In the mid-1980s an Irish radio program asked me to go to Sligo in the west of Ireland, to the W.B. Yeats Summer School, to interview the poet Stephen Spender, who was a guest at the school. Since the radio program centered on current affairs more than literary matters, I was asked to concentrate on Berlin in the 1920s, the Spanish civil war, and then include, if I wanted, the writers of the 1930s who had been friends of Spender’s, such as W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.
Spender was tall, gentle in his manners, oddly imposing, and also polite and distant. It was not lost on him, it struck me, that all of the matters under discussion had occurred fifty years earlier. I felt slightly sheepish that I had nothing to ask him about an entire half-century of his life. But he kept whatever resentment he might have harbored about this to himself. He spoke well. When the interview was done, however, he seemed weary.
It was only later that I discovered I had pressed the “play” button on the machine rather than “record” and thus the interview had not been taped. When I found Spender and told him this, he agreed in a matter-of-fact way to redo the interview. His replies to my questions the second time—his account of Berlin and Spain and his life as a young poet—were word-for-word the same as the interview I had failed to record. He knew this story by heart.
Before he turned and left the room, Spender gave me a look that remains with me to this day. His weariness appeared even greater than before, almost unearthly; the expression on his face exuded a sense of a deep, hard inner pain. A wave both shivering and darkly wounded crossed his countenance.
That evening he gave a reading of his poems to a large audience. Some of the poems seemed slack, almost lazy, lacking the ironic, or self-protective, tone we had become used to in contemporary poetry. His “Almond Tree by a Bombed Church,” dedicated to Henry Moore, for example, could have been from a greeting card. It began:
Jewel-winged almond tree,
Alighting here on bended knee—
To the shattered street you bring
Annunciation of Spring—
But there were a few times that evening when another Spender emerged—grave, serious, haunted, closer to the vulnerable figure I had seen at the end of the interview, as in the opening stanzas of the poem “If It Were Not”:
If it were not for that
Lean executioner, who stands
Ever beyond a door
With axe raised in both hands—
All my days here would be
One day—the same—the drops
Of light edgeless in light
That no circumference stops.
Or the final lines of “On the Photograph of a Friend, Dead”:
Now positively scans me with
Your quizzical ironic framed half-laugh,
Your gaze oblique under sun-sculptured lips
Endlessly asks me: “Is this all we have?”
Stephen Spender was born in 1909. His mother, an artist and poet, who came from a wealthy family, died when he was twelve. His father, who died when he was seventeen, was a journalist and member of the Liberal Party. At Oxford, Spender, who was writing poems addressed to a young man whom he called Marston, met Auden, two years his senior. “One day in 1929,” Stephen Spender’s son Matthew writes in A House in St John’s Wood: In Search of My Parents,
a few days after he’d left with Auden a new poem and a diary entry about walking along the banks of the River Wye with Marston, Stephen received back a short note in Auden’s almost illegible minuscule. “Have read your diary & poems. Am just recovering from the dizzy shock. Come out all day Thursday. Shall order a hamper of cold lunch.”
Spender, all his life, caused those who knew him to wonder about the gap between what his son calls his “woolly-mindedness” and his being “as tough as nails.” In 1979, Spender himself noted in his diaries a reference to him in 1933 in the letters of Virginia Woolf:
He talks incessantly and will pan out in years to come a prodigious bore. But he’s a nice poetic youth…big nosed, bright eyed, like a giant thrush…He is writing about Henry James and has tea alone with Ottoline and is married to a Sergeant of the Guards.
Instead of being indignant on reading this, Spender noted: “Oh, blessed Virginia, if you look down on me from any height where you now live, help me in my old age not to be a bore.”
Between Oxford and his marriage to Natasha Litvin, a concert pianist, in 1941, Spender lived in Germany, had many male lovers and a first short-lived marriage, wrote a novel, published his first book of poems, became a member of the Communist Party (which he later repudiated), and spent time in Spain during the civil war. Unlike his friends Auden and Isherwood, who moved to the United States, Spender remained a Londoner. In World War II, he did not see active service because he failed the health tests, but instead he served in the Auxiliary Fire Service.
Spender met Natasha Litvin in London in August 1940, two weeks before the beginning of the Blitz. She was the illegitimate daughter of an actress who had come to England from Estonia as a child and Edwin Evans, a well-known English music critic. From birth, Natasha was taken under the wing of a wealthy English family who found her a foster mother while her actual mother tried to work. Thus Natasha moved between one world and another; she was uneasy and insecure in a country obsessed with birth and class and parentage.1
Many years later, when Natasha tried desperately to stop a biographer claiming that she had had an affair with the novelist Raymond Chandler, Stephen Spender remarked to his son: “The thing is, Natasha is not what used to be called a ‘Lady.’ The reaction of a real Lady to all this would surely be to forget the whole thing.” Her son, in this memoir of his parents’ marriage, dryly remarks: “He was right.” Part of the problem, it seems, was that the woman who eventually became Lady Spender—Stephen Spender was knighted in 1983—was always an outsider.
The other part of the problem was that Stephen Spender was, for the most part, homosexual. Unlike Auden and Isherwood, however, he chose to marry and have children—his son Matthew was born in 1945 and his daughter Lizzie in 1950. (“All babies look like Winston Churchill,” Auden declared on first seeing Matthew Spender.) In a diary entry in 1953 Spender wrote that his “greatest achievement…was being the father of Matthew and Elizabeth.”
In his book, Matthew Spender describes his own memories of his father the philandering poet and his mother the cantankerous pianist while also, softly and with some sympathy, imagining their desires, trying to piece together what it might have been like for each of them to be trapped in a marriage that made them unhappy and, at the same time, fulfilled some set of complex needs.
Besides the question of sex, there was also the matter of money. Although Spender worked at various times as an editor and a professor, the family did not always have enough money to keep their house in London, their cottage in the country, and, later, their summer house in France. While Spender was essentially bohemian and nonchalant about most things, Natasha had good reason from her childhood to worry deeply about penury. She also enjoyed luxury.
Thus when Raymond Chandler came into their lives in April 1955, it was not only his loneliness and his sexual interest in Natasha that made a difference, it was also the size of his checkbook. He took Natasha on expensive holidays and bought her gifts. (They never, it seems, actually had sex.) Chandler was not fond of homosexuals; nor did he admire writers who made no money. “I regard financial failure as essentially a moral failure,” he wrote to a friend. Stephen Spender returned the compliment by not liking detective stories.
When Chandler was cavorting sexlessly with his wife in London, Spender was at a congress in Venice discussing the life of the mind with Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Ignazio Silone. On the surface, both the cavorting and the congress sound like fun; in his book, Matthew Spender makes clear that, while this sort of thing fulfilled some of his parents’ deepest desires, it did not make them happy. It added instead to the sense of grievance and guilt that dogged and perhaps even nourished their marriage.
As Spender wandered in Venice in the company of Sartre during that congress, he was noticed by a young American writer named Reynolds Price, who would become his closest confidant. (They never, it seemed, had sex either.) Soon after he saw him, Price wrote to Spender saying that he had “the kindest face I have ever seen.” As Matthew Spender writes: “Thus, entirely independently but in some way parallel, my father began a relationship as contorted but as powerful as my mother’s with Raymond Chandler.”
Matthew notes all of this contortion with a mixture of stoic resentment and a sort of wounded wonder. Stephen Spender, in his son’s account, remains distant and withdrawn. He had many things on his mind. Being a father was merely one of them. Natasha worked hard as a concert pianist, and appeared also to put a great deal of energy into preserving the illusion, in any way she could, that she and her husband were devoted to each other and that his homosexuality had been merely a youthful spree.
Sometimes, Matthew is ready to interrogate both of his parents sharply; at other times, he is filled with sympathy for them; he understands how lonely they were in their marriage and understands too how much his mother was neglected and how his father was restless and filled with longings. Despite all this understanding, there are moments when one wonders if the Spenders might have been wiser to have sent Matthew to a good, all-year-round boarding school so that he could not have studied them as closely and, one might say, pitilessly, as he sometimes did.
Natasha, for example, was in California with Matthew when she heard of Chandler’s death. She sent her son to the swimming pool. “When I came back,” he writes, “to where she was sitting on a deckchair, her eyes were red with tears. Why had nobody told her? Behind the tears of real grief I thought I detected rage that she hadn’t been contacted by a lawyer to tell her she’d inherited everything.”
In 1983 when his father accepted a knighthood, Matthew admits to being “deeply upset at the time. I thought it cut him off from writing poetry. I wrote him a bitter letter hinting as much.” His father replied that
sooner or later one has to join the Sixth Form [the last years of high school]. Most of his friends were in the Sixth Form already: Sir Isaiah [Berlin], Sir Stuart [Hampshire], Sir Freddie [Ayer]. What’s wrong with that? (And besides, he added cunningly, think of the pleasure it would give Natasha when she becomes Lady Spender.)
Matthew wanted his father to write poetry. He thought much of what his father did as a public figure or a social creature was a waste of time. In his book he is particularly concerned about his father’s involvement with the magazine Encounter, which was, it emerged, paid for by the CIA; he examines his father’s conscience with great zeal, wondering if and when and how Stephen Spender might have known or not known about the source of the magazine’s funding.
Stephen Spender’s diaries are filled with ambition for his son, and guilt about things generally (including indeed his own ability to waste time), but they are filled with affection too. In 1960, he noted that he wanted Matthew, who wished to be an artist—he later became a sculptor—to go instead to Oxford to study. “That it is an élite, that his friends are going there, and that if he doesn’t he will be left behind by the best members of his generation.” By contrast, studying at the Slade art school would seem “scruffy.”2
Spender was aware of his own distance from his son. In 1974, Matthew’s wife said to Spender, who noted the remark in his diaries: “Matthew says that when you go out together you don’t talk to him.” Five years later, Spender attempted to notice who his son was, what he was like:
Although it was two years since Matthew and I were last in Venice together, it was as though we’d taken up just where we’d left off. Matthew even taller than I, walking ahead of me, carrying my things or most of them, looking scholarly and a bit remote when wearing his gold-rimmed spectacles, somehow with quite a different kind of smile, sweet and attentive, but at the edges lurkingly ironic, when not wearing them: beautiful at times, at other times rather lean and craggy, too keen-looking to seem entirely physical.
Perhaps Spender’s most beautiful diary entry of all was written in 1980 in a hospital:
Then Matthew came to London for a week. He visited me every day and stayed for hours, with great cheerfulness till it nearly broke my heart, and I said, “I’m sure there must be people you want to see.” He said, “No, I just want to be with you.”
Besides dealing with his parents’ difficult marriage, Matthew Spender takes us through his own brave efforts to break away from them, to find a simpler love story of his own. As a teenager, he fell in love with Maro Gorky, the daughter of the painter Arshile Gorky, who committed suicide at the age of forty-four, and an American, Mougouch Magruder, who is portrayed with great fondness in this memoir.
While Natasha is described here as often quite shrill, Mougouch, on the other hand, is softhearted, charming, bohemian, and loads of fun. (“If nobody else was around, she’d dazzle the maid.”) Her household freed Matthew from the bother of his own, with all its weighty concerns:
My father thought…in terms of the centuries. He imagined that Byron and Wordsworth were colleagues working in other rooms; but the concept of the “truly great” meant seeing himself as a third person acting within history, and this seemed to me crazy. Mougouch’s view connected frivolity with immediacy. I loved her idea that only the present tense is real.
Natasha, whose house was “stiff with artifice,” did not take well to Maro Gorky, whom her son married and with whom he still lives in Italy, or her mother Mougouch, or frivolity, or indeed immediacy. Natasha lost her husband at regular intervals to homosexuality; now she was losing her son to heterosexuality, and neither she, nor Stephen Spender himself, approved. “I wondered,” Matthew writes,
if I hadn’t hit upon the one thing that would irritate my parents: domestic bliss. If I’d run away to Buenos Aires with a sailor, my father would have understood. If I’d begun to hang out at the Colony Rooms with Francis Bacon and drink all night, he’d have sympathized…. If I’d starred in a porno movie shot in a cellar in Soho, he would have been secretly amused, because it would have reminded him of his experiences around the docks of Hamburg when he was young. But happy straight coupledom? No, not that!
Stephen Spender fell in love a number of times after Reynolds Price, most notably with the Greek poet and editor Nikos Stangos, whom he met in 1965, and later with an American student, Bryan Obst, fifty years his junior, whom he met in 1976. Both relationships greatly enriched Spender’s life. When Stangos met the novelist David Plante and they became lovers, this pleased Spender, who now had two serious, literary, intelligent homosexual friends. Stephen told David: “I wish that when I was your age I had had what you have now with Nikos.”
David Plante’s Worlds Apart is a memoir based on diary entries about his time in London in the 1980s when he saw a great deal of the Spenders, who seem more sporadically relaxed in his version of things than they do in A House in St John’s Wood. Early on, Plante records a friendly supper that he and Nikos had with both Stephen and Natasha Spender. When Stephen spoke of an actor appearing naked in a show he had been to, he turned to Natasha and said: “You were away.” As Plante reports: “She, laughing, said: ‘Natch.’”
When Nikos suggested publishing a book of Stephen’s photographs and they went through the boxes of photos with Stephen and Natasha, things were easy as long as the pictures they perused were of famous people, such as Auden or Sartre, Bernard Berenson or Frieda Lawrence, or the family, “but there were moments,” Plante writes, “when Nikos or I would ask about a photograph of a young man…and Natasha couldn’t answer, as if she became deaf and blind.”
Soon, Plante reports, he and Nikos were receiving letters from Bryan Obst to Stephen and holding on to them “for safekeeping.” He writes that Spender “doesn’t want to hurt Natasha by having her find a letter left hanging about, as he would be likely to do.” Plante quotes one of these letters from Obst in full. It ends:
I just realized that although I have written two pages I haven’t yet said that I love you, which of course, I do. No matter what else my letters might say, I hope you realize that the message that they are meant to carry to you is that I do love you, dearest Stephen.
In another, Obst recounted how his mother found Spender’s letters and, struck by the frankness in their tone, asked if the relationship was physical, which Obst denied. “Since your letters were fairly suggestive of what really occurred,” he wrote, “the lie really fell flat.”
Plante read this letter in a restaurant, having called Spender to let him know that it had arrived. “I handed him the letter,” he notes, “he tore it open, and after he finished each page he handed it to me across the table.” Thus Spender had a way of sharing his relationship while keeping it a secret, or almost a secret, from his wife.
Later, when Stephen was staying with Obst in the United States and Natasha with Nikos and Plante in London, Stephen wrote to his wife at their address. When the letter arrived, she became “very excited.” One morning, she said to Plante: “You know, when Stephen is with me he doesn’t show me much affection, but his letters are so affectionate.” Another morning, she said:
I can love anyone who loves Stephen. I can see the point of anyone who sees the point of Stephen. He has hurt me so often, so deeply I’ve wondered how I could survive. Even now, when I look through our photographs and see endless pictures of young men I don’t know, my heart crashes to my feet. He is not a malicious person, never never never means to hurt, and I know that, and I accept that.
Plante wonders what she would say “if she knew that in our flat, in a drawer we presume she would not open, are letters from a young man Stephen may now be with.”
As time went on, Natasha became concerned about publicity. She made desperate efforts to prevent Chandler’s biographer Frank McShane from claiming that she had a sexual affair with the novelist. “If this biography is printed as is,” she told Plante, having seen the proofs of the book, “I’ll kill myself, I really will.” She worried that people were talking about her, saying to Plante: “I’ve got to go out. People will become very suspicious if they think I’m in all the time.” Matthew Spender agrees that his mother “went berserk” at the time of this publication. “The Bodleian archive,” he writes, “has files a foot high documenting my mother’s struggle with this unfortunate scholar, Frank MacShane.”
Later, as she became closer to Plante, Natasha confided in him more, and he confided what she said to his diary: “‘You see,’ she said, ‘Stephen basically hates women.’ And she said this without a trace of rancor.” After a while, when she said: “I don’t know if I should be telling you all this,” Plante inquired: “Because you’re worried I’ll write it down?” Natasha then asked: “When do you keep your diary?” Plante noted: “I told her: as soon as possible after an event, and I try simply to describe. She seemed to accept this as a matter of fact she would not oppose, but would allow.”
It is interesting what she would and would not allow. Plante notes that “When he [Spender] and Natasha were in Atlanta, she helped him edit his diary.” This might account for the fact that Bryan Obst is simply named as B. and makes his first appearance in the diaries on January 15, 1979, with a note that drily reads: “An ornithologist, who also took my course at Gainesville.” But it is too easy to suggest that Natasha made her husband remove the explicit references to his life as a gay man. She did not. On February 9, 1979, for example, Spender’s diary reads:
I worked Saturday morning, and B. went out so as not to interrupt, but otherwise we were separated for an hour or so the whole weekend…B’s purpose this weekend was to show me his life, which I certainly wanted to see…These encounters are very risky and make him nervous—we might not get on—in fact they are a form of living dangerously.
Toward the end of his book Plante records an evening when Natasha was the one who raised the subject of Stephen’s sexuality, recounting the story of a young man at whom she had seen her husband making eyes, a young man who later came to their table. “And I realized,” Natasha said, “that it was time for me to powder my nose while they talked about the sexual activities of monks, because I found out later that he [the young man] was a Dominican monk, and a very sweet person.”
She did not feel as relaxed, however, about an unauthorized biography by Hugh David that appeared in 1992. She suggested in an article in the Times Literary Supplement that there should be a code of practice for biographers. She and her husband were indignant too at a novel by David Leavitt called While England Sleeps, published in the US in 1993, that used elements of Spender’s early life. They forced Penguin to pulp the UK edition the following year. Stephen Spender wrote an article against what his official biographer John Sutherland called “the recent vogue for tell-all literary biographies.” Spender argued: “The idea that everything about oneself is destined to become public property is life-destroying to the extent that one’s life is one’s own, shared with a few others by the kind of respect which is another name for love.”
Oddly enough, both David Plante’s and Matthew Spender’s books, which make every effort to tell all, have a wavering aura of love about them. They take care to make this story ambiguous and nuanced, rich and absorbing. Stephen Spender here seems both oddly innocent and quite careless, worldly and otherworldly, determined and guilt-ridden, while Natasha appears almost fiercely interesting as she deals with her plight as a passionate and needy woman married to a man who did not fully love her. Despite the fact that Natasha was not, as her husband noted, a real Lady, she emerges in these two books as a woman in possession of some grandeur. It is easy to imagine her being played by the type of great English character actress that she herself, in her own way, made a considerable and sometimes desperate effort to become.
When an unwanted biographer wrote a book about Spender, for example, Spender saw the intrusion in the light of class. He wrote to Ted Hughes that the book was “written in the tone of voice of a skivvy…there really is an underclass of people who envy and hate us all.” ↩
One of Spender’s best-known poems is “My parents kept me from children who were rough.” ↩