Wonderland

Edward Timms

  • The Temple by Stephen Spender
    Faber, 210 pp, £10.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 571 14785 2

‘Mayn’t your politics simply be the result of sexual maladjustment?’ This question, unobtrusively formulated in Stephen Spender’s Forward from Liberalism (1937), lurks as a sub-text in some of the most significant writings of his generation. For authors like Auden, Isherwood and Spender, the struggle for sexual freedom was a stimulus to political dissent. Around 1930, the centre of gravity both of their lives and of their writings was displaced to Weimar Germany, where a Reichstag committee on the penal code had resolved to lift the criminal sanctions against homosexuals. Germany was the country where sexual freedom and social progress seemed to go hand in hand. And the fact that the Soviet Union had been the first European country to revoke the laws against homosexuality gave Communism a particular appeal. In conservative Britain, by contrast, male homosexuals risked imprisonment and disgrace. And a crippling system of censorship made it impossible to write frankly about feelings.

This embargo on telling the truth lasted until more liberal legislation allowed the veterans of the Thirties to lift the veil on their double lives. Isherwood’s Christopher and his Kind (1977) gives the most vivid account of the Weimar sub-culture, where ‘Berlin meant Boys.’ His earlier autobiographical writings, as he ruefully acknowledges, had been exercises in ‘avoiding the truth’. Similar equivocations had characterised Spender’s autobiography, World within World, published in 1951. Even at that date it was not possible to be explicit about the ‘personal problems’ for which he and Isherwood had found a cure in Germany.

These omissions are remedied in The Temple, an autobiographical novel based on those liberating German experiences, drafted in 1929-31 and now published for the first time – almost sixty years after the event. One of the consequences of censorship, Spender recalls in his Introduction, ‘was to make us wish to write precisely about those subjects which were most likely to result in our books being banned’. When an early version of the novel was submitted to Geoffrey Faber, the publisher’s response was that the book was both pornographic and libellous. Thus the manuscript gathered dust for three decades, until in the early Sixties – ‘during some financial crisis of the kind to which poets are liable’ – it was sold to the University of Texas. And there it might have lain indefinitely, if a friend had not happened in 1985 to remind Spender of its existence. The novel now published is based on the original draft, extensively rewritten with the final section transposed from the golden summer of 1929 to the more sombre Germany of 1932.

Set mainly in Hamburg, with an idyllic interlude in the Rhineland, The Temple openly explores that homosexual sub-culture which Isherwood had dealt with so allusively in his Berlin novels of the Thirties. Spender’s narrative lacks the vitality of Goodbye to Berlin or Mr Norris changes trains. Its merit is that it engages far more directly with the political implications of sexual dissent. In an ‘English Prelude’ set in Oxford, Paul (Spender’s autobiographical persona) is lectured by his friend Wilmot (representing Auden) on the dangers of repression. ‘England’s No Good,’ Wilmot proclaims. ‘Germany’s the Only Place for Sex.’ After Paul’s arrival in Germany, this is confirmed by his second mentor William Bradshaw (Isherwood): ‘Everybody in Berlin is equal ... It all comes down to sex.’

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