In the title story of Edward Upward’s new collection, a forgotten Marxist author of the Thirties dreams that he is approached by a present-day admirer, a ‘lecturer at a Yorkshire polytechnic’. At first Stephen Highwood is suspicious. He doesn’t expect people to know who he is. His books have long been out of print and are not to be found in public libraries. In surveys of modern literature, his name barely rates a mention. ‘Are you some kind of highclass tout?’ he asks. ‘Which books of mine have you read?’
But this dream fan is for real, or so it seems, and the two of them fall to discussing the reasons for Highwood’s neglect. The reasons, they agree, are obvious: because of his unflinching left-wing views, Highwood has been evileyed by ‘dominant opinion in Establishment circles’. ‘There was a time,’ the fan suggests, ‘when it would have been quite in order to refer to your work dismissively or disapprovingly but that time has passed. They’ve decided now that you are to be obliterated permanently.’ Highwood accepts this analysis, but adds: ‘I don’t doubt that the people who would like to obliterate me would like even more to obliterate the political ideas I have supported in my writings.’
This sour-smug note can he heard throughout the linked stories of An Unmentionable Man. Time and again, Highwood is presented as a figure of adamantine integrity who has paid a high price for his faith. When publishers take him to lunch and offer to sex up his image – to ‘put an end for ever to the idea people unfortunately have that you are boringly old-fashioned and over-serious’ – he recoils with indignation. ‘You are really little better than prostitutes,’ he cries. On the other hand, he is by no means indifferent to the trappings of literary success. All the evidence suggests that he has monitored the downward curve of his career with zealous rage. Meeting, in his dream, a contemporary who now earns his crust by penning self-serving memoirs of the Thirties, Highwood says to him: ‘I may not have read every article you’ve written or television talk you’ve given about the Thirties, but I have read and heard more than a few, and there wasn’t one that didn’t completely ignore me.’
At moments like this, we might be tempted to diagnose a straightforward case of back-number paranoia. For Highwood read Upward, and so on. Upward is now in his nineties and, in spite of these homageful reissues by Enitharmon, his work has in recent years been given a rough ride. Nowadays, by those readers who know of him, he is likely to be thought of as a once-vaunted star of Thirties legend who disappeared into Marxist politics and never quite returned – or, rather, who did return but who had in the meantime transmuted from vivacious satirist to plodding bore.
Upward’s major work, A Spiral Ascent, came out in three parts between 1962 and 1977, breaking a silence that had lasted since the early Forties, when he joined the Communist Party (he left it in 1948). The trilogy presents the saga of its artist-hero’s joining and leaving of the Party and ends with him solemnly recommitting himself to the ‘poetic life’ – by which he means the writing of a political literature that will put art first and politics a tenaciously close second. In terms of Upward’s own career, we are seemingly meant to value the trilogy as the outcome of a long, brave effort to negotiate a truce between two vital but conflicting loyalties: the author’s still-unwavering Marxism and his deep-seated notion of himself as a free-range creative spirit.
On publication of Parts One and Two, A Spiral Ascent was widely scorned by reviewers. Like Stephen Highwood, it was found to be ‘boringly old-fashioned and over-serious’. Even Samuel Hynes called it ‘arid, unimaginative and unreadable’. And Upward had trouble finding a publisher for the third section. The overall suggestion was that his laborious rephrasings of the Art v. Politics dilemmas of his youth had added nothing much to what had already been chewed over in numerous memoirs and studies of the Thirties. Nothing, that is, except an insistence that those dilemmas were still very much alive – or ought to be.
By the Sixties, when the trilogy started to appear, there was an impatience with conflicts that could not easily be solved. There was a weariness, also, with big talk about ‘commitment’: a topic of earnest discussion during the middle to late Fifties. And the Thirties, though popular as a source of anecdote, were mainly thought of with fond condescension. Auden and Spender had lashed themselves with twigs and been forgiven, and their ‘politics’ had come to be viewed as something of a pose – an interesting pose, with some painful and marvellous offshoots, but in essence a bit silly.
With Upward, though, there was no sense that he even knew that this was how some people spoke about the epoch that had shaped him. In A Spiral Ascent we find no god-that-failed shamefacedness. As Upward saw things, the failure of the Thirties was in those who had merely pretended to believe. His earnest, striving characters make mistakes from time to time. They can be too trusting and naive, too purist in their attachment to the sacred texts. But not one of them is allowed even the tiniest of self-deprecating chuckles. It was perhaps this absence rather than the menace of its politics that led critics to ‘obliterate’ his book.
And yet Upward, when he started out, was highly regarded as a joker. In Christopher Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows, he appears as ‘Allen Chalmers’, the brilliantly mischievous co-inventor of Mortmere, ‘a sort of anarchist paradise in which all accepted moral and social values are turned upside down’. Isherwood and Upward went to the same school, Repton, then to Cambridge, and in both places formed an alliance against what they called ‘the poshocracy’. Teachers, vicars, hearties, dons: all of these feature in the Mortmere tales as lunatic grotesques, representative of privilege and authority gone mad. The idea, said Isherwood, was to induce in the reader sensations of ‘disgust’. He planned one day to publish the tales in a very limited edition, ‘as a volume containing oil paintings, brasses, intaglios, pressed flowers, mirrors and harmless bombs to emphasise points in the story’. The dialogue would be spoken by a concealed gramophone and the pages ‘would smell, according to their subject-matter, of grave-clothes, manure or expensive scent’.
The Mortmere stories are of interest now chiefly as documents, although they do have some nice inspirations: the Rev Casimir Welken, for example, who breeds angels in his belfry. And it is easy enough to see why they made their adolescent readership sit up, As well as exhibiting a tense familiarity with the habits of the English upper-middle class – the village fête, the rectory tea party, ‘the damp beehive in the summer-house’ – they were themselves impeccably well-bred: Joyce, Kafka, Baudelaire, a dash of Conan Doyle. In the late Twenties these were fashionable names. Best of all, though, the stories were so smuttily school-boyish: in those days, saying rude words in front of nanny took a lot of nerve. Shit features quite a lot in Mortmere – as it does, curiously enough, in An Unmentionable Man.
When samples of Mortmere reached Oxford, the court of Auden was spellbound. Stephen Spender later on recalled that ‘just 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.’ And much the same message reached John Lehmann, whose Hogarth Press would eventually publish Upward’s first novel: ‘I heard with the tremor of excitement that an entomologist feels at the news of an unknown butterfly sighted in the depths of the forest, that behind Auden and Spender and Isherwood stood the even more legendary figure of ... Edward Upward.’
For Upward, this was quite a load to carry, and it was all the heavier perhaps because he could not be sure of anyone’s praise except Isherwood’s. Only Isherwood knew who, in these Mortmere tales, had written what. In later years, Isherwood would say that Mortmere mattered more to Upward than it did to him but maybe all he meant by this was that Upward always took things more solemnly than he did. Or did he mean that Upward’s attachment to these boyish fantasies was more unhealthily neurotic than his own? In the third part of A Spiral Ascent, Upward equips his schoolboy-narrator Alan Sebrill with a Mortmere-like dream-realm he can retreat to when he’s feeling glum, which is quite often. The dream-realm is called Eitna (‘Auntie’ spelled backwards) and in it terrible Old Testament-style punishments are visited on ‘men of evil character’ – all of whom are based on Sebrill’s various school-foes, boys as well as teachers. As described in the trilogy, Eitna was by no means played for laughs.
It is not until Sebrill teams up with his friend Richard Marple (who ‘did not dislike the poshocracy quite as deeply’ as he did) that the fun and games begin. ‘We began to write stories together with titles such as The Leviathan of the Urinals, The Horror in the Tower and The Loathly Succubus ... Our intention was to make these stories as bluntly and ludicrously disgusting as we could: obscene farce was our answer to the kind of namby-pamby delicately indelicate pseudo-pornography ... which was fashionable with some members of the poshocracy.’
This may have been Sebrill/Upward’s intention but the flighty Isherwood had no such worthy aims. For him the cultivation of Disgust was just a giggle, an escape from the boredom of institutional life and from a fear of his own ‘puritan priggishness’. Isherwood was the nimble pasticheur, Upward the glowering introvert. For a time, the two supplied each other with useful ammunition – Isherwood was witty, Upward was well-read – but they were fighting very different wars. Upward envied Isherwood’s cabaret slickness of expression; Isherwood was in awe of Upward’s ideological vehemence. The liaison could not last.
Indeed it was the coming war against fascism that broke up their partnership. For Upward, the poshocracy was a horrific foreshadowing of Fascism, and he would find it necessary to refocus and intensify his opposition. For Isherwood, war was an imminent romance, a Test that he already knew he’d fail. ‘I wonder how I should have reacted to the preaching of an English Fascist leader clever enough to serve up his “message” in a suitably disguised and palatable form?’ he asked in Lions and Shadows. ‘He would have converted me, I think, inside half an hour – provided always that Chalmers hadn’t been there to interfere.’
Upward’s fist novel. Journey to the Border, appeared in 1938, the same year as Lions and Shadows: in other words, late in the day. By 1931, Isherwood had published three novels, including Mr Norris Changes Trains, and had probably already written his Berlin stories. For him, Mortmere was the stuff of coolly amused reminiscence. It had served a purpose: traces of it can be found in Auden’s The Orators (1933) and in the Auden-Isherwood verse-play, The Dog beneath the Skin (1935). By the time of Upward’s ‘long-awaited’ fictional début, the joke was all used up.
But for Upward it had never been a joke. This much was made clear by Journey to the Border’s fervid mix of Mortmere-style fantasy with firm-jawed political resolve. The book’s narrator is in the process of becoming as mad as the mad characters he dreams about. His sanity is imperilled by a surfeit of Mortmerian hallucinations. In the end he saves himself by resolving to quit the murky enticements of literary fantasy in favour of the healthy, useful comradeship offered to him by the Internationalist Workers’ Movement: ‘His decision to join it would not make life easier for him. But at least he would have come down to earth, out of the cloud of his irresponsible fantasies; would have begun to live. He had already begun.’
After Cambridge, while Auden and Isherwood were turning into celebrities, Upward worked quietly as a schoolmaster, distributed leaflets for the Party, and kept out of the literary swim. His one-time admirers tended to avoid him; he was a reproachful presence, a reminder to the lads of what political commitment really meant. Also, he was not part of the homosexual scene. He may even have thought queers were ‘decadent’. Apart from Journey to the Border, he published nothing much until 1948, the year in which he left the Party because of its ‘expedient’ support for Attlee’s post-war ‘socialist reforms’. And in 1948, the best he could come up with was yet another slice of Mortmere. ‘The Railway Accident’ (written in 1928) appeared under the name ‘Allen Chalmers’, with a note by Isherwood explaining that ‘Chalmers’ hated his own story and believed that ‘the kind of literature which makes a dilettante cult of violence, sadism, bestiality and sexual acrobatics is peculiarly offensive and subversive in an age such as ours – an age which has witnessed the practically applied bestiality of Belsen and Dachau.’
Even so, Chalmers/Upward allowed the story to be published, and it was reissued, under Upward’s name, in 1969 – complete with Isherwood’s disclaimer. It also appears in this comprehensive new collection of The Mortmere Stories. Mortmere, it seems, will not let Upward go. Or is it the other way around? In An Unmentionable Man, there are some weird Mortmere-like set-pieces, and in his use of a dream-structure for his tales, Upward does seem to be harking back to his old manner. But the fantasy-flights come across as effortful, interrupting the main thrust, which – as in the trilogy – is earnestly political and argumentative. And in any case, the committee-meeting prose is always likely to clog up the works. Without an Isherwood at his elbow, Upward can’t help keeping the straight face he was born with.