[Photo: Upward in the 1930s]
The English novelist Edward Upward died last Friday. The Guardian has an obituary written by his bibliographer Alan Walker. (My friend Michael Carr points out in an e-mail this morning that Upward even outlived his obituarist!) Other notes on Upward can be found at The Times, The Independent, the Isle of Wight County Press, the Morning Star, as well as the blogs Tom Roper’s Weblog and “An unrepentant communist...”, and these two letters to The Times from readers who knew him. (A note from Upward’s grandson in the latter blog mentions that he was buried today in the Isle of Wight next to his wife Hilda Percival.)
The New York Times obituary [7/21/09].
On Edward Upward
The Can #1
Someone I often think of in relation to my own life in poetry is Edward Upward, who at 103 is the last remaining member of the so-called Auden group of the 1930s. I came across his work about six years ago, when I read his first book, the novel Journey to the Border, which was published in 1938 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Soon after the publication of his book, Upward gave up writing and spent the next two decades working as a high school English teacher outside London, removed from any type of literary scene.
Upward’s initial rejection of a career in literature probably added to his legend, which had already been established by his presence in Christopher Isherwood’s memoir Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties, also published by Hogarth Press in 1938. In Isherwood’s book, Upward is portrayed as a radical young poet, a prodigy who was awarded a Chancellor’s Medal for Verse in 1924 at Cambridge. Stephen Spender, in his autobiography World within World, describes the immense effect Upward had on their group in the late 1920s and early 1930s: “…[J]ust as Auden seemed to us the highest peak within the range of our humble vision from the Oxford valleys, for Auden there was another peak, namely Isherwood, whilst for Isherwood there was a still further peak, Chalmers [Upward].” Later on, Spender describes Upward as: “Very much the emissary of a Cause he seemed, with his miniature sensitive beauty of features, his keen-smiling yet dark glance, his way of holding the stem of his pipe with his finely formed fingers of a chiseller’s or wood-engraver’s hand.”
While his friends became literary celebrities, Upward disappeared from public view. He emerged again in the early 1960s, after his retirement from teaching, with the first volume of a trilogy of novels called The Spiral Ascent. The trilogy chronicles a communist poet’s struggle to balance political and aesthetic concerns, while working as a teacher. But it was in the 1990s that Upward published his best work, a series of short story collections marked by a minimalist prose with surrealist undercurrents. His matter-of-fact narratives sometimes venture into the realms of science fiction, usually through the banal occurrence of dreams. Upward hasn’t published poetry since he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, yet his work can be understood as an alternate way of writing poetry, within the confines of a short story.
Although I realize it is an exaggeration for me to think of him as a contemporary, I’m inspired by his prolific late period of the 1990s, when Enitharmon Press in London began to publish his new work. Since I first became immersed in poetry during the first half of that decade, I think of it as a specific age that defined me as a reader and writer. I like knowing that Upward was busy writing at that time. Spender wrote the introduction to a second edition of Journey to the Border published in 1994, shortly before his own death. He assessed Upward as being essentially a poet: “But he is also the poet of visions which, although they fit within the context of his politics, seem to transcend time and their occasion like pure 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.”
I began reading Upward during my first year as a high school teacher, at the beginning of our current decade, when I was assailed by doubts about whether I had made the right choice. I would come home from work too exhausted to read or write, and the indifference my students felt toward the literature I was trying to teach them only reinforced my doubts. So, while reading Journey to the Border, I recognized the idealist young teacher who undergoes a breakdown and transformation during a day off from his job as a private tutor for a wealthy family in the countryside. I could relate to the protagonist when he bemoans his feeling of powerlessness against the forces of history and society. The teacher spends a day at a county fair, where he suffers various hallucinations and a final moment of sudden awareness. He undergoes a personal transformation and vows to join the fight against the rising tide of fascism. Of course, I read Upward from an utterly different age, so I have no political faith to adhere to or proclaim.
The teacher’s hallucinations at the county fair allegorize the imminent threat of war in Europe. By not succumbing to the power of those visions and by reinforcing his own political faith, he is able to avoid losing his mind. I find some of the incidents in this novel to be reminiscent of the dynamics of the psychedelic experience (again, a characteristic of the distinct era I feel I inhabited during the early 1990s):
“His sense of control was becoming in itself an excitement. He felt as though he was in solitary command of some huge unexplored power-house. Or as though he was very ingeniously, with consummate mastery, concealing the fact that he was drunk or mad. But was this control natural? Wasn’t it a new form of mysticism, or self-abnegation? Why shouldn’t he dare give free play, within sane limits, to a happiness which was based no longer on fantasies but on the actual possibilities of his real surroundings? He relaxed his control. The marquee looked the same as before. Only his feelings had changed, had expanded their power, risen at last to the actuality which was before his eyes.”
I tend to fetishize limited edition chapbooks and miscellaneous publications whose construction (paper, binding, font, cover illustration) matches the beauty of the writing presented. Two prized items in my library are the gorgeous pamphlets Enitharmon Press produced for two essays by Upward, Christopher Isherwood: Notes in Remembrance of a Friendship (1996) and Remembering the Early Auden (1998). My copies are punctuated by the author’s small signature in black ball-point ink in the colophon. As with his fiction, Upward’s autobiographical writing is unsentimental and defined by impeccably balanced sentences:
“In 1986 when Christopher died it seemed strange to me that I felt so little grief, whereas Auden’s death thirteen years before had grieved me deeply. Now, nine years after Christopher’s death I remember that for some while before it he had ceased to answer my letters to him. It was then that I grieved. I couldn’t believe he would have turned against me without letting me know why. I did realise it was possible that he might be seriously ill and didn’t like to admit this to me. […] Why did I mourn so much more for Auden? It was because he died before I had been able to become reconciled with him. I had criticised statements he had made in support of the American war in Vietnam, and I wanted to tell him how greatly I still admired him as a poet. After his death he used to appear to me in my dreams at night. Now he doesn’t, but Christopher quite often does.”
The key texts of Upward’s late phase are An Unmentionable Man (1994), The Scenic Railway (1997) and The Coming Day and Other Stories (2000). Enitharmon Press celebrated his hundredth birthday in 2003 with an edition of selected work entitled A Renegade in the Springtime, whose texts range from his Gothic and surreal Mortmere stories (co-written with Isherwood at Cambridge) to recent narratives of old age and Borgesian dreams. Revolutionary faith has remained the core of Upward’s aesthetics throughout his long career. The front cover of A Renegade in the Springtime is a black & white photograph by Humphrey Spender entitled “Jarrow Marchers Approaching Trafalgar Square” (1936). Upward can be seen with his mouth open to a chant as he walks by under banners held aloft by fellow marchers. He is looking directly at the camera, serious and determined.
Having grown skeptical of radical political stances, regardless of their ideological provenance, I occasionally feel at odds with Upward’s continued faith in revolutionary politics. And yet, I admire his eloquent explorations of small and anonymous moments in relatively ordinary lives. I appreciate the respect he shows for the ordinary in his writing, the portraits he creates of individuals trying to maintain their ideals against aging and the pressures of our disastrous, immoral moment in history.
Upward has managed to live long enough to be a contemporary to several generations. His prodigious first steps as a writer are there for us to find in the pages of his friends’ books. As, for instance, when Isherwood recalls an encounter with him during a trip to France, while they were both still in secondary school. Even then, Edward Upward’s style was distinct, vivid yet devoid of self-importance, an alluring presence in Lions and Shadows:
“It was strange to see him standing there, puffing at his pipe, placid and vague as usual, and seeming perfectly at home amidst these alien porters and advertisements. He had grown a small moustache and looked exactly my idea of a young Montmartre poet, more French than the French. Now he caught sight of us, and greeted me with a slight wave of the hand, so very typical of him, tentative, diffident, semi-ironical, like a parody of itself.”