Scoop Review of Books

Ends and Beginnings

Picks of the Week 5 March 2009

By Scott Hamilton

The English novelist Martin Amis once said that his career wouldn’t really start until he died. Like many others in his line of work, Amis believes that a writer’s real achievement is only tested posthumously, by critics and scholars immune to the temporary fashions and prejudices that can make and break an author in his or her lifetime. The recent death of John Updike has given Amis the chance to write an essay for the New York Review of Books assessing the massive body of work produced by one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful of all American authors.

Amis is a long-time Updike fan, and he hopes and believes that the man’s hundreds of short stories, dozens of novels, and several fat books of essays will survive the passage of time and the changing tastes of critics. Amis dwells on Updike’s extraordinary productivity, and suggests that it was prompted by the lifelong churchgoer’s sense of the holiness of life.

Edward Upward lived almost thirty years longer than John Updike, but he published far less. Upward studied at the same Cambridge college as Christopher Isherwood, and the two filthy-minded young men invented a violent, bizarrely erotic world called Mortmere, where all the pieties of the Home Counties were mocked. By the time he had won a cult folowing as a homegrown surrealist, Upward had come into the orbit of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In his 1937 essay ‘Sketch for a Marxist Interpretation of Literature’, the young communist advocated the strict subordination of art to politics: only by serving the party and the proletariat could the writer prosper. Rather than prospering, though, Upward fell silent for nearly twenty years.

Only after being ousted from the party, suffering an nervous breakdown, and retiring to the Isle of Wight was he able to produce The Spiral Ascent, an autobiographical triology of novels rich in insights into grassroots politics in Britain in the ’30s and ’40s. The Spiral Ascent was followed by a trickle of short stories in the eighties, nineties, and noughties, and by the time he turned one hundred in 2003 Upward was being hailed as ‘Britain’s oldest living writer’.

As someone who admires writers who are unable to toe party lines, I’m honoured to find that the obituary for Upward in the present-day Communist Party of Great Britain’s paper includes a lengthy criticism of me. The Weekly Worker’s Lawrence Parker doesn’t agree with some remarks I made about Upward in a review published on my blog in 2006 and republished last year in the long-running avant-garde Kiwi literary journal brief .

One of the better responses to Upward’s death has come from the Telegraph, a newspaper that the old communist no doubt detested. The Torygraph’s anonymous obituarist wryly notes that Upward ‘cleared his shelves of Lenin’s works’ in the aftermath of his expulsion from the Communist Party, but ‘later acquired replacements’. The equally anonymous proprietor of the Unrepentant Communist weblog has paid a less equivocal tribute to Upward, and described how a strange chance encounter he had with the man in the 1980s blossomed into a friendship.

1 comment:

  1. Scott, 6. March 2009, 16:09

    As anyone who has read this deathless text will no doubt have already noticed, I have somehow managed to conflate Martin Amis and Ian MacEwan. Amis made the wonderfully quietist claim about death being a great career move for writers, but MacEwan was the bloke who wrote the recent appraisal of Updike. In my defence I can only say that:

    a) MacEwan and Amis are both rather haughty Pommy novelists whose politics have drifted disturbingly far to the right in recent years and

    b) I wrote this week’s This Week’s Picks in two minutes flat in a cybercafe on Lorne Street, whilst thinking of nothing but the cold beer which awaited me at Forde’s Bar as soon as I got the task out of the way.