Friday, March 20, 2009

Upward ever

If you're like me you get caught up in literary crushes or obsessions. I'm in the grip of one at the moment. The object of my literary stalking is the British Marxist novelist Edward Upward, who I only discovered when he died last month at age 105 and with whom I'm now utterly taken. I recently read his 1938 novel Journey to the Border, which was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press. I was not disappointed. It's an odd book stylistically, written in a sort of high modernist stream of consciousness. Brief and engaging once you give yourself over to it, situated throughout inside the protagonist's head replete with confused, contradictory thoughts that ultimately tumble toward clarity, it ends with him heading toward a newsstand to buy the communist paper preparatory to joining the party.

Now I'm about one-third of the way through Upward's 1977 trilogy of autobiographical fiction The Spiral Ascent. I have never had a reading experience like this. There may be other novels that depict the experience of becoming a communist, of the actual day to day reality of party work inside an imperialist country, but I've never read one. Even more interesting to me, the focus here is not only the life of the communist activist but specifically the life of the communist who is also a writer, and the ongoing challenge with which a communist writer must constantly struggle, that is, the competing tugs of the urge toward art and the obligations of activism. How to reconcile the two? Do they actually contradict each other, or can each in fact be complementary aspects of a life dedicated to the struggle for a better world? Can the creative work make a contribution to the class struggle just as much as the workplace organizing, the leaflet distributions, the newspaper sales, the protest demonstrations? The story of the main character, Alan Sebrill, is different from mine in many ways. But like me he works full time, he feels the call to action with his comrades, and he also feels compelled to create and so is always at pains to examine his actions and motivations as he tries to strike a meaningful balance.

In a Guardian article about Edward Upward from five years before he died, there's a reference to "a controversial 1937 essay called 'Sketch for a Marxist Interpretation of Literature'." Apparently in this essay Upward directly addresses these same issues with which he would later grapple fictively in The Spiral Ascent. Now I'm dying to read the essay and trying to track it down. No luck so far but I've got a query in with the university librarians and I'm hoping they will dig it up for me.