I had not known that Edward Upward was still alive until I read that he had died—a tad too late to compliment the man on his longevity, perhaps, but not too late to marvel at it. “He must have been ancient!” I exclaimed to my wife, who—with her customary Anglo-Saxon phlegm—ignored me entirely (which was for the best, of course, as she had no idea who I was talking about and wouldn’t have cared if she had). But I was quite right: Upward (1903–2009) was 105 and change when the Reaper came to collect his overripe harvest. More amazingly (and embarrassingly for me, as it seems to have eluded my attention altogether), the man’s supersenescence had been marked by a very late revival of his literary fortunes, with the publication, between 1993 and 2004, of five collections of his short stories—old and new—and of two personal memoirs.
For those who have not heard of Upward (which would be nearly everyone), and especially for those who might suspect from his slightly ludicrous name that he was a character in a novel by Anthony Powell or Lawrence Durrell (a role for which he would, in fact, have been admirably suited), I should say not only that he was a real person, but that he was also at one time something of a force in twentieth century English letters, even if largely indirectly. In the 1930’s, he was a member of that young set of “politically conscious” writers whose most conspicuous members were W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood. He was, moreover, in some sense its leader, at least en famille; all three of his more famous comrades paid tribute at one time or another to the importance of his influence on their work. Isherwood, in fact, had been a schoolmate of Upward’s, and the two had joined forces in the 1920’s to write the fantastic and rather ghastly “Mortmere” tales—stories that seem as if they could have been the result of a collaboration between Lewis Carroll and Mervyn Peake, with several vital contributions by Satan.
It was not, however, Upward’s own literary productions (which were somewhat sporadic and sparse) that set his special mark on that “low, dishonest decade” so much as it was his fervent embrace of and unwavering fidelity to a truly “revolutionary” communism, of the most unapologetically Soviet variety, which he managed to communicate to his literary friends. And, long after his fellows had outgrown the chic radicalism of their salad days and moved on to other things—Spender to the slow labor of a soberer style of socialist politics, Auden to the comforts of High Anglicanism and camp domesticity, Isherwood to the mystery and glitter of California Vedanta and camp bohemianism—Upward remained loyal to the great cause. As far as I can tell, he died an unrepentant Stalinist.
This might explain in part the obscurity in which his work has always languished. By remaining so obstinately fixed in the political fashions of the long cultural twilight between the two world wars, he condemned himself to perpetual marginality. Even taking into account that last flourish of fame that unexpectedly enlivened the tenth decade of his life, he departed the world this past February very much an unremarked celebrity (so to speak). The Guardian, predictably, ran a generous obituary, and a few other notices appeared in the British press, but that was all; his lone encomiast on this side of the ocean, it appears, was Christopher Hitchens, writing in the Atlantic.
Another explanation for his work’s obscurity, however, is that it simply wasn’t very good. This is not to say he lacked talent; it is only to say that he rarely made any profitable use of it. Had he persisted in working the comic and surreal vein he and Isherwood had explored in Mortmere, he might have produced fiction with some genuine prospect of a long posterity; at least one of the tales he wrote in that sequence—1928’s “The Railway Accident”—is an impressive performance, albeit of a slightly degenerate variety, and gives clear evidence of real literary promise.
Alas, it was not to be. Upward’s frankly fanatical commitment to Marxism was a force against which his limited reserves of artistic inspiration could not prevail. He decided, quite peremptorily, that a true loyalty to the socialist Utopia of the future entailed an absolute rejection of all fantasy and whimsy; and so he set about producing books of almost transcendent dreariness, rather on the model of Soviet realist art, pitilessly humorless, devoid of irony, didactic, austere, militantly edifying, frequently platitudinous, and embittered throughout by a petulant class resentment. His first novel—Journey to the Border (1938)—was at least written with a degree of lyricism, which almost compensates for its boring plot about a private tutor’s rebellion against the society he serves and his spiritual journey to revolutionary commitment. But, by the time his next novel appeared—after a creative hiatus of some twenty years, prompted at least in part by ideological agonies—he had dutifully purged his prose of any lingering residue of bourgeois aesthetic charm. His magnum opus—the trilogy of books collectively called The Spiral Ascent (1962-1977), a semi-autobiographical chronicle of (thrillingly enough) a schoolteacher’s interminable attempt to reconcile his communist devotion with his aspiration to write poetry, while struggling against the despair occasioned by the British communist party’s retreat from revolutionary principles—set a new standard for dullness in British fiction. An epic realist narrative about a Calvinist elder in the Orkneys, seeking to preserve himself against the inveiglements of the godless world through his firm trust in double predestination, could not be more crushingly drab.
Admittedly, this last judgment is based upon only a partial sampling of the work. I am, by nature, a neurotic “completist”; I feel I must finish any book I begin, no matter how great a torment it turns out to be. But I have to confess that, in two attempts to get through The Spiral Ascent, my will has proved unequal to the task. On both occasions, there came a point (and roughly the same point) at which the poor laboring beast of my attention span lay down in the dust and mulishly refused to move forward another inch, no matter how savagely I cursed and flogged it. Thereafter, I merely skimmed through the final pages, simply to confirm for myself that life—even a life as protracted as, say, Edward Upward’s—is not long enough to make room for such an ordeal. Others, however, have found the books more inviting than I, and perhaps my failure to follow Upward’s tale to the end bespeaks something shallow and dilettantish in my nature. Hitchens, to judge from his article, has actually read all three volumes—though not, it seems, out of any truly deep admiration. But, really, a relentlessly earnest communist schoolteacher might make excellent material for a farce, but should never occupy the center of a serious novel (let alone three serious novels).
In any event, my reason for taking note of Upward’s departure from this vale of alienation and private property is not to ridicule so much as to mourn a minor but largely wasted talent, and then to marvel at the purity of will that sustained this man throughout a life of such extraordinary length. How is it that he can have lived more than a century without ever having relaxed his grip upon his belief in the communist orthodoxy of the 1930’s? If one accepts the mostly spurious dichotomy between faith and reason, then Upward must be accounted one of the most astounding “Knights of Faith” in the modern era.
Was there another man in our living experience who willed one thing, with such utter singularity, in such perfect defiance of all the evidence of history and all the counsels of reason, for so long, without faltering? He simply never lost the faith, and—after all—he who perseveres to the end must surely be saved. In a sense, his life seems to have been buoyed up upon a kind of childlike enchantment, and this despite the frequent sullenness and disappointment of his general attitude to his society and age. The reason a somewhat eremitical cynic like me finds his books boring and he did not is because I lack his capacity to see the eschatological splendor of the workers’ paradise shining through the dun fabric of his realist fabulations. For him, all that boredom and dreariness and dreadful seriousness and glum fervor—for most sane temperaments, the very essence of squalid monotony—positively glimmered and glistened with the dewy sheen of fairy-tale romance: the great Romance of communism and its ultimate triumph over all the dark disenchantments of history.
There is something sublime in such a faith, and in its power to transfigure the most tediously ordinary realities of life into radiant symbols and vatic intimations of a magical kingdom beyond the fixed boundaries of the known world. I’m quite sure that any afterlife—even a blissful one—would come as an offense to Upward’s Marxist pieties, and perhaps a kind providence might just allow him to disappear into the abyss of matter, as he expected; but surely, one cannot help but feel, such unwavering devotion to a future always more future, however curious or misguided, merits some answer in the courts of eternity.
David B. Hart's most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.