Deconstructing a poet
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