Dialectical collapse

Edward Upward The coming day and other stories Enitharmon 2000, pp151, £7.99

The fact that Edward Upward is producing new work well into his 90s is testimony to his unique ability as well as to the intellectual forge in which he created his literary method.

Upward was the youthful creator, alongside his equally legendary contemporary, Christopher Isherwood, of 'Mortmere', a game that they began as undergraduates at Cambridge in the 1920s. Upward fashioned this terrifying, anarchistic inversion of the English countryside into The railway accident (1928) - a highly individualistic excursion into the surreal.

Whilst Isherwood was able to leave Mortmere behind fairly comfortably, Upward was faced with the problem of translating the freaks and bogeys of his imagination into the social world at large, which, judging from his writings, led to severe literary and personal problems.

Eventually he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1932. Upward was not alone. The CPGB influenced a whole strain of British writers in this period (Cornford, Caudwell, Auden, Spender) and in doing so was able to create a literary culture of lasting repute. This episode has of course been undergoing something of an intellectual renaissance recently. However, Upward's work remains little more than a footnote, precisely because his joining of the Party left him fighting for his literary life.

This depressing circumstance is illustrated in The railway accident and other stories (1972), showing his development from surrealism, through the high-octane psychological torment of 'Journey to the border', and ending in the flat, naturalistic propaganda of 'New order'. The absent literary qualities of this dreadful prose can be gleaned from a statement of Upward's in a 1937 essay: "No book written at the present time can be 'good' unless it is written from a Marxist or near-Marxist viewpoint."

Predictably enough, Upward ended up by starving his talent, publishing nothing between 1942 and 1962, and disowning his earlier Mortmere fantasies as subversive and delinquent. The author's internal struggle to adjust his literary and political existence are pictured in his best books, In the thirties and The rotten elements (which form part of a trilogy - The spiral ascent).

In the latter work, Alan Sebrill (Upward's fictionalised self) suffers a breakdown after finding himself outside the CPGB and unable to write poetry. Upward and his wife Hilda similarly left the Party in 1948 after a principled factional struggle against the CPGB's developing reformism.

Since the 1970s the name of Edward Upward has dropped out of literary fashion, despite his partial return to the creative methods of his youth. Indeed Upward has become a masterful depicter of dreams and their fusion into the real world. However, although Upward's literary skill is not up for question, it remains doubtful as to whether his later books top his earlier achievement.

Some of this can be traced back to the last part of The spiral ascent - the rather overblown No home but the struggle (1977) where Upward sets undigested fictional recollections of his early life against a final synthesis of prose and politics. Whilst the last pages of this work can be counted amongst the most beautiful and moving in contemporary literature, they merely stack up problems for Upward's later output.

This can be seen in The coming day, which details the escape of Cedric Durcombe from a nursing home. This tale has the genuine moments of humour and absurdity that one comes to associate with the manner in which dreams twist and turn the elements of everyday life. But synthesis is ever present, allowing disturbing episodes, such as when the sadist Goran transports Cedric to an abattoir (our hero sees human bodies amongst the dead pigs).

This turns into farce when the protagonist is quickly discovered by the young, sexually attractive Zaniah, who escorts him to a 'safe house' where they begin a love affair. None of these bizarre episodes leave any real mark on the reader, being absorbed by a breathy narrative structure. This reaches a conclusion when Zaniah joins a band of 'professional revolutionaries', whilst Cedric will return to the 'safe house'. Their leaving is marked by Zaniah saying: "We shall not forget how much we owe to you for the ideas you have given us" (p72).

Clumping the dream structure into this sentimental rationalisation of Upward's life leads us, by a peculiar route, to the simplistic narrative resolutions of 'socialist realism'. The dialectical problems involved here are also shown by Upward's rather wearing tendency in his later work to sift and sort the details of his personal history into dream forms and his continued emphasis on political persecution. We get the feeling that something has been lost.

Which reminds this reader of Upward's hallucinatory picture of a National Unemployed Workers Movement march from In the thirties. Alan Sebrill detaches himself from his Party cell with the individualistic comrade Bainton. Through this separation, Upward paints an unforgettable picture, concentrating on sinister detail: horsemen being felled by marbles, the provocateur, a police truncheon charge. Through this montage we discern human motive forces much more effectively than through tired battle stories.

Bland synthesis is discarded in favour of the clash between Sebrill's rather neurotic observations and the struggle raging around him. Such are the contradictions at the root of all great art.

Upward was clearly never able to replace this political panorama - and its subsequent evocation in his fertile imagination - through later involvement in CND and anti-racist campaigns. It is this sense of loss that tends to mark the relative dialectical collapse exhibited by works such as The coming day.

Phil Watson