Stephen February Spender Interview - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen Spender with Peter Marchant and Stan Sanvel Rubin (interview date 14 February 1978)

SOURCE: An interview in Partisan Review, Vol. LV, No. 1, 1988, pp. 45-54.

[In the following interview, which was conducted on February 14, 1978 and later edited for inclusion in Partisan Review, Spender discusses his relationship with W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and other literary figures, and remarks on his career as a poet, critic, and teacher.]

[Rubin]: You published an autobiography, World Within World, in 1951. Are you working on another to bring that one up to date?

[Spender]: I don't quite want to bring it up to date, because I think that people's lives get very boring in autobiographies at the point of their becoming famous figures; the latter half of that sort of "life" tends to be a list of your accomplishments and the places you've been to—a kind of travelogue, almost. I might avoid that by cutting up the original autobiography and putting in new material. But I'll have to read World Within World again to decide whether I can do that. I haven't read it since I wrote it in 1950.

[Marchant]: You've had many lives—prep school, adolescence, Oxford, Germany, England in the thirties and its literary life, Spain, the Auxiliary Fire Service. Which has been the worst?

I always think that prep school was, far and away, the worst. I was very unhappy at the boarding school I was sent to when I was nine. I was totally unsuited to go to a boarding school, and I felt as if I'd been sent to prison. I always used to think, well, I'll never be as unhappy again as I am here. As a matter of fact, a master once said that to me. He noticed that I was very unhappy and said, "Anyhow you can have this consolation, that you'll never be so unhappy again." And it turned out to be quite true. When I was twenty-one, I wrote to him and thanked him very much for having made that remark and said that it had got me through being at school. I felt like a prisoner really, imprisoned with all these other awful little boys.

Which has been the best period of your life?

I was probably happiest after I had left Oxford and was away from any kind of institution. Oxford in a way I liked because I made friends there, but I didn't make anything of Oxford. My ambition always was to be independent—and to have a typewriter and a room of my own—and to start doing my own work.

I joined forces with Christopher Isherwood, who was living in Berlin and was rather lonely there—he wanted someone to talk to about literature and things. We lived very close to each other, and we met for every meal. That really was my life then—seeing Christopher Isherwood and getting on with my writing.

Had your relationship with Isherwood remained the same as it had been when you were an undergraduate?

Yes, I think my relationships with nearly all my friends have stayed the same. We're very fond of one another, and we meet whenever we can.

[Rubin]: There is a popular image of the poet as always a youthful figure and yet, in fact, you are writing poetry well into old age, just as Frost and Eliot and Stevens did.

In a way it's a phenomenon of living in the twentieth century. Poets tend to get terribly preoccupied in middle life. In early life one is neglected and, therefore, free from being called on the whole time, so one can get on with one's work. Then in old age one is also suddenly free again, and things are falling away from one. One interesting thing about being old is that one is invisible: if I get into an elevator, say, and it's full of young people, they don't look at me; they're looking at one another. That sense of being invisible is rather nice.

[Marchant]: Has your view of yourself changed? In World Within World, the sense I had of you as an undergraduate was somebody very sensitive and shy, easily humiliated. Someone made the remark to you that artists thrive on humiliation.

Yes, Auden said, "You will always be a poet because you will always be humiliated." I'm rather beyond being humiliated. But otherwise I think I am very much as I was.

[Rubin]: You talk about not changing, but I wonder if your time in America has had any direct impact on your writing.

I never felt very "English" as a writer. In fact, in my generation, to be young and a member of the English upper-middle class, the kind of person who goes to an English public school and to Oxford or Cambridge, meant that if you were not English—and by origin I am a quarter-German and a quarter-Jewish—one was made very conscious of being a bit of an outsider. Also I belonged to a time when people of my generation resented England very much—the public school system, the Conservative Party, all the governments of England between the two wars, the British Empire, the whole English upper-class code. Not feeling myself very English anyway, I always felt happier abroad than in England. During the war, as a matter of fact, if one was in England, one recovered a great feeling of England. I can think of Englishness as something almost sacred, but I always feel a bit of an outsider and not really English myself; therefore, wherever I am, I feel pretty well at home. If I go to Asia, for instance, I don't feel that I have a white face in contrast to these peoples of different colors; I really feel as if I'm almost one of them. I've never found it very difficult to bridge those gulfs, which are supposed to exist. I've always felt myself rather international, I think.

[Marchant]: You've been extraordinarily prolific—you've written seventy-five books—yet you describe yourself as being very social, finding it difficult to say "no" to invitations. What exactly is your work routine? How do you manage to write so much?

If one has lived a fairly long time, there have been a great many days in one's life. I've probably written on the average an hour or two a day, every day of my life, and if you worked it out, one could have written seventy-five books, I think. On the whole, when I am working on something that I care about, I really am working at it, or thinking about it, the whole time. A friend of mine always says, "I think of you as having a certain expression on your face when you're pretending to listen to me." When I'm pretending to listen to people, I'm usually getting on with whatever I happen to be writing.

[Rubin]: You've written and spoken about what you term the need for "pressure" in writing, which I understand to mean the tension between the content and the form. Do you perceive a difference in your own approach to fiction (which you've not written for some time) versus poetry or journalism? How do you handle these diverse forms of "pressure"?

Journalism I do simply to make money, although one needn't necessarily. It could be like writing a letter, for instance, which I do. In fact, I really prefer writing things I'm not paid for, and what I like very much is writing letters to people. Writing for one person seems to me the ideal situation.

Actually I think one has to keep on more or less writing in a genre like fiction, and if one doesn't, one forgets how to write in that genre. I would like to write stories, but I have the feeling that fiction has developed a great deal since the time when I did write stories, and I don't really know how to start again. I have kept on writing poetry just about enough to feel that I don't have to ask myself, "How does one write a poem?"

[Marchant]: You've also written a play [Trial of a Judge], about Germany in the thirties. Did you find it a struggle to write a play, that you didn't know how?

I see a great many plays and feel very critical of them, in the sense that I know they are not written as they should be written.

You've said that you didn't much like Cabaret, which is the Hollywood version of you and Isherwood in Berlin. Was your play any sort of reaction to that film?

I always say to Christopher that I often have a good mind to call my play My Berlin, in contrast to his. I noticed in his last book that he really wanted me to leave Berlin, because he was afraid that I would use his material. In the middle of the play, which is entirely political, there is a sort of cabaret scene which impinges on Christopher Isherwood's kind of Berlin.

Was Isherwood pleased with Cabaret?

No, we both felt the same: nothing happens in Cabaret that Christopher and I could have possibly afforded to do. Hollywood seems quite incapable of really doing anything about the lives of people like students who are comparatively poor. Cabaret is quite ridiculous. Jean Ross, the model for Sally Bowles, was a very unsuccessful performer in a cabaret, and really, I suppose one would have to say, a sort of whore, although I hate to say that because she was a person I adored. But that really is the way she made her money. In this movie she's the toast of Berlin and at the same time she's always asking for cigarettes because she's so poor. That kind of unreality I find depressing and painful. It seems a pity that Hollywood couldn't make something much more interesting out of what was real—the kind of life we did live.

[Rubin]: What do you think now of the work that Isherwood, Auden, MacNeice, and you did in the thirties?

On the whole, politics didn't help us at all in our writing. Isherwood and MacNeice kept very clear of politics, in fact. Auden wrote a great deal about politics, all of which he suppressed. I went over all the journalism and everything Auden had written in the thirties the other day, and I was amazed how much he'd done and how serious he was about politics. He was always trying to reconcile socialism with Christianity and...

(The entire section is 4154 words.)