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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 184 Contents

Dave Beecham


A welcome intrusion


From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


An Unmentionable Man
Edward Upward

Journey to the Border
Edward Upward

The Mortmere Stories
Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward
Enitharmon £7.99

The ‘unmentionable’ of the first of these three books is a forgotten Marxist writer called Stephen Highwood. Or rather, not so much forgotten but suppressed; a writer who the establishment has now decided is ‘to be obliterated permanently’.

Although that has not quite been Edward Upward’s own fate, it is a fact that he remains largely ignored – and when not ignored,disparagingly dismissed as an author stuck in a 1930s time warp. As one condescending reviewer concluded recently, Upward remains ‘earnestly political and argumentative’ – so clearly he’s not worth bothering with.

Upward’s Marxism is naturally one aspect of his writing which should endear him to readers of Socialist Review. Unlike his contemporary stars of the 1930s, Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, Upward did not move to the right when it was politically comfortable, or when he became disillusioned with the Communist Party. On the contrary, when he left the CP in 1948 he remained true to the ideals which he had embraced before the war. Today, in his nineties, he seems as intransigent as ever.

The continuing commitment of a veteran socialist makes you feel good, but is not in itself a reason to read his books. The reason Edward Upward deserves our attention is, above all, because he has consistently striven to achieve truth in fiction.

This is a lonely and exacting struggle for any writer. In the 1930s it was made far harder by the stifling grip of Stalinist politics and the CP’s insistence on socialist realism as the only legitimate form for literature, art and even music.

Upward’s approach to writing was entirely different. In collaboration with Isherwood, he had become a master of the fantastic, drawing on the styles of writers such as Poe, Conan Doyle and Joyce.

There was thus an enormous tension between Upward’s political commitment and his creative work.

The struggle to resolve this tension is at the heart of all Upward’s subsequent writing, notably his three volume autobiographical novel The Spiral Ascent. Here he mixed realism and the imaginary in an account of the corrosive degeneration of the CP, and the struggle of an activist, Alan Sebrill, to ‘live the poetic life’.

However, Upward’s style, above all his dazzling use of words, is most suited to shorter, more concentrated works, particularly Journey to the Border, first published in 1938 and now appearing in anew, revised version. This is an extraordinary, surreal journey of the mind in which the central nameless character, a private tutor,hovers on the edge of madness – by turns tempted and repelled by competing ideologies and ‘lifestyles’ – before deciding that a commitment to the working class and revolutionary politics offers the only way out.

The unique quality of Journey to the Border is the way th ebook conveys a political message through an account of the inner working of the mind in a language which is more like painting or film than writing. Upward’s new collection of short stories, An Unmentionable Man, uses this style to great effect but also demonstrates his special ability to mix realism and the fantastic.

His dreamlike stories are never escapist. They are full of menace,confronting a world of hospital closures, fascist resurgence, the commercialisation of art and human relations, civil war, and political and personal betrayal.

Yet Upward is not a pessimist. At the end of this book are two contrasting stories. The first is a touching chronicle of a couple growing old together and about the way ordinary, decent people live unmemorable but admirable lives.

The second might be described as Journey to the Border Part Two, where Upward chooses a dreamlike sequence of events to make a political statement.

As the critic Frank Kermode says in his introduction to this book, Upward ‘remains convinced that the artist cannot escape the world of political strife, that if he declines the commitment to that as well as to his art he will fail.’

It is not surprising that Upward’s gritty battle to be true to his art and to his political beliefs is disparaged by those who find politics and commitment an unwelcome intrusion in literature. For purpart we should celebrate it – and look for more to come.

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