Stephen Spender: A Life in Modernism by David Lemming - review by Jeremy Lewis

Jeremy Lewis

Case History of a Literary Groupie

Stephen Spender: A Life in Modernism


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For all his assiduity and weighty pronouncements on literary matters, Stephen Spender all too often comes across as a slightly ludicrous figure. Evelyn Waugh loved to mock him as a ‘semi-literate socialist’; James Lees-Milne recalled the poet in his wartime fireman’s uniform, draped across a hospital bed bearing the gorgeous form of ‘the Sergeant’, a beautiful young American soldier with whom half homosexual London seemed to be in love; more recently, Emma Tennant described meeting Spender on the barricades in Paris in 1968: he was, he explained, staying with the French Rothschilds, and they were living off hard-boiled eggs to how solidarity with the workers. Such frivolous sources as these are, alas, eschewed by David Lemming, an American academic who got to know Spender when they taught together at the University of Connecticut, and who shares the poet’s lifelong fascination with Famous Names and their utterances, however commonplace.

Reviewing Spender’s autobiography, World Within World, Waugh memorably remarked that ‘to see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horrors of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.’ Yet Spender was more than a mere literary apparatchik, bustling importantly from one tedious conference to another and endlessly boarding planes in order to take up a post as ‘writer in residence ‘ at some Midwestern university. World Within World remains one of the best memoirs of the century – lively, well written and engagingly frank about the knots in which its author tied himself, sexually and politically, in his eagerness to point in two directions at once; and although most of his poems seem distressingly vacuous (including the one which begins, ‘Come, let us praise the gas works’), his Journals should survive as a lively and hugely entertaining account of literary and cultural life since the War.

Spender was born in 1909: his father was a Liberal journalist-cum-politician, his mother of German and Jewish extraction. When Spender Senior stood, unsuccessfully, in a parliamentary election in Bath, his sons were lugged about the city in a donkey cart carrying a placard which read ‘Vote for Daddy’. ‘My parents kept me from children who were rough’, Spender later wrote in a poem which went on to describe how a gang of oiks ‘copied my lisp’, sprang out at him from behind a bush and pelted him with mud. After University College School he went on to University College, Oxford, where he wore a red tie and sat on a cushion in the quad, reading poetry. Hearties scissored his tie into bits, but more congenial company was at hand in the form of W H Auden, who took him on a tour of the gas works and encouraged the writing of verse. He also met Christopher Isherwood, who remembered how this ‘immensely tall, shambling boy of nineteen, with a great scarlet poppy face, wild frizzy hair, and eyes the violent colour of bluebells’ tripped over the carpet as he entered the room.

Spender’s Twenty Poems was published in 1930, while he was still at Oxford. According to Lemming, G S Fraser was among the ‘literary figures of importance’ who gave it a warm welcome, but since Fraser was only fifteen at the time it may not have counted for much. From an early age, Spender assiduously cultivated the grand and the influential: among those pestered for introductions were Harold Nicolson, who thought him ‘egotistical’ and ‘void of all humour’, and Virginia Woolf, who worried that he had ‘the makings of a long-winded bore’.

Spender’s adventures chasing boys in Weimar Germany, in Spain during the Civil War, as co- editor of Cyril Connolly’s Horizon and as a wartime fire-fighter have been dealt with at length elsewhere, not least in his own autobiographies. Lemming’s brisk account is better written and a good deal less snide than Hugh David’s atrocious life, the publication of which caused its subject – devoted as he was to almost any kind of publicity – understandable grief and woe. It is also much more accurate, despite claims that R H S Crossman was editor of the New Statesman in 1940 (he became, briefly, deputy ed in 1938, and then editor in 1970) and references to ‘Ashford, on the Kentish coast’ and ‘Lord and Lady Noel Annan’.

The second half of Spender’s life is – from the reader’s point of view – a fairly tedious list of lectures, conferences and dinner parties attended by Famous Names. Lemming belongs to the Groupie school of literary biographers in that he likes to watch with bated, reverent breath while the great ones circle round each other. Most of what they say is, unsurprisingly, fairly platitudinous, but in it goes all the same. We learn, fascinated, of how Spender bumped into Aldous Huxley in New York, only to discover that they went to the same dentist; of how Auden revealed, amazingly, that poetry was a matter of ‘exploring the possibilities of the English language’; of how T S Eliot and Stravinsky, when finally introduced, talked of nothing but their health (‘Spender was not sure that the meeting of those two giants of the arts had been particularly fruitful’). Like all too many literary biographers, Lemming has no nose for the comical or colourful set piece. He tells us, dutifully, of how, during the Spanish Civil War, the Daily Worker sent Spender and Cuthbert Worsley off to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a Russian battleship, but fails to consult Worsley’s neglected masterpiece, Behind the Battle, in which the whole farcical story is lovingly retold; nor – unlike Spender in his Journals, and other commentators too – does he do justice to the farewell dinner given by Henry Green for John Lehmann Ltd, at which Cyril Connolly complained loudly and persistently about the repellent food and drink on offer. Connolly once described Spender as being, on the one hand, ‘an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible, affectionate, idealistic’, and on the other ‘shrewd , ambitious, aggressive and ruthless, a publicity-seeking intellectual full of administrative energy and rentier asperity’; while Auden, who was fond of his old friend but couldn’t resist teasing him, accused him of ‘calculation and coldness of heart’. As a type of literary man he is instantly recognisable; and it is as a case history, perhaps, that his fascination lies.

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