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Progressing Ever Upward

Book Review by Gareth Jenkins, May 2003

Review of 'A Renegade in Springtime', Edward Upward, Enitharmon 15

Edward Upward, now approaching his 100th birthday, is the last of the 1930s generation of British left wing writers. This selection of short stories spans his entire output from the late 1920s to the 21st century.

The novelist Christopher Isherwood and the poets W H Auden and Stephen Spender are generally well known. Their work has often been taken to define the literature of the 'red decade'--that period when the triumph of fascism in Germany and the Spanish Civil War politicised a generation of writers who had come to maturity after the First World War.

Upward, on the other hand, is scarcely known at all. Literary histories of the period tend to consign him to a footnote. If he is remembered it is as a warning of what happens when writers supposedly become 'too political'.

For Upward not only joined the Communist Party, he was also an activist who decided that politics had to shape his writing. Other 1930s left wing writers flirted with the party, some even joining for a short period, but quickly moved out of its orbit by the late 1930s, disillusioned in their hopes for the Spanish Civil War and by the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact.

Auden and Isherwood bemoaned the 'low dishonest decade' and like other writers of their generation abandoned left wing politics altogether. Upward, on the other hand, remained true to his left wing aspirations throughout this period. When he did eventually break with the Communist Party in 1948 it was not because he was turning to reformism or right wing politics. It was because the CP had ceased to be the genuinely revolutionary force he was committed to.

This involved him in some very painful rethinking of the Stalinist heritage--not just in respect of the future of socialism but in respect of his role as a writer. You did not have to write in the drab, official manner demanded by Stalin's literary hacks. You could be committed to writing as a living, critical form, as well as to politics. Imagination and realism could be allies, not enemies.

The first story in this selection is 'The Railway Accident', written in 1928, but not published until after Upward's break with the CP. Circulated widely among friends, on whom it made a great impact, it marks Upward's first engagement with the relationship between inner feeling, the world out there--and class. Upward never wrote in quite the same way again, partly because he seemed unsure about how well he had handled the theme of neurosis, partly because of the pressure of Stalinism.

Of the other short stories, two date from the 1930s, and the rest from the 1980s. Often closely autobiographical and reflective in form, they explore Upward's engagement with the demands of writing and the role a politically conscious writer should play. What is impressive is the honesty and the hope, the scrupulous realism and the imaginative engagement that characterise them.

Edward Upward is a vital, living link between us and the 1930s, without whom our sense of the past and hope for the future would be the poorer. Every socialist should be demanding that bookshops and libraries stock his work. As he approaches his centenary the finest tribute we can pay him is to read and to learn.

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