Stephen Spender’s is a life well documented, as much by his own hand – in a memoir and novels that qualify as thinly veiled slices of life – as through his surviving correspondence with his close friends Christopher Isherwood and W H Auden. Spender even wrote his journals with one eye on their eventual publication, rarely revealing anything sensitive. The joy of this character portrait, lovingly sculpted by his son, Matthew, is that it sidelines almost everything we know about Stephen, relegating the towering reputation of Spender the man of letters to the margins of its concerns, to deliver an unblinking account of Spender as a husband, father and lover (of a succession of beguiling young men).
Would Stephen have appreciated such a book? It is hard to say. At a cocktail party in New York in 1975, he leaned over to Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s White House aide, and said: “My children are going to curse me with their total recall . . . They remember everything! I can just see Matthew now, in front of some court, saying to the judge, ‘Oh, yes, Your Honour, I remember exactly the moment when Dad signed his contract with the CIA. I was under the table at the time – aged two!’” Spender (Matthew recorded at the time) thought he was being “hilarious”, his usual guileless self. Everyone else wanted to hide.
There is a double irony here, in that Spender fils does have splendid recall, not just for events but for atmosphere, hidden play and subtext, which, added to his unswerving honesty (it’s as if he’s swallowed a truth serum), makes for a richly layered read. Also, the question that preoccupies Matthew most keenly, as his father’s apologist, is whether or not Stephen was aware of his paymaster’s identity at any time during his decades-long tenure as literary editor of Encounter magazine – a slick front for the CIA’s anti-communist cultural agitprop in Europe during the cold war.
Matthew explains that government archives relating to his father’s activities in the 1950s and 1960s will soon be made public and that he wrote this book to pre-empt any revelations. Yet one senses that there is much more at stake here, something primal, Oedipal, even. For Matthew, the Encounter scandal is not simply a “Did he or didn’t he know?” affair. It turns on artistic and personal integrity – that of Stephen, Matthew, indeed, anyone who seeks to build a creative life in the arts. The difference between father and son is that one believed the pursuit of art need not be compromised by a careerist investment in the workings of power, while the other passionately believes that art and politics ought never to mingle.
Reading this book, you begin to understand why this difference in commitment was inevitable. The house on Loudoun Road in St John’s Wood, north London, where Matthew grew up, was the mise en scène for a difficult experiment in living which demanded that various incommensurables be reconciled. Foremost was that Stephen’s homosexuality had to coexist alongside his sincerely crafted marriage. There was also a clash between Stephen’s conviction in his essential “innocence” and his passion for worldly influence.
Matthew’s mother, Natasha Litvin, is as compelling a character in this story as Stephen. She was driven (she was a concert pianist) and yet hidebound (she lived by stringent rules of self-sacrifice, fantasising about her inner life in near-monastic terms); passionate (Raymond Chandler was besotted with her) and yet emotionally neglected by her husband, whose physical and emotional core sang out only to other men. Chandler persisted in offering Natasha what he believed Stephen never could, telling her, “There can be no love without desire.” It’s a phrase that nags at Matthew for obvious reasons, even if he eventually sides with Chandler – and not his mother, whose desperate need to maintain appearances at all costs, coupled with her love of family, enabled her to withstand the long emotional drought of her marriage to Stephen.
Matthew is a disarmingly likeable narrator. Things warm up appreciably when, after a hundred-odd pages of straight biography, he makes his appearance as a smarty-pants child getting his poems critiqued by Auden, and then as a brooding teen sneaking off school to make drawings of London’s rooftops and streets. The reader responds to his self-awareness and self-exposure as he wrestles with his parents’ wildly different credos and agonises over his father’s lack of nous – his ignorance of political machinations, his blindness to other people’s needs. Matthew, a sculptor, is refreshingly (or painfully) candid about his parents’ coolness towards his wife, Maro, who seduced him at the age of 16 and to whom he has been wedded ever since, resolutely not succumbing (as his father did) to passing infatuations.
Again and again, we return to Encounter, to Stephen’s knowledge or ignorance, to his fatal attraction to the world, on whose account, both father and son agree, Stephen sacrificed his output as a poet. The CIA scandal is the grit in the mollusc’s shell that, however much the author works over it, refuses to be turned into a pearl. This book, one senses, is a hard-won achievement for Matthew. But it is an unmitigated success. In getting to know Stephen the man, I am far more inclined to return to his poems.
A House in St John’s Wood: In Search of My Parents by Matthew Spender is published by William Collins (438pp, £25)
Marina Benjamin’s latest memoir, “The Mirror and the Clock”, will be published by Scribe next spring
This article appears in the 23 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left