Thursday, 7 November 2019

Stephen Spender, The Burning Cactus, World Within World

Stephen Spender, The Burning Cactus, number 48 of The Faber Library, 1936.  I bought it in 1972 and haven't read it for many years. Elegant and anxious, it confirms the climate of a few decades before I was born. Even the pinkish dust jacket, rough as sugar paper, speaks to me. The story title pages are gracious as many of the lives depicted therein. Dropped capital to begin, and generous font with plenty of page around the text.

One jacket puff says the book is an exciting experience for the imaginative reader. Another describes it as an extremely interesting book which all those who are concerned with the trends of modern writing, and many who are not, will enjoy. The trends of modern writing in the 1930s might include an awareness of psychology, the rumble of fascism, an uneasy correctness and a willingness to investigate politely human sexuality.

In his autobiography, World Within World, Stephen Spender writes that he grew up in a style of austere comfort against a background of calamity.  The stories of The Burning Cactus reflect roughly that: a young man observing the artistic and leisured, thinking classes, chiefly in Europe.

Virginia Woolf, in a quotation that lives on my desk, said she wanted someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit and all its anguish, after its listening, and its waitings, and its suspicions.

 I too want someone to sit beside after the day's pursuit, which, this week, has involved mud and machines and weather and water and exhaustion. This week I sat beside Stephen Spender at the end of the day and in the middle of the night.

His early writing is careful, very mannered, with a ring of the alien ordinary.
"Look, there's Daddy on the lawn!" said Tom, pointing to the window.
With relief Werner turned round, and they all looked out of the windows at Lord Edward, who was strolling up and down. He walked with the self-conscious uprightness of a man who has corrected a tendency to stoop. He was wearing one of his hundred and four suits—he had two for each week of the year—
I knew Stephen Spender's nephew Quentin when he was about ten. He was a fey-looking boy like his father and his uncle, slight and fine-boned. Likely to become a psychotherapist. Humphrey and Stephen Spender, with their social conscience, worldly influence and sexual ambiguity, were eminent and gracious material for the next generation.

Virginia Woolf mocked Stephen Spender for thinking that writing could or should be put to the service of views about the world, that social factors mattered more than the quality of the writing. She thought that awareness of the calamities of the world did not make it possible to write about them. 'You have to be beaten and broken by things before you can write about them.'

Stephen Spender of The Burning Cactus is not beaten or broken. Perhaps, as he says in World Within World, he would have liked to be an outcast, but he wasn't.

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