In the midst of a heady world of poetry and liberal politics, gay love affairs, and tense silences, Matthew Spender grew up the child of two brilliant artists. Taught how to use adjectives by Uncle Auden and raised among the British cultural elite, Spender led what might have been a charmed existence were it not for the tensions in his household.
In A House in St. John’s Wood, Spender draws on unpublished letters and diaries, family keepsakes, and his remembrances to give his account of a family in the midst of its own cold war. We asked him about the interaction of fact and memory and the challenge of recreating his parents as characters in a memoir.
BK: How do you think this book would have differed if you’d set out to write it twenty years ago?
Matthew Spender: It was impossible to write this book while my parents were alive. My mother had fixed ideas about her husband and her marriage, and would have experienced it as an infringement of her privacy if I’d ever challenged these. Indeed, one friend of theirs has written to tell me I have betrayed them by writing this book at all, even though they are both dead.
There is so much compromising material in public archives that it would be easy for someone to write a hostile book about them. This could still happen, but whoever comes next will have to challenge my book, which I believe is more subtle than anything an academic could write. I know the story. After all, I was there.
Underneath the memories, however, my book includes a great deal of academic research. I am proud of having clarified several sub-plots which had remained unclear to posterity: the different attitudes of Britain and America towards Russia, for instance, or the reaction of British society to the Cambridge Spies. These themes are now academic, yet I have managed to include lots of evidence into my book, in spite of the fact that it often reads as a novel.
BK: Do you think it was easier, from this vantage of the present day, to recreate your parents as characters?
MS: You describe my parents as “characters,” and this implies that I’ve used the strategy of a novelist in writing my book. I take this as a compliment. My parents are the main protagonists, plus a narrator, who is myself. In fact there are two narrators: the sixteen-year-old, complete with his adolescent problems; and the older, wiser, person who is writing the book. All four are “characters” within the events that envelope them. As I was writing I often asked myself, “Who is speaking now?” This is what novelists ask, not academics.
What is the relationship between your parents’ archives and the narrative? Were there pieces of the archive you chose to ignore? Or anecdotes you had to abandon?
The first hundred pages of my book cover ground that has already been dealt with in several books. In spite of having uncovered new material, I had to hurry along to the moment when I was born, because only then could I insert my own viewpoint into the book. I had to abandon masses of research into the early period covering my father’s life, and this I regret.
BK: Did your memories change, going through the physical documents of the past?
MS: The book consists of memories, and these did not change, but they were certainly modified by my archival research. For instance, research into the Secret Service which watched my father confirmed my impression that, at the highest level, everyone knew each other and trusted each other. And they were right to do so, even though now and again there were disasters to do with espionage.
Free societies depend on trust. When that trust is betrayed, governments can move towards greater control, but obviously this will limit individual freedom. Getting the balance right, during the Cold War and even more so today, is very hard. I think my father’s generation did all right.
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