|Stephen Spender (1938) byWyndham Lewis|
"I am going to keep a journal because I cannot accept the fact that I feel so shattered that I cannot write at all,” Stephen Spender wrote on September 3 1939. He meant, of course, that he couldn’t write poetry, which he always regarded as his principal job.
His feeling shattered was not just because Britain had declared war on Germany that day, but also because his first wife, Inez Pearn, had recently left him. “It so happens that the world has broken just at the moment when my own life has broken,” he wrote, and this combination of the public and the private, of world events and personal dilemmas, was characteristic of his life and career. He subtitled his 1978 collection of essays, The Thirties and After, “Poetry, Politics, People”, and these were the things that preoccupied him in the journals he kept throughout his life, in which analyses of his own work and character, and those of his friends, are recorded alongside a thoughtful commentary on world events.
Dedicating The Orators to Spender in 1932, WH Auden wrote: “Private faces in public places / Are wiser and nicer / Than public faces in private places.” These famous lines have been adopted by Lara Feigel in her Introduction to Spender’s New Selected Journals, 1939-1995. The book, she writes, “is intended partly to restore to Spender the private face of the poet, the lover, the husband and the father. For the first time, readers have access to Spender’s intimate thoughts about his marriage, his children, his love affairs and his impending death.”
This access has undoubtedly been eased by the death of Spender’s ferociously protective widow – although the title page asserts that the journals have been edited “with Natasha Spender”. This must, to say the least of it, have been an interesting process, and knowing looks were exchanged among the audience at the book’s launch when Feigel spoke of the late Lady Spender’s enthusiasm for the project. The support of the Spenders’ son, Matthew, is not in doubt: he has long been waging a campaign for openness and is currently writing his own memoir of his father.
It required both stamina and skill to juggle, as Spender did, the conflicting demands of being a poet, a critic and academic, a public intellectual, a co-founder and co-editor of two leading literary magazines (Horizon, 1940-49 and Encounter, 1953-67), and a husband and father who enjoyed numerous homosexual relationships.
This new book, which supplements rather than supplants the excellent selection Spender himself edited in 1985, covers all aspects of its author’s crowded life. In total, his journals run to almost a million words, of which around a quarter are published here.
While the selection is nicely balanced between the public and the private, there are some curious gaps. Readers will be disappointed to find no entries between December 1965 and June 1972, a period which includes the still controversial episode in which allegations that Encounter was indirectly sponsored by the CIA led to Spender’s resignation from the magazine. If, as seems unlikely, Spender kept no journal during this period, the editors neglect to say so.
Other gaps include a Japanese journal mentioned at the book’s launch, which is omitted in its entirety but presumably records Spender’s second visit to that country in 1958 and his entanglement there with a Japanese student, about which he wrote long, agonised letters to Christopher Isherwood. Also missing is a journal Spender kept between March and July 1982, which includes a marvellously funny retrospective account of his troubled relationship with John Lehmann.
The Lehmann entry would have nicely complemented and extended the sharply observant passages in the present volume about Isherwood, W H Auden and Cyril Connolly. Spender had a wide circle of acquaintance among writers, painters, musicians, philosophers and politicians, and to some extent his journals are a portrait of an age seen through its personalities, with particularly illuminating portraits of, among others, C Day Lewis, J R Ackerley, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Igor Stravinsky, Isaiah Berlin, A J Ayer, Arthur Schlesinger Jr and Hugh Gaitskell. Working both for Unesco and as a frequent literary ambassador, Spender travelled extensively and one has a sense here, now lost amid the frenetic and commercial literary-festival industry, of genuine cultural exchange between writers from different countries. Not that every congress was worthwhile, and Spender writes splendidly unillusioned accounts of the sheer boredom of some of these events and the rampant egotism of some of the participants.
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