washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Michael Dirda

'A Literary Life'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page BW15


By John Sutherland. Oxford Univ. 627 pp. $40

He must have been incredibly charming. Stephen Spender (1909-1995) pops up everywhere in Anglo-American literary history and seems to have known everyone. In his most famous poem, Spender wrote "I think continually of those who were truly great." In his life he did more than think; he came to know the eminent as disciple, friend, confidant and adviser. He is like Zelig in Woody Allen's film, there in the background or off to the side everywhere one turns -- at a garden party with Virginia Woolf, hunched in the boy bars of 1930s Berlin with Christopher Isherwood, near the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War with Hemingway and Malraux, co-editing Horizon with Cyril Connolly during the Blitz.

(Jacket Art From "stephen Spender: A Literary Life")

_____Michael Dirda_____
More Columns
Live Online: Dirda on Books
Arts & Living: Books

_____Arts & Living_____
The Books section has reviews as well as area literary events.
The Washington Post Book Club gives access to discounts, discussions and special events.

And that's just the start. When young Spender -- scion of a comfortable middle-class family -- traveled up to Oxford, he fell in among poets, and before long was part of "Macspaunday," as a contemporary critic dubbed the cutting-edge group consisting of Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden, C. Day Lewis and the tall, shock-haired Spender. Soon T.S. Eliot welcomed him as the lyric poet of the age, while Woolf urged him to devote his manifest talents to fiction.

For years he and philosopher Isaiah Berlin -- probably his closest longtime intimate -- would spend annual opera holidays together in Salzburg. In Europe he regularly visited his old mentor, arguably the greatest German literary scholar of the century, E.R. Curtius. In truth, Spender couldn't take a walk in Cornwall without striking up a conversation with a young man who turned out to be Michael Ventris, the classicist who later deciphered Linear B. In the 1950s the poet was lured into co-founding the intellectual journal Encounter (and was eventually appalled to discover that it was secretly funded by the CIA); later he helped launch the Index on Censorship. During 1968 our man was in Paris during the Events of May; in fact, he was everywhere that year -- Berlin, Eastern Europe, Columbia University. The charisma never deserted him: Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky revered the elderly Spender, and the English man of letters Peter Ackroyd helped compile his collected poems. Blessings flowed, even unto the second generation: Son Matthew wed the daughter of painter Arshile Gorky; daughter Lizzie married the Australian actor Barry Humphries (known to the world as Dame Edna Everage).

A fairy-tale life, it would seem. And yet.

In this very long biography John Sutherland argues for Stephen Spender's greatness as a poet and all-round man of letters. He even hints that his subject deserved the Nobel Prize for literature (which seems ludicrous to me, until I think of some of those chosen over the past quarter-century). Does Sutherland make his case? Periodically he interrupts the brisk flow of his own engagingly conversational prose to quote a poem, and the verses invariably seem at best delicate or pretty and nearly always a bit shaky in their syntax. None breaks your heart like MacNeice's "Sunlight on the Garden" or Autumn Journal; none dazzles like Auden at even his most sesquipedalian. If Sutherland hopes for his biography to send readers back to his subject's poetry, he failed with me. I think the autobiographical World Within World (largely about the 1930s and war years) remains Spender's best book, that his criticism is intelligent but dated or unnecessary (I read virtually all of it in my younger days, and have never felt any desire to look at it again) and that he is likely to be remembered as the John William Burgon of his time. Burgon? He wrote reams of verse but lives only for a single line from his poem "Petra": "A rose-red city half as old as time." Just so, Stephen Spender is likely to be remembered for thinking continually of those who were truly great.

Still, a fine literary biography doesn't need to be about the truly great, only about the truly interesting. Rupert Hart-Davis's Hugh Walpole and James Lees-Milne's Harold Nicolson are among the best writers' lives of our time, even if their splendid subjects -- exceptional young men on the make in the 20th-century literary world -- are now half forgotten and little read. Indeed, I suspect that Sutherland's Stephen Spender slips properly into this subgenre, for at the very least it may be hearkened to as an object lesson for the young.

Spender's hedonist friend Cyril Connolly once warned that all excursions into journalism, broadcasting and magazine work, like the more obvious snares of society and the fashionable world, are largely traps for the unwary. These "enemies of promise" encourage poets and novelists to waste their best selves on unworthy projects, to dissipate the energy that should be reserved for masterpieces. It is a stern, high-minded dictum -- and one that Connolly himself could never follow, since, as Sutherland notes, he wasted the finest lapidary prose style of his generation on weekly book reviewing. Just so, Stephen Spender apparently couldn't refuse an invitation, and so awoke one day to find himself not Byron but rather Yeats's "sixty-year-old, smiling public man," ideally suited for visiting professorships and editorial boards, glamorous enough for talks, black-tie dinners and international literary festivities, an adornment to the book pages of London or New York and, finally, a required antique presence wherever two or three hundred were gathered together to honor the muses.

Not that Spender didn't keep active, in his fashion. He taught and lectured and reviewed well into his eighties, largely, Sutherland claims, because he needed the money. One always does. But Spender also owned expensive houses in London and Provence, took long vacations along the Mediterranean, enjoyed the hospitality and wines of Philippe de Rothschild and other grand seigneurs. He lived very well indeed. During his youth he flitted about Europe on his family's money; afterwards, he was underwritten by wealthy admirers and the CIA, and then by generous fees for lectures and teaching. Even when he was a visiting professor, his courses generally proved the lightest of burdens -- a few workshops, sherry with would-be poets, lots of time for himself.

But was it entirely for himself? In his youth Spender was homosexual. In 1934, however, he met a woman in Vienna named Muriel Gardiner -- the original of Lillian Hellman's Julia in her memoir Pentimento -- and they became lovers. Afterwards, he kept his boyfriend but started fooling around with girls, too, eventually marrying a rather wild thing named Inez. That marriage broke up, and, sometime later, he and the young pianist Natasha Litvin wed, quite happily. Nonetheless, good-looking young men seemed to re-enter the poet's life after he started to travel to America, often on his own. One cannot help but wonder. Sutherland scrupulously mentions Spender's involvement with young gay novelists (William Goyen, David Plante) and young gay scientists (such as Bryan Obst), but he leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. This is, after all, an authorized biography.

But, let there be no mistake, a very good book, and one rich with anecdote and historic re-creation, whether of Spender's life as a London firefighter during World War II or of the whole sorry business of Encounter and its handlers. John Sutherland is a powerhouse researcher -- he singlehandedly produced The Stanford Guide to Victorian Fiction -- and he is also a distinguished professor at University College London and a fixture on the reviewing scene in Britain. Moreover, he knew Spender slightly in his own younger days. But then who didn't? Even I spoke with Sir Stephen two or three times on the phone, back when he contributed to Book World more than a quarter-century ago. He was, no surprise, incredibly charming. •

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His weekly discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company