Observer Article on "A Renegade in Springtime"

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The unmentionable renegade

Jonathan Heawood talks to Edward Upward, the author whose prose was too surreal for WH Auden and too radical for Virginia Woolf, as he celebrates his centenary

Sunday March 30, 2003
The Observer - The World of Books

An astonishing number of writers were born in 1903. Too young for the First World War, and too old for the Second, this generation filled the gap between modernism and postmodernism with writing that beggars description, but which has enriched the canon of twentieth-century literature.

The success stories of the class of 1903 are undoubtedly George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, who are both getting the full centenary treatment this year - Orwell with biographies by D.J. Taylor and Gordon Bowker (both due in June) and Waugh with a conference at his alma mater, Hertford College, Oxford, in September, to include dinner at the Spread Eagle at Thame ('where Charles Ryder goes with Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited', in case you'd forgotten).

That year's second rank were also visionaries, whose writing probed our fear of science (John Wyndham), our libido (Anaïs Nin), our political systems (Alan Paton), and our murderous instincts (Georges Simenon). Each of these writers helped to shape the twentieth century, and all will be remembered this year - Simenon's home town has even declared 2003 'Année Simenon au Pays de Liège'.

One centenary, however, will be celebrated in a rather less civic style. Edward Upward, born in September 1903, is not only still alive, but still writing, and a new selection of his short stories is published next month by the Enitharmon Press, which nobly champions the cause of such neglected writers. A Renegade in Springtime contains Upward's most famous story, 'The Railway Accident', written in 1928 and circulated among his friends in manuscript. It was the last and longest of the Mortmere stories, which he dreamed up at Cambridge with Christopher Isherwood. The plot concerns a short railway journey which ends in a horrific crash. This leads to an arrest, the strong suspicion of a set-up, a bizarre treasure hunt and, ultimately, complete incomprehension. It is a masterpiece of surreal compression, where everything is said and little is understood.

Upward's friend, W.H. Auden, was very impressed by 'The Railway Accident', but remarked on the implausibility of a description of the communication cord of a train 'hanging in a useless loop'. In a story where rationality is so notably absent, this criticism seems perverse, to say the least. Auden observed that a communication cord couldn't hang in a loop, because it would automatically have stopped the train. As Upward remarked when I spoke to him this week, Auden 'liked his facts'.

The two writers fell out when, in Upward's terms, Auden 'ratted' and left England for America. Besides, Auden's later works 'lost their emotionality', describing a sexual encounter with the coy euphemism 'love was had'.

Upward's voice on the telephone is clear and lucid, and he is a joy to talk to, with delicious anecdotes and insights into a century of letters.

He always wanted to be a poet, but the trouble was that if he got the sound right he wouldn't get the sense, and if he got the sense, then no sound. Auden told him: 'It's no good, drop it', and he turned to what he understatedly calls 'imaginative prose'.

Isherwood recommended his novel, Journey to the Border, to Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who published it at the Hogarth Press in 1938. Upward remembers meeting them for dinner one evening. As Virginia sucked on her cheroot, Leonard carved the meat, his hand shaking so much that it seemed he hadn't long to live - 'but it turned out that he always had this tremor, particularly when he had to sign cheques'.

After the war, Upward approached Leonard about his next book, but Woolf rejected it, saying there was too much communism in it. As the book was about communism, this was hardly surprising. Upward was, and is, a committed radical, although the details of his political vision have altered over the years. Today, he is angry about the war in Iraq and holds 'Toady' Blair 'completely to blame for what's happened'.

He writes every day in his diary, all 78 volumes of which belong to the British Library, who paid him £20,000 several years ago, 'on the condition that when I popped off they'd get them'. But he isn't writing about the war: 'I can't put anything down about that. If I were to write anything, it would be a genuinely imaginative story.'

Throughout his career, Upward has been writing genuinely imaginative stories. For decades, however, he was an 'unmentionable man' - too political, too experimental, too weird. Now, perhaps, we can see how innovative his writing is, and celebrate someone who helped define the twentieth century as a period of adventure, as much as despair. Having survived well beyond the autumn of his life, let's hope this renegade lives to enjoy a second springtime.