The Spiral Ascent

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Publishing History

Upward began writing In the Thirties in 1954 but it wasn’t published until 1962, by Heinemann, having been turned down by Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press, publisher of Upward’s first novel. The Rotten Elements was then brought out by Heinemann in 1969 and both volumes were followed by Penguin editions. After its completion in 1975, it took two years to get No Home But the Struggle published and it initially appeared only in Heinemann’s combined edition of the trilogy with financial assistance from the Arts Council of Great Britain. Subsequently the three individual volumes were brought out in paperback by Quartet. Preview extracts from the first two volumes were published by the London Magazine, which also published many of Upward’s stories.

The text of the digital edition available above is based on the Heinemann combined edition of 1977 (ISBN 0-434-81172-6) but includes a number of minor corrections supplied by the author in the 1980s. Other printing errors have been corrected and capitalisation and hyphenation have been standardised in some cases. Scholars may wish to view a comparison of the editions.

Notes on the Trilogy

Although The Spiral Ascent is not strictly autobiographical, most of the characters and incidents in it are very similar to real-life counterparts, with Alan and Elsie being based on Upward and his wife Hilda, and Richard based partly on Isherwood. One of the obvious divergences from reality is that Alan is a poet in the book rather than a writer of prose.

In the Thirties recounts Alan Sebrill’s attempts to write and find love, his personal crisis, and then his involvement in the Communist Party, his job as a teacher and his marriage to Elsie. The opening chapter by the seaside sees the young writers Alan and Richard glorying in language and nature but also deliberately making contact with ‘the so-called lower classes’. This may seem strange until the reader realises that they have had the same isolated, privileged upbringing as the ‘poshocrats’ they despise. Later in the book we find Alan sometimes fighting to suppress some lingering snobbish attitudes, but he doesn’t waver in his commitment to the side of the workers.

Later chapters give a vivid picture of the activities of CP members, including opposition to Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts and routine leafleting. Upward is not afraid to put the opinions of the time into Alan’s mouth without the benefit of hindsight, including those showing his ignorance of the extent of Stalin’s crimes. He thus provides a truthful account of the events, atmosphere and his own feelings of the 1930s. This is one of the most notable achievements of the trilogy, and one which is partly a result of Upward retaining his revolutionary politics. Many writers about the period who were on the left in the thirties moved to the right during the Cold War and easily fell into cynicism or opposition to their earlier ideas, whereas Upward is still able to recognize the genuine motivations and positive results of the actions of ordinary CP members despite the effects of Stalinism on the Party. The final chapter closes shortly before the war begins, with comrades on a walk in the country, and includes what is effectively a prose ode to trees, reflecting Upward’s own love of the natural world as well as his observational and descriptive powers.

Whereas In the Thirties has Alan and Elsie going along with the Party’s condemnation of a dissident member, the subject of The Rotten Elements is their own disagreement with the Party’s post-war policy in Britain, which they believe is a reformist betrayal of Leninism. This involves them in a theoretical confrontation with the Party leadership in which their reasoned arguments are arrogantly dismissed. The novel soon begins to take on some of the colouring of a political thriller. There is good cause for paranoia given both the hostility of the Party leadership and state surveillance, although Elsie has a more level-headed reaction to events than Alan, who has a tendency to emphasize the ominous.

Upward’s intermittent discussion of religion in the trilogy features strongly in The Rotten Elements, where Alan and Elsie are shown having conversations with their children about Christianity and a Communist ex-minister plays a prominent part. Whilst Alan sometimes compares his own attitudes to those of a religious person, he has long been an atheist and does not impute any religious aspect to Marxism itself.

In the final volume of the trilogy, No Home But the Struggle, Alan (like Upward as he was writing) has retired from teaching and is able to write full-time. The narration is now in the first person and the book is full of reminiscences of Alan’s childhood and university days, told in a relaxed, Proustian manner. These are interspersed with accounts of Alan and Elsie’s political activities in the post-war decades, particularly as members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But the dominant thread, as throughout The Spiral Ascent, is Alan’s ongoing struggle to write poetry which will be both artistically truthful and contribute to the fight for a better world.

Further Reading