De­con­struct­ing a poet

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

This is an ex­tra­or­di­nary book. The de­cided ex­pres­sion of the au­thor, then a boy, in the 1959 pho­to­graph on the front cover sug­gests a per­son who will sit in judg­ment. In this study of his fam­ily, his par­ents will have to watch out. And rarely has a lit­er­ary fig­ure been so com­pletely de­con­structed as English poet Stephen Spender is in A House in St John’s Wood.

But his son, Matthew Spender, in­tends it as a ges­ture of mourn­ing and af­fec­tion, even if it is tinged with re­venge. He re­jects the idea of his mother, Natasha, that ap­pear­ances must be kept up at all costs. Sig­nif­i­cantly, that goal of hers did not come cheap. Spender re­lates how, while at­tend­ing a party in Paris, she saw her hus­band talk­ing to an el­e­gant young man. “Who is that?” she asked the per­son next to her. ‘‘Don’t you know?’’ came the re­ply. ‘‘That’s Stephen’s new lover.’’ She fainted on the spot.

Natasha be­lieved Stephen had straight­ened out, that af­fairs with men were a thing of the past. But one im­pul­sive mar­riage had al­ready foundered on the pres­ence of a male friend. And such in­volve­ments would con­tinue al­most to the end, mod­u­lat­ing into in­tense ro­man­tic friend­ships. Stephen re­garded free­dom to do what one pleased with the body as the most pri­mal of all free­doms: as much as any­thing else, it led him to leave the Com­mu­nist Party.

He also felt that for him the con­di­tion of be­ing in love, with its height­ened sense of aware­ness, was es­sen­tial for writ­ing po­etry. In more ways than one, he had it both ways. He felt sex with women was more to­tal, in ev­ery re­spect, yet found boys more at­trac­tive. And while he could say ‘‘I am self-willed, I am a rebel ... I do not want to be good’’, the fact was that, with a pri­vate in­come and a public school educ­tion, he was em­bed­ded in the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment.

Hav­ing gained a rep­u­ta­tion as a pub­lished poet, he could decline to sit his fi­nals at Ox­ford and air­ily walk away. One of the plea­sures of this book is the in­sights it gives into the as­sump­tions of that es­tab­lish­ment. It re­lates a num­ber of din­ner-ta­ble con­ver­sa­tions in an en­gag­ing way. One day a Tory for­eign sec­re­tary ca­su­ally re­marked that when he was ap­pointed, he didn’t know where the For­eign Of­fice was, and so asked a po­lice­man. At the time there was still some over­lap be­tween the val­ues of the gov­ern­ing class and those ac­tive in public cul­ture.

This helps to ex­plain the one great scandal at­tached to Spender’s name, namely that he was co-ed­i­tor of En­counter, the high-class cul­tural mag­a­zine of the 1950s and 60s. He had long wanted to edit such a pub­li­ca­tion, so when the op­por­tu­nity came, he took it. But he was yoked to the Amer­i­can Melvin J. Lasky, a cold war­rior in charge of the po­lit­i­cal side of the mag­a­zine whom Spender found an outright philis­tine. Ru­mours be­gan cir­cu­lat­ing that En­counter was be­ing paid for by the Amer­i­cans. Spender dis­counted them, but then it turned out that it had, in fact, been clan­des­tinely paid for by the CIA. It was un­doubt­edly the best money the agency ever spent. But with the Viet­nam War and other com­pli­ca­tions, it was an acute em­bar­rass­ment for a Bri­tish jour­nal.

Matthew Spender, strongly op­posed to all this, takes the view that his fa­ther seems to have asked no ques­tions, but more or less knew. Ever the op­ti­mist, he prob­a­bly thought it would never be­come a prob­lem. But it did, and Spender re­signed.

Wit­ness­ing all this was his wife. On the sur­face, the mar­riage seemed to work well: Spender writ­ing in one room, while she, a con­cert pi­anist, prac­tised in an­other. But the rolling reve­la­tions of this book tell an­other story. Natasha learned, the hard way, the lim­i­ta­tions of de­vo­tion. Grimly she came to re­alise that she would al­ways have a place only on the per- ime­ter of Spender’s life. As a coun­ter­weight to her hus­band’s amours, she be­came in­volved with Amer­i­can crime writer Ray­mond Chan­dler. Un­til then, she had not felt cher­ished — let alone de­sired.

Not that any­thing ‘‘hap­pened’’, for Natasha had taken refuge in high-mind­ed­ness. Love for her was some­thing ab­stract, a ‘‘dis­ci­pline’’. She

The cover pho­to­graph from Matthew Spender’s book, above, shows him be­hind his fa­ther, mother and sis­ter; a gath­er­ing of po­ets in the 1960s, from left, Louis MacNe­ice, Ted Hughes, TS Eliot, WH Au­den and Stephen Spender

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