"This is prose poetry."

Edward Upward

After finishing Christopher Isherwood's memoir Lions and Shadows, I've gone back to read more of Edward Upward's short stories from the 1980s and 1990s. The five stories in his book The Scenic Railway (1997) are presented in the order they were written, from 1987 to 1996. (Other recent work has been published in An Unmentionable Man in 1994 and The Coming Day and Other Stories in 2000.) More texts for me to consider in relation to the early 1990s as a distinct era. I'm also curious how Upward's recent work might comment on parallels and differences between the 1930s and the 1990s. Stephen Spender's introduction to the 1994 Enitharmon Press edition of Upward's first novel, Journey to the Border (1938), seems to make that comparison. Spender considers Upward's political concerns as integral to his talent as a writer:

"I see the novelist Edward Upward as a voyager on this earth who is extremely aware of its ills but at the same time has never lost his faith that its inhabitants—some of them at least—have the power to create a better world: one of social justice, affection and the life of the imagination.

This journey is essentially religious. But Upward is a rationalist accepting scientific truth and rejecting the superstitions of institutionalised religion.

His fiction tends to take the form of the journey or quest by a protagonist who, thinly disguised, and in altered circumstances, is, under various fictitious names, the author himself. He is an idiosyncratic observer who combines a caricaturist's vision of upper and middle-class English society with a developing belief in the workers and the oppressed. After an initial surrealistic phase, he is political in that he interprets the world as a struggle between those whose values are those of their own property, power and self-interest, and those who share the vision of a world which might be transformed in the interests of the whole community. After a period of distrust and a certain class-coyness (rather than class-consciousness) he decides that these values are to be found among the workers."

Spender concludes the introduction suggesting we read this novel as a form of poetry:

"This is prose poetry. And it is not too much to say that Journey to the Border contains some of the most beautiful prose poems of the century."

Part of the poetry to be found in Upward's prose is evoked in a tendency toward brevity. The five stories in The Scenic Railway, for instance, proceed at a quick pace, centered on two or three characters in everyday situations tinged with premonitions. There are minimal plots based on individual revelations. The concept of self-actualization is a recurring thread in the unconnected stories, with characters who accomplish small or obscure feats.

I'm rereading Journey to the Border this weekend, partly to notice how consistent Upward's prose style has remained and the way his project encompasses such vast amounts of political and cultural history. He does this with deceptively simple stories, using characters who are aware of their own minor status (often emphasized by old age). The books he's published in the last decade offer chances to revisit certain aesthetic and political concerns of the 1930s which have never really been solved.

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