishers have revived.
Writer who fused art with politics
Edward Upward is one of the last surviving members of a literary group
who, with W.H Auden and St John’s Wood resident Stephen Spender,
fused leftwing politics with art.
The Spiral Ascent, Upward’s epic trilogy that took him twenty
years to complete, is a semi-autobiographical journey through a lifetime’s
involvement with leftist activism, from the anti-fascist demonstrations
in London to the CND marches to Aldermaston.
Publishers Enitharmon Press, based in Caversham Road Kentish Town
are Upward’s sole publishers. Formed in 1967, the company’s
aim is to publish overlooked and up-and-coming writers and artists,
says Director Stephen Stuart-Smith.
Upward was a committed Marxist and member of the Communist Party of
Great Britain through the 1930s. During this time he wrote polemics
for the party, but left in the 1940s, disillusioned at the reforms
the party was making. In the 1960s he returned to fiction.
Between 1931 and 1961 he taught at a school in Dulwich and lived in