[The Cunning Tower by Wilfrid: May 10, 2011]
There was a British actor called Edward Woodward. He was a household name in the U.K. for playing one of two seedy private eyes who dominated television in the days before we started importing them from the States. He was Callan. The other one was played by Alfred Burke, and I don’t remember his name.
Despite an outstanding screen performance in the movie “Breaker Morant,” and a leading role in the camp cult classic “The Wicker Man,” Woodward never became an international star. He used to joke that his name held him back. As most people pronounced it, it was basically “Ed” followed by an indeterminate number of “W’d” noises.
The author Edward Upward never achieved wide fame either, although you’ll find his name in most books about British writers of the thirties. He was a friend, you see, of Auden and Isherwood. Probably of Day Lewis, Spender, MacNeice and the rest of the crew too. That generation emerged after the war with reputations in various states of repair. All of them, however, had ceased to be fellow travelers with the communist cause, with which all had – rightly or wrongly – earlier been associated.
Not Upward, though. Okay, the name is not quite as unusual as Edward Woodward, but Edward Upward has a ring to it. He was born in the same small Essex town as me – although in 1906 it probably 3was just that; by my time, London had spread itself all over it. I discovered this only recently when I picked up the first volume of his trilogy, The Spiral Ascent, published by Quartet. The first volume appeared in 1962, the third and last in 1970.
Upward was not a sprinter when it came to writing. And that’s the central theme of this novel, which is plainly autobiographical. For someone mentioned in the same breath as Auden and Isherwood as an arrival on the literary scene of the thirties, Upward, in fact, did very little writing at all. There was another piece of full-length fiction, a few short stories. He lived to be 101 years old.
So what was he doing all this time? Well that’s the rest of the novel. He became a school-teacher. His spare time, his holidays, and apparently all his thought and emotion, were devoted to the cause of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. Unlike his peers, he didn’t quit. Well, he did quit the Party after the war – not so much because of Stalin’s tyranny, which he certainly despised, but because he felt it had abandoned Leninist principles and become reformist rather than revolutionary.
The main attraction of The Spiral Ascent is the author’s extremely unusual point of view. A middle class schoolmaster at a rather stuffy public school, obsessed – in the novel – with poetry, and an unreconstructed Communist cadre. It’s a rare blend.
Now does this lead to some stilted prose along the lines of, “He wondered whether Lenin would have disapproved of his raising this subject with the Headmaster, who after all was a class enemy and never likely even to make common cause with the politically advanced elements of the proletariat”? Oh yes, heaps of it, and Upward’s relentless, unselfconscious seriousness is almost gripping.
As is the book’s first sex scene which turns out – marvel of marvels – to be the ur-source of the language always used by British gadfly writer Stewart Home when his characters enjoy instances of “amorphous sexuality.” Anyone who has read Home will know that sex is like going back to pre-historic times and entering some kind of protozoic swamp. All from Upward. Who knew?
So is this a book recommendation? Not really, unless like me you find nothing passes the time like a roman fleuve written from an unfashionable political point of view. I’ve even read Aragon’s novels. Yes, better stick to Auden.