Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Panic & muddleheadness

‘Think how the whole world wd be changed for me if I could get on with this novel, even though at no higher level than the present. I see that it was infinitely better to write The Beating, mediocre as that was, than to write nothing. But what’s holding me up anyway? Panic & muddleheadness. I must face up to the thing again with confident determination, with willingness instead of revulsion.’ This is from the private (and unpublished) diaries of Edward Falaise Upward, a British teacher and writer who died 10 years ago today, aged 105. He was part of the Auden generation in the 30s, producing poetry and surrealist stories, but then he lost his way, barely producing any work for decades. It was only after retiring that he produced his main work, The Spiral Ascent, an autobiographical trilogy. Soon after his death, his sister donated a lifetime’s worth of his diaries to the British Library. They document, in excruciating detail, the depths his literary and political angst.

Upward was born in 1903, in Romford, a large town now part of Greater London. His father was a doctor, and his mother a nurse. Aged 14 or so, he was sent to Repton School, where he 
published his writing in the school magazine and became a close friend of Christopher Isherwood. He moved on to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, reading history and then English. Isherwood, too, went to Cambridge, and together they created the fictional and surreal town of Mortmere, a vehicle for parodying the upper-classes. Upward’s poem Buddha won him the prestigious annual Cambridge poetry prize, the Chancellor’s Gold Medal.

On leaving Cambridge, Upward took up teaching, with posts at various schools, only settling in 1932 when employed as an English master at Alleyn’s School, Dulwich, where he remained until his retirement. In 1932, he joined the Communist Party, and took part in a delegation visiting the Soviet Union. He also visited Isherwood and Stephen Spender in Berlin. In 1936, he married Hilda Percival, a fellow teacher and Communist. They had two children. Although they remained committed to socialism, they left the Communist Party in 1948, frustrated that it was trying to appease the Labour government, and was no longer revolutionary.

Upward published his first novel, Journey to the Border (Hogarth Press) in 1938. Full of poetic prose, it describes the rebellion of a private tutor against his employer and a nightmarish state, concluding with the idea that he must join the workers’ movement. Subsequently, he found it very difficult to write anything else. In 1952-1953, he took a sabbatical from teaching in order to focus on his writing, but fell into a cycle of depression. Having concluded grotesque and fantastical fiction was inappropriate in a post-Holocaust world, he destroyed most of his Montmere stories.

By the mid-1950s, Upward was writing again, and soon after his retirement (to the Isle of Wight) in 1961, he published In the Thirties, the first part of a autobiographical trilogy, The Spiral Ascent, that would take him until 1977 to complete (with The Rotten Elements and No Home but the Struggle). It tells of a poet’s efforts to be creative and politically committed, and ends, in the third volume, with the poet finding new meaning by joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and being able to write again. In old age, he returned to writing short stories which were published, along with reprints of his novels, by Enitharmon Press. In 2005, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and awarded its Benson Medal. He died on 13 February 2009, aged 105, having been Britain’s oldest living author. Further information on Upward, as well as free-to-download pdfs of his books and poems can be found at the Edward Upward website. See also Wikipedia, The Guardian obituary, and The New York Times obituary.

Upward was a keen diarist, and he left behind a large number of journals (76 notebooks), many if not most full of his small cramped hand-writing. These were donated by his daughter to the British Library soon after his death in 2009. The British Library provides this description of its holdings: ‘A continuous run of journals, preoccupied in the main with Upward’s progress (and frustrations) as a writer. The journals record the planning and development of Upward’s novels in terms of plot and characterisation, and also record the psychological journey of their writing. The journals are not diaries as such, and therefore sometimes omit to record aspects of Upward’s life that diaries would usually include, but they record vividly the course of Upward’s inner life and particularly his determination to complete The Spiral Ascent.’

None of the journals have been published, even in part, although at least one biography quotes from them briefly: Edward Upward and Left-Wing Literary Culture in Britain edited by Benjamin Kohlmann (see Googlebooks). However, the 76 notebooks are available for public inspection at the British Library, and I have transcribed the following extracts from three of them. In particular, the extracts from 1952 show the extent of his encroaching depression, although, in fact, his feelings then seem to echo those he had been having for many years (as shown by the extracts below).

1 September 1936
‘In eight days I shall be thirty three. And I have not yet written a book.

A vile dog is basking in the next door garden.

I must get on with my work.

The pt is that the sp people are quite expensively dressed but their dress does suggest expense. Neither deliberately unassertive nor assertive.’

2 September 1936
‘Moments like last night that the B.L. is good make all my worries worth while. These can be rather compensative, no other satisfaction compares with such moments.

My life and my writing - what is the connection between them?

I ought to give my whole life to writing, but capitalism prevents me. Writing is the highest form of my fight, of my defiance.

Only writing whose content is anti-capitalist can be good.’

1 February 1944
‘Firewatching in the porter’s office office to-night. The rat-holed dado. String and keys and the bucket filled with damp coal dust. The coal-hole in the gothic turret. But my eye is stale. The complex telephone apparatus.

Prattle less in this book, if only to save paper. Think more.

Wd last night in the lab hut told of how he had been negotiating to buy the land on which it stands. The Co-op would not lend him the money but the Midland bank did. He is tenacious, pessimistic only in words. He got the hut against the opposition of most of his party. Now they hold the Fylde Divisional meetings there.

The substance of the sequel has I think passed the test. The problem now is the beginning.

Postage stamp the theme of the book. Imagination is needed to help action. But imagination is suspect because in the past it led away from action. But the present imagination is justified because it shows the faults of past imagination and shows the prime necessity for action.

Now don’t repeat that everywhere in this journal. It’s correct and the book must stand or fall by it.

If at the beginning he knows that imagination is needed then there’s no justification for the book.

“If only I cd use my imagination as I did in the past - but do so legitimately.”

He knows he wants to use his imagination; but he doesn’t know that he wd be justified in using it (i.e. that action needs it)?

Is that the initial position?’

15 June 1944
‘If only I cd write - then I’d put up with most things - my job for instance.

I want to write. But why? Simply because it is the only way I can justify my existence. Only when I am writing am I fully alive. Everything cd be borne if I had writing in hand which I felt was really worthwhile. And what is that constitutes worthwhileness in writing? I know it when I see it. Solidity, depth, feeling. Above all reality. But not my reality.

Something in the form of an essay, dealing not only with ideas but with places & persons. De Quincy.’

24 December 1952
‘Think how the whole world wd be changed for me if I could get on with this novel, even though at no higher level than the present. I see that it was infinitely better to write The Beating, mediocre as that was, than to write nothing. But what’s holding me up anyway? Panic & muddleheadness. I must face up to the thing again with confident determination, with willingness instead of revulsion.’

27 December 1952 [Last but one entry of ‘Journal of the Sabbatical Year’]
‘The only reason I am not in ill thoughts at present is that I’m not attempting to write the novel.

Is it worth writing something that one knows to be poor stuff? Possibly, for practice and in the tenuous hope that one day one will be able to write satisfactorily.

I’ve got to see this novel as in some way attractive, or I shall never write it? But I shall never see it as something attractive. Therefore I can only write it from a sense of duty.

There’s not one scene throughout the whole book that attracts me. Why? Because I have lost faith in the world of imagination.

I fool myself if I think that “the whole world wd be changed for me” if I could get on with the novel. Probably it wd make me feel even worse than quiescence.

What should I do? The best thing to do wd be to go on struggling, if only sanity will stand up to that. It’s the uncontrollable misery of the struggle that I fear.

Try common sense. Here I am with eight free months before me. I have started the novel for which I obtained a year’s leave of absence from teaching. The novel is, so far, poor stuff, and doesn’t look like getting any better, in fact it might well get worse. Shall I abandon it? Against such a line of action (inaction) there are several objections. 1) It’s a surrender and admission of failure. 2) What shd I do with my time? But on the other hand there are objections to continuing with the bk, the main one being that it makes me so miserable that I begin to fear for my sanity. A possible solution wd be to regard the novel as of no importance but to continue it as a daily task. But that wd be more miserable than anything.’

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