Stephen Spender, 20 years later
By ANDREW GRAHAM-YOOLL.
BUENOS AIRES, 16 July 2015 – It was twenty years ago on one of those glorious Summer days when England has a knack for living, that the poet Sir Stephen Harold Spender died, aged 86. It was on Sunday, 16 July 1995, the day before Juan Manuel Fangio, Argentina’s five times world motor racing champion died, aged 84. In two days two gentle men had died. They were witnesses of a century who had lived at opposite extremes of speed.
Pardon the apparent oxymoron, but it was what immediately came to mind. I was back in Argentina when Sir Stephen died and the first thing recalled was his answer to my question about what he knew of Buenos Aires. He had once made a brief visit, courtesy of the British Council. His had been a parting comment, probably during a meeting at Index on Censorship magazine, of which he was one of the founders in 1972. Spender replied that he had read Jorge Luis Borges and he admired Fangio, because they both seemed “very clever and very gentle men”. He was right, of course.
Gentle, compassionate, at times apparently naïve in the emphasis of his melancholy social conscience, he was committed to noble causes, is still remembered by many readers as a poet able to combine sensuality and Puritanism and as the last of the Oxford poets of the 1930s. His first collection, Twenty Poems, in 1930 drew wide attention, but he is better remembered as the friend of Christopher Isherwood in Berlin in 1933, and as the author of notable works such as his early autobiography, World Within World (1951). For Hispanophiles, the almost contemporary collection of essays produced with Arthur Koestler on the disillusionment with Communism, The God that Failed (1950), is essential reading on the ideologies of the Spanish Civil War. He inevitably crops up in almost any mention of the magazine Horizon, co-edited with Cyril Connolly in 1939, or the founding of the magazine Encounter, in 1953, which he left abruptly in 1967 when it was disclosed that it was supported in part by funds from the CIA, channeled through several foundations. In 1971, the Times Literary Supplement described him as the poet of introspection. That same year he became one of the driving forces in the start of Index on Censorship, with the likes of poet W.H. Auden, his friend from the Oxford days, novelist Mary McCarthy, lawyer Louis Blom-Cooper, philosopher A.J. Ayer, and others. The magazine was launched at the end of 1972.
All this and more, such as his court action in 1993 against David Leavitt, author of a novel which Spender said plagiarized his autobiography, kept the poet in the news.
However much more there is about and by Stephen Spender, on this particular occasion, the article hinges on the one memory (mine) and of what remains recorded of a failed attempt to make a film of the poet and his life. The filming took place in August 1992, lasted two hours in his London home, and at the end he declared himself exhausted, but he was well able to go to a supper for the film crew and some others that evening at my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. He was as much a social busybody as he had ever been.
The recording, part of a failed proposal for a series on “witnesses to the century”, is peppered with quotes of regret and foresight.
On the environment, for example:
I think the despair about the environment is the despair about humanity… I don’t know whether it is old age, but one does become desperate about the failure of humanity, the failure of different parts of the globe to merge their separate interests within one common to all, which is the world”.
On the end of Communism:
I suppose it went on too long. It was very successful in destroying the opposition. There was an opposition that fascinated us in the West, the dissidents. And one thought that perhaps the dissidents were going to take over. But as it turned out the dissidents were very few and didn’t have enough followers. Anyhow they were good at going to America and giving lectures at universities on how it felt to be a Russian dissident.”
ON FRENCH INTELLECTUALS he sounded a jump or three decades ahead of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s recently published, How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People (Allen Lane).
One of the most extraordinary things since the (Second World) War, or perhaps since 1939, is the collapse of a very creative culture. Before the war French painting dominated and the École de Paris dominated world painting. The École de Paris simply doesn’t exist, or the painters don’t exist, but the whole thing collapsed. I used to think of France as an intellectual leader of Europe…. I gather from an article I read in the TLS that the French intellectuals have meetings and are extremely interested in ethnic developments. They try to find out about the intellectual life of different sorts of ethnic groups in Romania or in Russia or wherever. The writer of the article said it was a parody of French intellectual life. One can imagine it well, the intellectuals supporting some small minority…and not realizing that this is going to lead to bloodshed and terrible disasters…”
Don’t forget, that was in London in August 1992.
In my own mind, the most lasting remarks in the transcript of the three cans of 16mm film will be a series of thumbnail sketches of Stephen Spender’s contemporaries, friends and acquaintances, and some not so friendly. His notes, recollections and conversations were peppered with the characters who had shared a life.
On his fellow poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) Spender reflected, “He became extremely conservative. I think that Auden was one of those people who, although he matured a great deal, he was extreme.
He was very attached to the values of his youth, and so the modern world was really intolerable to him. For instance, he went back to Oxford at the end of his life, when he was elected Professor of Poetry (1956-61). He really couldn’t bear what had happened to Oxford, that the University town had been taken over by the Cowley motor works and that kind of thing, that the colleges were invaded by tourists, all of that made life quite unbearable for him. Then I remember when I was teaching at Oxford University. I said to Auden, ‘You know, some of the young people are much better than we were then. I have very good students and I think that they are better’, remembering Oxford in 1930.
He replied, ‘Absolutely rubbish. We were much better in every way and there is no one as good as the people were whom we knew when we were young’. So he was one of those people with whom it was not so much that his ideas had changed, but that something in him had remained tremendously attached to the past, which represented what he had been when he was young. How we had all been when he was young. So his old age was really rather sad. You felt he didn’t belong to this world. And he realized he didn’t belong. He went on writing beautiful poetry, but he was no longer interested in the contemporary world.”
Auden had written Stephen Spender’s obituary for The Times, but given that it was written more than twenty years before Spender’s death it is difficult to discern which might be Auden’s passages and which a sub-editor’s additions to the obituary printed on July 18, 1995.
I don’t know what Auden wrote of me for The Times. And The Times had a policy of denying the name of the writer of an obituary. So they refused to reveal any aspect of an obituary. I wrote Auden’s obituary for The Times. Funnily enough we were both writing about the other on the same weekend. We didn’t show each other our texts. I don’t think about it. I remember that when I was very young I thought that an obituary would be best as a very nice poem, which would be in the Oxford Book of English Verse, if you were a poet, and you would be remembered for that poem in the Oxford Book and as an obituary. I think that’s probably how I still feel about obituaries. I suppose Auden and I were part of the histories of our time so obituaries had to reflect that. It would be difficult, if anyone is interested, to avoid mentioning me if you were writing about Auden and Isherwood and all the other people of that time.”
So how did he remember Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986)?
Christopher was always the same. He really didn’t change very much, the worrying thing about Christopher was that while unchanging himself he managed to dramatize his friends to themselves. His fascination was that he created a personality for you, which was an exaggeration of your own personality. And this was extremely flattering of course. He had this gift to such an extent that if he actually wrote about the person, like he did about Jean Ross, a girl we both knew in Berlin in 1933 and whom he calls Sally Bowles in the novel, he made Sally Bowles more like Jean Ross than Jean Ross was like Jean Ross. This had a devastating effect on her, because she found that whatever she did she was always seen at the time in this role of being Sally Bowles, and then at a certain stage she seemed to become Sally Bowles, who was essentially frivolous and amusing.
Then, at another point she became a very serious Communist. When she did this everyone got completely bored with her, because she had stopped being like the Christopher Isherwood character. She felt this very deeply. He also did it to Gerald Hamilton, who became Mr. Norris, as in Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935). Mr. Norris was a scoundrel, Gerald Hamilton was a scoundrel, a rather worse one than Mr. Norris, and he exploited the fact. When he came to England later in life the young writers, and other people in London, gathered round Gerald Hamilton because he was being Mr. Norris the whole time, and they were enormously amused by this. We had a great friendship as young writers together and admired each others’ writing. He once said to me that he liked being a great flatterer, but he was also very affectionate and fond of his friends and very loyal, an extremely loyal friend. In fact he flattered all people he met. He couldn’t help making them seem more exciting than they were to themselves. I greatly miss him, I must say.”
What was his memory of the wonderful novelist Mary McCarthy (1912-1989)? He had often appeared to be particularly fond of her.
She was very attractive when she was young, a very attractive girl. Extremely intelligent, born Roman Catholic, a convent girl I think. But she turned away from all that. She was witty, very malicious, with a scrupulous conscience, compulsively conscientious about everything she did and in her behaviour in her relationships with others. She was a good friend of my wife and myself. The last time I saw her we were in Paris, I was giving a reading and she turned up. She was a passionately loyal person, loyal to her friends and supported them in every way possible. She was also self-destructive in her pursuit of what she supposed to be the truth. On some public occasion she said that the American playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) had never written a single truth in her life, that everything she wrote was a lie, including the ands and the buts. Well, this had force but was highly libelous, although it is also highly defensible and so these two women got into a terrible row which destroyed them both, I think. I felt very sad about that. I always thought that if only she could apologize or say, ‘excluding the ands and buts’ or something witty, to make it a bit better, but she wouldn’t. She was tremendously determined and obstinate.”
Stephen Spender’s kindness was not always sustained or recognized by those whom he knew well. One famous example was that of English writer and modernist Virginia Woolf (1842-1948),
She was unkind in her letters and her diary. She was totally uninhibited in what she wrote about people. I couldn’t be someone’s guest and even in a diary write a scathing account of my host who happens to be a close friend of mine. I’m inhibited about that kind of behaviour because I think it would reveal to the reader what an unpleasant person I was. But Virginia Woolf didn’t have any inhibitions at all. I think that what she wrote in her diary was a great shock to many people who knew her. Personally she did not reflect any of that in her day-to-day behaviour. For example, she was extremely nice to me. And if you were with her she may have been making these scathing observations to herself and was going to put them in her diary that evening, but that did not affect her being pleasant while in conversation. It was like having a split personality, one part of her did not affect her thoughts while the other part was to be very friendly towards you. There was a deep hysteria about her. I remember one occasion in which I found myself sitting next to her at a concert, I think it was a Beethoven Quartet, and I thought that if I said hello she might look at me in a dazed stare, or a surprised way, and ask ‘who are you?’. She really wouldn’t know who I was, although we knew one another very well. So I didn’t speak to her during the whole concert and I behaved as if we were not there. And the next day I received a card asking me to dinner, so she had obviously realized what I had done and she appreciated the fact that just because we happened to be sitting next to each other at a concert we were not there to see each other, we were there to listen to the concert. There was something slightly, well, hysterically mad about her. And if she was actually mad it didn’t affect her daily life. That may have come out a bit in her journals.”
We fell silent, all of us. Spender looked at the camera which had aimed at him for two hours. He sighed, “This has been difficult. Is that the end…? Oh, good!”
Andrew Graham-Yooll was born in Buenos Aires of a Scottish father and an English mother. He is the author of about thirty books, in English and in Spanish. He joined the English-language Buenos Aires Herald (founded in 1876) in 1966, but left the paper in 1976 and went into exile during the military dictatorship. In London, he worked for the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian and was editor of Index on Censorship. In 1994 he returned to Argentina and became editor and president of the board of the Herald and remained with the paper until 2007, when he was appointed Reader’s Editor and “Ombudsman” at the newspaper Perfil, in Buenos Aires. He left the paper in 2013 to concentrate on his own work. His books include the now classic A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina’s Nightmare (1985), which Graham Greene called “the book of the year”. His book The Forgotten Colony: A History of the English-speaking Communities in Argentina was published in 1981, and his massive chronological history of Argentina in the second half of the twentieth century (Tiempo de Tragedias y Esperanzas, 1955-2005). He translates poetry in Spanish into English, and British and US poets into Spanish.
In 2002, he was awarded the OBE.
He has four children and seven grandchildren.