A frank memoir of Spender’s problematic poet father and his emotionally remote pianist mother.
Growing up among a generation of brilliant, creative British men who had to overcome enormous obstacles to their embrace of homosexuality left poet Stephen Spender’s only son, sculptor and writer Matthew, with both a deep reverence for the creative act and a nose for self-deception. When his mother, Natasha Litvin, died in 2010 at the house in St. John’s Wood where she had lived for nearly 70 years, the author recognized that he felt angrily ambivalent about his mother, who accused him of not properly guarding the rather romantic legacy of his father, who died in 1995. In his tremendously honest memoir, Spender explores his mother’s absurd attempts to keep up appearances whiles her husband’s work was devoted to truth, both in word and in politics, into which he plunged with his magazine Encounter. Spender traces the early life and career of his father and his important friendships with W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who all influenced each other. Dallying with communism briefly and between romances with men and an early marriage, the poet married the classically trained Natasha in 1941. A pianist “who lived on her nerves," according to her son, she was continually devastated by her husband’s dalliances with men, which began to dawn on the son when he read his father’s autobiography. Gaps and silences pervaded the household, especially when his mother took off to care for Raymond Chandler in Palm Springs and his father took up with a young Reynolds Price. In the latter part of this touching memoir, the author looks at his father’s political naiveté over the CIA’s bankrolling of Encounter and his own youthful romance with Maro Gorky, whose elusive father would become the subject of his first book, From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky (1999).
A pointed family memoir from a writer keenly attuned to and reverent of genius.