Principled political artist

Edward Upward 1903-2009 was at the forefront of literary innovation and also a committed communist, writes Lawrence Parker

Edward Upward died on February 13 2009 and was buried next to his wife, Hilda, on the Isle of Wight on February 20.

In some ways the writer finds it hard to be at all objective about this loss. As a young man in my 20s, Upward provided me with a lot of my political and writing identity. After quickly sniffing out that the Trotskyist groups I had joined when I was a student had zero interest in the so-called ‘narrower’ aesthetics of writing, it was astounding for me to discover Upward, who could lay out the roots of the problem at a much higher level in the ranks of the CPGB in the 1930s and 40s. It was even more astounding to peel off the layers and discover the surrealist of the 1920s who had maimed himself in the cause of political orthodoxy, only to reappear in later years as the master of a trance-like style, where the world seemed as if was enveloped in a film of water.

Also, of course, Upward provided the group to which I belong, The Rotten Elements, with an identity - The rotten elements being Upward’s nearly-autobiographical novel (part of a trilogy - The spiral ascent) that dealt with his and his wife’s struggle against the CPGB’s post-war reformism and the author’s desperate battle to cling on to some form of aesthetic value in the face of the corrosive ideology of ‘socialist-realism’. To me, The Rotten Elements accurately describes the received wisdom regarding a shrunken band of Marxist (or Marxist-influenced) artists who, like Upward, still want to explore and interrogate the intersection between art and politics. All desperately uninteresting for a revolutionary left mired in an aesthetic reductionism that owes more to Andrei Zhdanov than Leon Trotsky.

Of course, there is another sense in which Trotskyists in particular find the likes of Upward uncomfortable. The notion of CPGB members struggling against the organisation’s reformist drift as principled revolutionaries (albeit with a crude and often flawed politics) simply does not fit the received picture of ‘Stalinism’.

But then Upward fitted nowhere. He was suspect to ‘official communists’ because he and Hilda saw through the rank opportunism and ridiculous amateur dramatics of the post-war CPGB leadership, although he has generally - and unusually - been treated fairly by the Morning Star down the years, a publication of which he was a supporter and that, ironically, is the inheritor of the debased ‘official communism’ that Upward had struggled against.1 He has been rehabilitated in recent years by bourgeois writers, although it is clear that this is largely because the unfashionable cause of communism is deemed to be dead and Upward can be safely exhumed as an exotic curio of the 1930s, benefitting from his associations with WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

There is, of course, a certain myth that hangs around the left, according to which Upward was a ‘socialist realist’ writer. Some of this myth is an inability to confront uncomfortable truths. Thus an obituary on the Unrepentant Communist blog reads: “… I also believe that much of the negative criticism of [Upward’s] literature was in fact a literary and critical form of political opposition to his chosen form of creativity, and of course a dismissal, and a contemptuous dismissal at that, of any attempt to employ the socialist realist or written documentary form.”2

This is a significant misreading. No doubt the ‘official communist’ author would prefer that Upward had been a servant of this style. It is true that Upward edged towards this socialist realism in the 1930s, but it only fully flowered into drab political exhortation with ‘New order’ (1942). As Upward made clear in The rotten elements, surrendering his writing to political rhetoric left him with a personal breakdown and fighting for his artistic life. In other words, Upward’s work evolved through his artistic and political struggles. How, for example, can the lurid surrealism of ‘The railway accident’ (1928) be squared off with an “attempt to employ the socialist realist or written documentary form”? What precisely would have Stalin’s literary toadies made of the public measurement of Miss Belmare’s bust? Answers on a postcard, please.

Scott Hamilton, writing on the Reading the Maps blog a few years back, offered up a more precise critique: “The rotten elements is perhaps most remarkable for the sheer dourness of the prose in which Upward tells his all-too-familiar story of dissent and bureaucratic excommunication. The man who helped to bring surrealism into British literature with the wild stories of his youth fills this novel of his middle age with plodding compound sentences and banal imagery. He deliberately avoids sensationalising his story, passing over several opportunities to stage dramatic confrontations.

“Upward refuses to simplify or even summarise the controversies in his novel, and is thus forced to subject readers to page after page of explanation of the minutiae of Communist Party politics. Scenery is avoided: almost all of the action - I use that word guardedly - of the novel takes place in meeting rooms and shabby working class homes.”3

Hamilton (who should really know better) has, I think, been misled by a very traditional ‘leftist’ mistake. A surface of politics has been perceived, and as this surface is unattractive to the interlocutor, there is then the attempt to read from this a set of aesthetic judgements. What, after all, could be worse than “page after page of explanation of the minutiae of Communist Party politics”. And, in reality, the book is full of terse confrontations between revolutionaries and CPGB leaders, and rank and filers who want to defend the party’s reformism.

The point that struck me first on reading this is that Hamilton had read a different book. Where in all this is the developing paranoia and claustrophobia, the nightmare world of the CPGB bureaucracy and the struggle for an aesthetic relevant to a party that can only think in terms of deadening abstractions? By my judgement, The rotten elements is possibly the weirdest (and most remarkable) political novel ever produced.

To understand this one has to go back to ‘Mortmere’, the surrealist world that Upward and Isherwood created as Cambridge undergraduates in the mid-1920s, as a kind of literary attack on their surroundings. Upward introduced the imaginary village in this manner: “It has been said that Mortmere rectory does not seem to be the work of an architect, but to have grown as an oak grows, from the soil of the fields. There is scarcely a colour throughout the surrounding land that has not its counterpart in the garden and the rectory walls. In sunlight the blue-grey slates of the roof seem almost to reflect the leaves of the garden trees, much as the muddy village pond dimly reflects the elm-leaves that lift and dip above it … Not only the rectory, but the smaller houses and cottages of the village have this strange likeness to living growths of the soil.”4

This to me seems to have been the particular skill of Upward - slowing down the narrative to a snail’s pace, taking objects out of normal ‘circulation’ and fixing them with a probing, objective eye that almost always means they take on stranger forms than their literal description. Such an approach is a challenge to those Marxist interpretations - Georg Lukács in ‘Narrate or describe’ (1936), for example - that stress the humanising advantage of narration over the dead weight of ‘objective’ description. However, Upward’s writing attacks that stance from an alternative angle, illustrating how such objects are debased in more prosaic human circulation.

And it was this that was carried over into later works such as The rotten elements. Upward’s poetic imagination, seen through the eyes of his semi-fictionalised self, Alan Sebrill, constantly threatens to overturn the lead character’s Zhdanovite denial of an aesthetic in the cause of writing a political poem for the CPGB. Thus, in the first chapter, which begins after a CPGB branch discussion on Lenin’s State and revolution, there is an intensification of the narrator’s intimate perceptions of the view from his back garden, which he eventually sees as a “huge illuminated stage on which episodes from the days when his imagination had been creatively awake were about to be re-enacted”.5

Again, Upward shows his skill at slowing the narrative and moving into more surreal territory through a process of intense observation. This is how an increasingly paranoid Sebrill reacts internally to his assessment that a party comrade, Les Gatten, is a police spy: “Feeling was abruptly brought to life in Alan. Like someone who coming into a kitchen sees a joint of cooked meat on a white dish in the middle of a table and sees also on the same dish and in contact with the meat something which is not meat, greenish-grey, part liquid, part solid, and which he instantly knows to be dog’s vomit, though it does not make him begin to retch until his mind has willy-nilly formed an idea of what the solid (fishy, spool-shaped, shaggily stringy) might have been before the dog’s stomach rejected it - Alan did not feel nausea until after he had comprehended fully what Gatten was.”6

The rotten elements is thus the heir of Mortmere and the interpreter ignores this at his or her peril.

The Upwards left the CPGB in 1948, after being denounced by the leadership - predictably - as agents of the Yugoslav embassy (the ridiculous and lying ‘official communist’ campaign against ‘Titoism’ was then in vogue). Upward, despite being in rapid movement away from Stalinism, ended up by starving his talent, publishing nothing between 1942 and 1962, and disowning his earlier Mortmere fantasies as subversive and delinquent. Another artistic talent burned on the orthodox ‘communist’ fire. However, the Upwards’ solution to their political difficulties, which was to seek solace in broader campaign work around racism and nuclear disarmament, only reproduced in practice the liquidation of communist politics carried through by the CPGB in its last decades.

In artistic terms, No home but the struggle (1977), the last book in The spiral ascent trilogy, signalled that Upward had finally been able to reconcile his art and his politics, with the rider, of course, that his politics in latter years seemed rather like the embers of a dwindling fire. This impacted on his latter output of short stories (of which The night walk and other stories [1987] is perhaps the finest example). Too often these stories, despite the technical interest of their dream-haunted structures, resolve the narrative into a rather sentimental rationalisation of the narrator’s life (who usually seems to be a fictionalisation of Upward himself) and can appear to somewhat trite. To that end, the best of them, ‘The night walk’, relies for much of its power on the resurrection of the themes of The rotten elements (political struggle, persecution), brought up unsettlingly close to a sluggish after-dark dreamscape.

How should we remember Edward Upward? First, as a brave politician, who, along with his wife Hilda (who in her fictionalised portrayal in The rotten elements seems the more forceful politician of the two), had the guts and honesty to stand up and fight for revolutionary politics against the CPGB leadership - plenty of others would follow the example. Second, as a political artist who illuminated and lived the contradictions of his position like no other artist in the British communist movement, and wore his struggles like war wounds.

Dear comrade, I will never forget you. You were terrific.


1. See, for example, the recent obituary by John Green (Morning Star February 15).
2. unrepentantcommunist.blogspot.com/2009/02/edward-upward-farewell-to-gentle-man.html
3. readingthemaps.blogspot.com/search?q=edward+upward
4. C Isherwood Lions and shadows London 1982, p62. Isherwood presents Upward under the pseudonym of ‘Chalmers’.
5. E Upward The rotten elements London 1979, p15.6. Ibid p119.