From Soup to Fish

Andrew O’Hagan

  • BuyA House in St John’s Wood: In Search of My Parents by Matthew Spender
    William Collins, 448 pp, £25.00, August 2015, ISBN 978 0 00 813206 4

In the 1990s, when literary parties were more fun, or I was more fun, I used occasionally to see Stephen Spender: there he was, the establishment on quivering legs, queer as a chocolate orange but safely married. (When I spoke to him, I discovered he could flirt with his eyes shut.) Frank Kermode, a great friend to this paper but never knowingly unmalicious, remarked that ‘Stephen never knew where he was going but he always knew the quickest way to get there.’ To me, it seems perfectly natural to forego the gay life if you don’t really want it, but Spender protested too much. In 1994 he wrote a letter to the young Alan Hollinghurst after receiving a copy of his second novel, The Folding Star. The letter shows a man in a state of confusion or unhappiness about the choices he has made.

Dear Mr Hollinghurst

Thank you very much for asking your publisher to send me your novel The Folding Star. I have read it with great interest. It is beautifully done and gives very well the atmosphere of Bruges or wherever. I found it very difficult to understand the nature of the emotions involved in the relationships between the characters and how they could all be such sexual athletes – as though they were all football stars on one level of their lives. I think the difficulty in writing about what people do in bed/or in parks/is that I (the reader, most readers?) have such limited standards of comparison with the/sexual/behaviour of other characters people. But I may be wrong. Perhaps everyone knows what everyone does in bed sexually nowadays. But if they don’t know – if sex is not a widely illuminated social area in which every person’s or every couple’s activities can be surveyed by everyone else – as with, say, picnicking – the whole thing is in danger of reading like projected private fantasy. I think your novel does escape this – partly because homosexuality among homosexuals is nearly a social activity, in being so widely discussed among them.

Then there is also the difficulty problem in a novel like yours that it is so difficult to balance the interest of, say, the painter and the museum curator etc with against the sex – and/for the reader/not to long to get out of the museum into the park. I was very fascinated – and of course I would have longed to attempt something like this when I was young.

Yours sincerely

Stephen Spender

Natasha Spender’s loyalty to her husband extended to an exalted form of collaboration. ‘One’s inner life has not to be talked about,’ she once said. In 2008, 12 years after Spender’s death, she spoke on Desert Island Discs of the abundant happiness they had shared. ‘I had 55 years with that glorious man,’ she told Kirsty Young. ‘Husbands are not possessions.’

‘Were there any times in the marriage when you had to deal with the homosexual side of his nature?’ Young asked.

‘No, not really,’ Lady Spender replied. ‘No, I didn’t.’

Time was when the matter might have rested there. But there are always the children, and the children’s children. It turns out that Matthew Spender, the first of Spender’s two ankle-biters, is something of a psychic archaeologist, picking over the family bones. ‘He didn’t really know our father,’ his sister, Lizzie, is alleged to have said. But that is rather the point, and A House in St John’s Wood is one of the best books I’ve read about not knowing your parents. What if you were just another of their haphazard decisions, subject to regret and contradiction? The drama of Stephen Spender is not that he was sometimes gay – there’s no news there – but that the gayness was just another aspect of someone who couldn’t make up his mind. The book isn’t sneering, but it isn’t sentimental either. Spender had all the cakes and he ate them too, but it appears that there was some Jamesian pact at the centre of his life, an agreement, formed and signed in his own mind, that social prestige would satisfy and honour him in a way that freedom never could. He comforted himself, no doubt, with the idea that a double life is completely natural for a writer, if not essential. Cyril Connolly, writing about World within World, Spender’s autobiography, caught the central Spender enigma with the eye of a dispirited novelist:

Mr Spender has always seemed to me two people. Let us call them S I and S II. S I is the youthful poet as he appears in Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows, and to others who knew him in the early 1930s. An inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible, ignorant, affectionate, idealistic – living for friendship and beauty, writing miraculous poems, expecting too much from everybody and from himself on whom he laid charges and responsibilities which he could never carry out. S II was shrewd and ambitious, aggressive and ruthless, a publicity-seeking intellectual full of administrative energy and rentier asperity, a young tiger sharpening its claws on the platform of peace.

‘Administrative energy’ is very good. Spender was not alone of his generation in being a silly goose with a penchant for soft power. If he hadn’t been so much a man of his own making he might have been a character out of Graham Greene, and perhaps the way many weak men came to seem dangerous is a minor theme of 20th-century English letters, and espionage. Spender, the fellow-traveller’s fellow-traveller, was on Hitler’s list of those who should be shot as soon as the Nazis invaded Britain. He was completely unsuited for clandestine activities, except perhaps those involving young male prostitutes in Hamburg, but for many Cold War years Spender was the go-to guy for setting up brainy journals or getting the lowdown on the intelligentsia. He was a clubbable committee-surfer with a hefty address book, and though his thinking was nearly always muddy and his resolve nearly always petrified, he more or less got what he wanted, and people got what they wanted from him. He wanted a knighthood and he wanted a boyfriend and Natasha was happy for him to have both. Or so she said. But her son digs up a whole universe of unhappiness. ‘At a party in Paris,’ he writes,

Natasha saw her husband across a crowded room talking to an elegant young man.

She asked the person next to her who this man was. The reply: ‘Don’t you know? That’s Stephen’s new lover.’ My mother stood up, and promptly fainted.

It was a terrible moment.

She’d misinterpreted the long conversation at Wittersham which had ended: ‘There is only us.’ Stephen had not put the past behind him, nor had fatherhood given him a new, deeper idea of marriage. He loved her – of that, she was confident. But whatever view he held of marriage, it wasn’t hers.

Natasha later tried to throw herself off a train. Her husband consulted with Anna Freud in London and things were miserable for a while. ‘My mother’s feelings were only revealed after her death,’ Matthew Spender writes,

hidden away in a diary written during a particularly stressful moment in her life, when my father fell in love with a young American ornithologist called Bryan Obst. Bitterly, she wondered why she’d accepted this predicament all her married life. Her harshest entries were written late at night, but in the morning she found her angry emotions had vanished. Her waking self was devoted to the image that their marriage was strong. Natasha at three in the morning was an entirely different person from Natasha at breakfast. She asked herself: are the late night entries the faithful ones, or those I write during the day?

From the Manns to the Simpsons, all families enjoy competing narratives. We want our parents to love each other, but not too much (not if it keeps us out) and we want them to be successful, but not too successful, not if it never ends, or makes our own successes look paltry, or kills our native hope of one day triumphing over them. In this book, the parents’ stories preoccupy the whole family, Stephen’s stories especially, which use up all the oxygen in the room. Stephen and Natasha seem to have behaved as if life was nothing but a long and difficult attempt to assert the primacy of their own version of it, while everybody else’s, including their children’s, was seen as an affront. Matthew recounts trying to tell a sad and confusing story from his childhood while out in the car with his mother. ‘She jerked the steering-wheel in fury,’ he writes, ‘and shouted: “We’ve heard this story of your miserable childhood from soup to fish. You were a much loved child, and if you choose to remember differently, it’s no bloody business of anyone but you.”’ And that’s what gives the book its occasion: Matthew was probably an annoying child, and is quite an entitled adult, but for years he must have been shushed by his parents’ obsessive need to control the story. His book is an outpouring from an ill-managed source. How could it be otherwise? Parents who silence their children to save their own pride lay the foundation stone of the revenge narrative, create the appetite they most wish to suppress.

The Spenders lived interesting, silly lives. Natasha’s attention was split between the piano and ignoring Stephen’s sonorous fictions, between giving dinner parties and half falling in love with Raymond Chandler. Spender seemed quite happy to get her out of the house and he encouraged her to go with Chandler to the hotel where the Spenders often stayed on Lake Garda. Another time, Chandler and Mrs Spender went to Tangiers, separate rooms, single bathroom. ‘There was one kiss, it seems,’ Matthew reports. Chandler had a role in making Natasha feel desired, but her son has an anger that won’t be satisfied with pat sympathies. He describes being with his mother when she heard about Chandler’s death. ‘It happened in a motel in a desert of Southern California,’ he writes,

where we’d gone to see some adobe houses dating from the Spanish period. Outside, there was a lurid advert saying ‘Learn about the Sex Life of the Date Palm’. Someone came up and told her Ray had died. An incredulous look came over her face and she sent me out to swim in the motel pool …When I came back to where she was sitting on a deckchair, her eyes were red with tears. Why had nobody told her? Behind the tears of real grief I thought I detected rage that she hadn’t been contacted by a lawyer to tell her she’d inherited everything.

In the war with their parents, some writers are inclined to bring on the heavy artillery. Matthew Spender goes between the laconically devastating and the forensically exposing, while loving them to death. Auden had known the Spender family from his schooldays – he was a contemporary at Gresham’s of Spender’s older brother, Michael – and Matthew uses Auden’s letters to reveal his father’s coarseness. ‘Your passion for public criticism of your friends has always seemed to me a little odd,’ Auden wrote in one of them:

It is not that you don’t say acute things – you do – but the assumption of the role of the blue-eyed Candid Incorruptible is questionable … What you say is probably accurate enough, but the tone alarms me. ‘One is worried about Auden’s poetic future.’ Really, Stephen dear, whose voice is this but that of Harold Spender, MP.

Harold was Stephen’s father. One night at dinner, Auden let fly, telling the guests that Stephen had killed his father. ‘“You killed him, my dear” … And when Dad started laughing, he said firmly: “You killed him by ignoring him.” Dad stopped laughing and looked annoyed.’

Maybe to be ignored was to be let off easy. Matthew isn’t necessarily betraying his parents by applying himself to his father’s lies and his mother’s deflections, unless you feel it is a child’s responsibility to protect the parents from themselves. Maybe it is, but you get the impression that Matthew wants to tell the truth at last, even if he doesn’t really understand what that amounts to. Some people who knew the Spenders are appalled by his book. But for all the problems of snitching, Matthew understands his father’s variable appetites and social fears, and animates them accordingly. He tells of Stephen’s falling in love in Japan with a relative of his translator. ‘The emotions of Masao, his beauty, his incapacity to take any practical decision about his life,’ Matthew writes,

gave to the whole of Japan a kind of irresponsible dreamy freedom that reminded him of his youth in Weimar Germany. Stephen would resign from Encounter, discard his family, which surely could get on without him, and resume the life he’d had in Hamburg. Masao and the ‘floating world’ he inhabited was the perfect embodiment of that state of living ‘without guilt’ which, to Stephen, represented a calling, a vocation, a quest.

That life without guilt is the one he admired in Hollinghurst and wished he could have grappled with as a young writer. Natasha tried to enter that free world, thinking it might support her husband and make everything all right. But her diary gives the opposite account of her experience to the one she offered listeners to Radio 4. At one point, Spender agreed to let her come on a trip to America where he wanted to see his lover Bryan, who was to become ill with Aids. ‘I’m in despair over the California trip – I don’t want to meet B and to be an onlooker at the immense animation of the queer scene,’ she wrote. She felt she was ‘on the perimeter’ of Spender’s life. ‘To become substantial would require some positive act of mine,’ she goes on, ‘and that is not possible – because it would destroy the fragile, low-key, affection to which all must be dedicated, in order to help S’s work.’ Stephen’s response was predictably harsh. ‘She knew what she was letting herself in for. She has no right to complain.’ But complaining to herself was her only solace, and she never came to grips with the life he ordered for her. Nowadays, when people no longer quite believe in sexual identity, she might have done better. Events, moods, opportunities, keeping your options open – that’s what counts. ‘Just do your thing,’ as the Hollywood actress Kristen Stewart said, ‘it’s all skin.’ Instead, Spender is often the whipping boy among closeted gay writers. It’s a bit unfair, given that every second modernist writer you care to mention was up for a cocktail with the stable boy, but something in Spender’s rituals of denial and fussing make him an uncool example of the type.

His son certainly thinks so, and goes after him with affidavits. The declarations he produces are convincing, and often very entertaining: a sparkling portrait of a marriage between two people who didn’t really exist. As soon as his mother’s body was removed from the house, Matthew was on the phone to one of his father’s ex-boyfriends in America. He built up the picture from there, and its richness is a tribute to the manipulations of the self-invented. Natasha, as a social entity, was no more real than her husband, and if you take their own private words into account, as their son does here for the first time, the social mores of the era are illuminated, as well as the creative and sexual dilemmas that kept people going. None of it seems very harmful, unless we think it harmed Natasha.

‘I think the answer to your question about Natasha is that I do love her,’ Spender wrote to one of his boyfriends,

but that our relationship is extremely frustrated for fairly obvious reasons: that I am too ambivalent and she is too repressed. If she were a different person she might have changed me, and if I were a different person I might have changed her. We probably chose each other because one side of each realised that the other would not change it; but at the same time without such change, real happiness is scarcely possible. Of course, by change I mean a lot more than might appear. I mean, for instance my being ready to give up my ‘freedom’, her being ready to give up concerts. But neither is quite willing to give up these things, for fear that he, or she, would not get anything but loneliness in return.

That slip into the third person is part of the small history of English self-evasion – and sexual evasion is the least of it. ‘Just do your thing,’ one wishes to say to him, but he was doing his thing, and part of that thing was not really to know what his thing was. Sexual identity gets all the limelight, but sex itself wasn’t particularly important to Spender and the freedom he harped on about, and feared losing as a result of his domestic decisions, was the freedom to write as he wanted to. ‘My father was restless. My mother was stressed,’ Matthew Spender writes, and that’s about the size of it. Spender worried all his working life that he was a second-rate writer, and all his arias were essentially about the fear of being forgotten. Nobody is really remembered for their fucks, and the loneliness he feared was the loneliness he craved: to be alone at his desk in St John’s Wood, writing poetry the equal of his truly great friends.