The LETTERS TO CHRISTOPHER -- written by Stephen Spender to Christopher Isherwood during their hectic youth between 1929 and 1939 -- are documents from the dawn of a phase in literary history which now is in its evening. Back then, Isherwood was in his famous boarding house, writing The Berlin Stories , witnessing the pauperized death of Weimar; Spender was busy on the London literary scene -- as he says, "dining with the Woolves." He was also visiting Berlin itself, Spain, and other sites of the emerging international horror. Both were staking out their relation to the dominating intellectual energy emanating from their friend W.H. Auden -- a third party, very present in his absence here. But the literary youth of "the Oxford boys" (Edmund Wilson's phrase) is anything but obscure; probably only Bloomsbury has been more copiously documented -- and you would have to be very interested in its slighter details to snap up Letters to Christopher . Even helped by Lee Bartlett's lucid notes, these letters are pretty scrappy stuff. Certainly nobody will turn to them before the two men's autobiographies: Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind , and Spender's gossipy, underrated, World Within World .
Stephen Spender is among the more notable British examples of a literary-type -- post-war, liberal writer-intellictual. They were elitsist, cosmopolitan, literary, argumentative -- forever arbitrating the changing claims of art and policies in the modern world. For them, art was defined in the arguments for and against classic radicalism; politics, in the arguments for and against classic radicalism. Note it was always an argument , and the intellectual life was a perpetual fractious struggle to correct corrupted taste and purge diseased ideas. Central to it all was that now very cracked crucible of highbrowish opinion: The Serious Literary Magazine -- in America, notasbly Partisan Review , in England, Encounter , of which Spender was for many years an editor. These figures were unabashedly generalist and elitist at once, sensitive above all to every shadow of the ideological vices that fed what were for them the century's preeminent catastrophes: Stalinism, fascism, and the Second World War. Sixties' radicalism at first learned much from them, then shook the scene drastically, perhaps fatally. But for two decades it was the matrix of liberal literary opinion. It is now in decline, despite the continuing vitality of certain offshoots, ranging from the essays of Gore Vidal, to The New York Review of Books , to (especially at the moment) neo-conservatism, the style of which was learned in this select, but roughhouse, school.
Spender has been one of the most engaging and peripatetic of these figures. I am at a loss to explain why Bartlett has relegated to the shadows of an appendix two long sections of Spender's 1930s journals -- they are far more interestng than the letters that get top billing. The most interesting is begun on September 3, 1939, two days exactly after the start of World War II, two months exactly after Spender's first wife unceremoniously left him. Hurt, confused, Spender journalizes in search of his emotional and intellectual bearnings, (so advised by both T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf: ieven de profundis Spender is never very far from Fame), and the results are shrewd, twilit memories of Weimar; anecdotes about the great German critic Ernst Robert Curtius; talk about wild escapades; reflections on love and loss -- until at last the man's irrepressible curiosity, irrepressible hopefulness, reemerge.
This gives the book all the charm it has. The tall, strapping, smart young man we glimpse through the narrow slats of these letters (and the better view from the journal, along with a good collection of photographs) is a kind of romping, raucous intellectual Saint Bernard -- joyously plunging after every idea, every impression, opinion, poem, dream, person, that passes. He is full of gossip. He is boisterously affectionate. (The sundry dilemmas of Spender's bisexuality are frankly, though inconclusively, revealed.) He is passionately interested in everything -- a bit more interested that he is interesting, in fact. He is a little shallow, but he is marvelously, boisterously alive. I can see that for all the clumsy charm, he might have been trying as a friend; at one point he and Isherwood had a short but mean drop-dead set-to, in which Isherwood cooly tells his Berlin isn't big enough for both of them. Spender does look like he could fill more than half the town.
Meanwhile where is the other half? Isherwood's letters do not appear at all. The result is that what at best is a document becomes more like half a document. That may have a certain value, I suppose -- and the journals are better. But as they stand, these letters have a bit the sound of one hand that is not clapping.