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International Socialism, January 1978


Rip Bulkeley

A Moral Tale


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104104, January 1978, p. 27.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Spiral Ascent
by Edward Upward
Heinemann £6.50

Edward Upward was the least ‘public’ of the group of British writers (middle-class, Oxbridge, leftish) which formed in the 1930’s around the magazine New Country, with an orientation towards, though seldom membership of, the British Communist Party. Other members of the group, such as Spender and Isherwood, have repeatedly testified to their admiration for Upward’s work, and to their debt to his political and artistic leadership.

The Spiral Ascent is a trilogy made up of the novels In The Thirties (1962), The Rotten Elements (1969), and No Home But The Struggle (1977). The first two of these, as well as a collection containing all the rest of Upward’s published fiction, are already available in Penguin editions.

In 1932, at about the age of 29, oppressed by his unwillingly chosen profession of schoolteacher, and frustrated at his failure to produce work consistently up to his own expectations, Upward joined the Communist Party. Sixteen years after he left, deeply shaken by his realisation of the CP’s lack both of internal democracy and of Marxist principles, and vigorously opposed to its postwar reformist politics.

The Spiral Ascent is autobiographical to a fault. Most other characters in it, besides the hero, writer and schoolmaster Alan Sebrill, are no more than relationships into which Alan enters for longer or shorter, more or less important, passages in his life. Even Alan’s wife Elsie scarcely gains a substance of her own, though Upward’s picture of the relationship from Alan’s point of view is writing which both grasps, and makes, and communicates, truth. But when Upward refuses to portray the rest of the characters with the same kind of reality as he gives to Alan Sebrill, it is not the result either of egoism or of technical weakness. Upward simply will not pretend that he, or Sebrill, knows more than the surfaces of other people as encountered by himself. He withholds from the reader the pretences of fiction, the myth of the author as a god with a typewriter. Instead, he firmly asserts the unalterable solitude of every human being.

But is it unalterable? The above may be an explanation for this rather claustrophobic aspect of Upward’s work, but it is one which only works by seeing him as a more honest non-Marxist writer than other non-Marxist writers. However, Upward is a Marxist writer, and one of the few great ones still producing fiction in English today. Seen in such terms, his pessimistic emphasis on solitude feels decidedly odd, as well as depressing. It recurs throughout the trilogy, with Alan Sebrill’s persistent individualism and moralism, and with his self-obsessed struggles to grasp the effective ideals without which, for Upward/Sebrill, sanity becomes impossible. The high-pitched self-respect, with which Alan too often fails to cope with other people, sometimes tips over into an inhumane fastidiousness. In such a view of the world, and especially the moral and political world, what revolutionaries mean by solidarity and comradeship must always be taken as a wonderful dream, a dream that is all too likely to fade with the first flickers of fatigue or defeat or compromise, whether the Party in question has taken a reformist cop-out or not.

The same idealist kind of Marxism underlies the major theme of the trilogy, as Alan repeatedly confronts, in abstract and overwrought terms, the inter-relations and contradictions of ‘the poetic life’ with ‘the political life’. I was very tired of those two phrases by the time I finished the book. At the political centre of the work, the story of Alan’s joining and leaving the CP in the first two novels, the same thing recurs. The description of Alan and Elsie’s rude awakening is a good read. Few writers have Upward’s special power in conveying meaning through truthful observations of events and behaviour. But no historical causes for the reformist capitulation of the CP are even offered. It is great to have the recent history of the British Left brought to life in this way, and there is plenty to learn about in these novels. But not all that much to learn from. It is at least arguable, despite the general chorus of critical adulation, that Upward’s attempt to write politically conscious moral fiction, in the tradition of Milton, Bunyan and Tressell, has for the most part resulted only in the moralistic variety.

This is confirmed by the very structure of the trilogy. Episodic descriptions of political activity are included, rather like a list: one demonstration, one petition, one estate leaflet, one picnic ... But each novel is confined to a turning-point along Alan’s ‘Comrade’s Progress’. Over the twelve or more years of Alan’s political activity inside the Party, as over the entire war also, a literary veil is drawn. Perhaps if there is something here which Upward has not yet resolved to his own satisfaction, it may provide him with a subject for future work. But as it stands in the trilogy, this kind of view of events, only in their phases of personal tension and dramatic change, is bound to make too much out of the subjective will of Alan, or of the remote Party leaders, and too little out of the historical cases of CP reformism.

Still, people who read novels should definitely read at least The Rotten Elements, which is only 35p on Bookmarks current list, while ordering the complete trilogy at their local library. Whatever his faults, and his honest restriction of his work to his own middle-class viewpoint, Upward is a part of our literary tradition, and we should stand by him, in the old phrase ‘critically’!

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