He came from a comfortable background (his father was a doctor and he went to public school and Cambridge). But the disaster of the First World War shook all classes to the core. And like his more famous younger contemporaries, the poet W H Auden and his admirer and fellow novelist Christopher Isherwood, Upward was part of a revolt against the clapped out culture of the past.
Upward’s first significant piece of writing, The Railway Accident, written in 1928 but for a long time unpublished, gave a vivid, paranoid and hallucinatory sense of the individual’s dislocation in a runaway world. But Upward became dissatisfied with writing that seemed unable to move beyond personal neurosis. The shock of Hitler’s victory in 1933 posed stark political choices.
Art could no longer hide within a bourgeois society that was coming apart at the seams. It was being forced to take sides – to commit itself to the struggle not only against fascism but for its place in a new kind of society, superior to anything a tired out parliamentary system could offer.
Upward joined the Communist Party in 1934. The hours not spent as a teacher in a private school were devoted to being a dedicated rank and file party member. His double life – as well as the challenge of producing politically committed writing – put enormous strains on him. And Stalinism’s distortion of Marxism had its cramping effect on his ideas about literature, earning him censure from George Orwell. The difficulty of moving from disaffected bourgeois intellectual to political activist is captured in his one and only novel of the pre-war period, Journey to the Border, published in 1938.
Upward left the Communist Party ten years later. But his break with Stalinism was not to the right. Unlike those writers disillusioned with the god that failed, he felt no urge to make his peace with the establishment. He broke to the left. He wanted to remain true to a tradition he (and his wife, whom he had met through the party) believed that Stalinism had abandoned.
The break was painful (he suffered a year long breakdown) – but liberatory. He resumed writing, the fruit of which was a trilogy of novels. The first of them, In the Thirties, appeared in 1962, 24 years after Journey to the Border. The second, The Rotten Elements, followed in 1969, and the last, No Home but the Struggle, in 1977.
They are, I believe, his masterpiece. They give a gripping, claustrophobic account of what life inside the Communist Party was like (its routines, its factionalism, its crises). Critics complain that this is too narrow a world, too full of political argument, to make good fiction, though why this world should be any less worthy of attention than the middle class world of most liberal writers escapes me. Critics also complain about his supposedly drab, grey style. They miss the emotional charge in the pared down language.
By the time we reach the third novel, the hero (a thinly disguised self-portrait) has allowed his long buried imaginative life to re-emerge – not as an escape from a party he longer believes in but so that a better synthesis between art and politics can be created out of political struggle. As the overall title of the trilogy (The Spiral Ascent) suggests, this is a dialectical process: the past is recovered all the better to move forward.
Upward was in his mid-70s by the time the final novel of the trilogy appeared. His literary life seemed over. Yet he continued to write. As he approached his 90th birthday, there was an astonishing flowering of short story writing (and a notable memoir of Isherwood), which continued throughout his tenth decade.
I went to interview him in his Isle of Wight home on his 90th birthday. It was a humbling experience to talk to a legendary figure from the 1930s (Isherwood always claimed Upward was his master), though when pressed about his role he was modest, even diffident. He generously presented me with a copy of The Night Walk and Other Stories, which he had meticulously corrected in his own hand. I little thought I would see him again, though I did on his 100th birthday. He was frailer but still alert – and quietly amused to have received greetings from the queen.
Though (thanks to the Enitharmon Press) most of his writing over the past 15 years is available, as well as much earlier writing, scandalously the trilogy remains out of print. We need to have all the works of the last great literary survivor of the last great crisis made available as a new generation responds to the new, and equally challenging, crisis sweeping our world.
Anwar Ditta, a heroic anti-racist campaigner, died last week.