Gareth Jenkins analyses Edward Upward‘s contribution to 20th century literature.
The novelist Edward Upward recently celebrated his 100th birthday. He is the last link with a generation of writers - writers like the novelist Christopher Isherwood and the poet W H Auden - who were radicalised in the 1930s by the horrors of fascism and the struggle of ordinary people for a better world.
Upward is a forgotten writer, ’an unmentionable man‘, to quote the title of one of his short stories. The main reason is that Upward remained true to revolutionary politics. Most of his contemporaries abandoned left politics. The critics decided that Upward‘s commitment to politics was incompatible with a commitment to art.
Upward himself experienced enormous difficulties. He published very little in the 1930s. Partly this was because of his own exacting standards. But it was also because he felt that the struggle against fascism and capitalism had to be the priority.
Upward came from a privileged background. He went to public school and then to Cambridge. At school he became close friends with Christopher Isherwood - a friendship which continued at university and beyond.
They were both in revolt against their backgrounds, against the false values and snobbery of the people among whom they had been brought up and who dominated every aspect of their world and its culture. What we today might call the ’establishment‘ they called the ’poshocracy‘. They took literary revenge on this world by creating a private fantasy world - a mythical village of Mortmere, peopled by weird but recognisably upper class characters. Unpublished, the short stories achieved a kind of cult status among their literary friends, including the poet W H Auden.
Upward‘s powerful imagination - his ability to create a vividly neurotic sense of reality - can be seen in The Railway Accident, written in 1928 and not published until after the Second World War.
Upward, however, became dissatisfied with this kind of writing - he saw it as personal escapism, rather than an engagement with reality and an attempt to change it. He began to feel that good art should be politically committed. His struggle to find a new role for himself is brilliantly captured in his short novel Journey to the Border, published in 1938, which features a young private tutor‘s struggle to break free from the world of privilege in which he is a despised and self-despising hanger-on. The border is the point of transition from that world into the world of working class politics.
For 16 years Upward was an active member of the Communist Party. He led a kind of double life, by day teaching in a private school, by night dedicating his life to the cause. His writing became part of the struggle. He wrote short pieces for left wing magazines and was active in popular front organisations for teachers.
When he left the CP in 1948 it was not because he became disillusioned with left politics, as many other writers of the 1930s did. It was because he saw the CP‘s support for Labour as a betrayal of Lenin‘s revolutionary politics. Joining the CP had meant a painful break with his background - but one that gave purpose to his life and art. Leaving it was a liberation because he began to think more deeply and critically about Stalin - but the pain of separation led to a breakdown. Slowly he began to recover and writing once more became the centre of his life.
The fruit of this was a trilogy of novels - In the Thirties (1962), The Rotten Elements (1969) and No Home but the Struggle (1977). In them he brilliantly captures what it was like to be active in the Communist Party in the 1930s and to be on the receiving end of Stalinist vilification in the 1940s. But if the critics were anticipating a recantation of his views on politics and art they were sorely disappointed. Rather, the novels enact - through the break with Stalinism - a reinvigoration of the idea of a committed art. The last volume of the trilogy shows the writer recovering his imaginative powers, not in opposition to politics, but in his return to struggle, the struggle to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
No Home but the Struggle changes from a third person narrative to a first person narrative, as if, for the first time in the trilogy, the writer permits himself an inner life. He recalls his upbringing and his attempt, as a young man, to find a poetical voice. But this is no return to some pre-politic world, a nostalgia for ‘home’. He revisits his past in order to move forward as a politically committed writer. He returns to earlier concerns but at a higher stage of development - a kind of dialectical advance as suggested by the title of the trilogy, The Spiral Ascent.
The critics have consistently underestimated the force of Upward’s writing. They have found his style drab, a kind of British socialist realism. What is true is that, in comparison with his early style, the language of the trilogy (and the short stories he has written since) is pared down. There is no sense of words being wasted on superfluous detail. But that has not meant a sacrifice of imagination, as critics sometimes argue. Rather, the commitment to revolutionary politics - which occupies much of the narrative of the trilogy - comes across as inseparable from the emotional life of the writer.
Upward continues to write. Neglected for decades (scandalously, the trilogy is out of print), an enterprising publishing house, Enitharmon, is making available to a new generation of readers a wide range of his writing from the 1920s to the 1990s.
The title of the most recent collection of his work, A Renegade in Springtime, says it all. Upward is still, in his 100th year, a renegade to the dominant class. The barbarism which brought Upward into politics 70 years ago - exploitation and war - finds itself opposed not just by a handful of survivors but by a new, vibrant global movement. Winter has given way to spring. Upward is our link to the past and a pointer to a future when we can finish the beast once and for all.