Family Secrets: On Matthew Spender’s ‘A House in St. John’s Wood’

November 19, 2015 | 4 books mentioned 7 min read


It isn’t easy being the son of a famous man of letters. One has to be on guard from adolescence. When Matthew Spender was in boarding school, he let slip in a conversation with a friend that he didn’t know where Bloomsbury was. Shortly thereafter, a snarky bulletin appeared in the school’s literary magazine: “Spender, son of Stephen, asks, ‘where is Bloomsbury?’” Little wonder that Matthew would turn to the visual arts, writing to Spender père, eminent poet, that he is “[t]rying to unlearn the habit of thinking in words.” Take that, Dad.

In Joseph Brodsky’s tribute to Spender, “In Memory of Stephen Spender,” we see an adult Matthew mourning at his father’s funeral: “Matthew screws the bolts into the coffin lid. He fights tears, but they are winning. One can’t help him; nor do I think one should. This is a son’s job.” A House in St. John’s Wood: In Search of My Parents, Matthew’s perceptive, absorbing account of growing up in a family at the center of “literary London,” commences with Matthew presiding over the deceased body of his other parent, the pianist Natasha Spender (née Litvin.) As he waits for the undertaker to arrive, Matthew sketches her. Something strange happens: “The drawings came out angrier and angrier. Was this my feeling, or hers?”

Given that Natasha had drawn up papers excluding Matthew from the Spender literary estate — fearing that her son would lay bare family secrets — the feeling was at least partly hers. (The papers, unsigned, are tossed.) And Matthew soon gives her a reason to be even angrier. Disregarding her mother’s request that her papers be destroyed unopened immediately upon her death, Matthew discovers a cache of “passionate” letters between her and Raymond Chandler. In possession of new material, Matthew summons both his parents back to life in his memoir, partly to get the last word in: “This book started as an imaginary conversation with the ghosts of two parents whom I never challenged while they were still alive.”

Matthew had a touch of the biographer about him from childhood, adopting a neutral stance towards his parents’ fraught relationship early on: “I have no say in this matter. I must keep out of it. After all, for better or worse, the family works. Odd decision for someone so young but I never went back on it.” Stay out of it he did, but that’s not to say he wasn’t intensely observing them. “My children are going to curse me with their total recall,” his father had joked, and that total recall proves useful in attempting to answer the several knotty questions at the heart of the book: How did his mother cope with her husband’s homosexual affairs? What went on between her and an infatuated Raymond Chandler? And what did Stephen know about the CIA’s involvement in funding, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the magazine Encounter, which he helped edit from 1953 until 1966?

This latter is the key question haunting Matthew because it touches on his father’s artistic integrity:

Encounter, for me, stands for the parts of my father’s life that are the real enemies of literary promise: the contamination of art by power, the ambiguous role of the intellectual in society and the political relationship of England with the United States. Encounter in my mind stands for Temptation.

The American Melvin Lasky, another one of Encounter’s editors, knew full well that the Congress for Cultural Freedom was funded by the CIA as part of a program to promote anti-Communist ideas. But Spender, whom Cyril Connolly described as “an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible,” claimed ignorance about the money’s origin. After reviewing the evidence, Matthew finds this entirely plausible, save for one indication of subconscious complicity in a comment his father made 20 years after the scandal erupted: “I knew, somehow I knew.”

On the question of his father’s love life, Matthew accepts the notion that Stephen’s affairs with men were a matter of freedom — personal, political and artistic. When a young Stephen overheard his fellow partygoers in Hamburg refer to him as Unschuldig, or without guilt, he “latched on to this word as a talisman that would guide him through all his future explorations of love. Whatever he did with his body, it would be ‘without guilt.’” These guilt-free explorations, Stephen felt, were vital to his creative powers, and thus while Matthew fully acknowledges the unfairness to his mother, he understands his father’s commitment to infidelity, as it were. As a poet, Stephen wanted both stimulation and stability, or as Matthew puts it, “the impossible: amour fou in a family niche.”

How to rebel against an Unschuldig father? Through faithfulness of course. At the age of 16 Matthew enters into a lifelong relationship with Maro Gorky, the daughter of the Armenian abstract painter Arshile Gorky. Vivacious and cultured, Maro whirls into the narrative telling stories about everything from meeting Alberto Giacometti and Jean-Paul Sartre to her aversion to orgasms: “Centuries of rape by Kurds and Turks means we [Armenians] have to stay numb, in order to pull ourselves together next morning and tidy up.” No one, not even she, is sure what will come out of her mouth next: “How can I tell what I think until I’ve said it?” the worldly ingénue asks. The Spenders don’t initially warm to the match, but Matthew detects a subtler reproof behind his father’s practical objections:

If I’d starred in a porno movie shot in a cellar in Soho, he would have been secretly amused, because it would have reminded him of his experiences around the docks of Hamburg when he was young. But happy straight coupledom? No, not that!

Later Stephen asks Matthew if he can dedicate a poem, “The Generous Days,” to him. The poem includes these lines: “After, of course, will come a time not this/ When he’ll be taken, stripped, strapped to a wheel.” Matthew rightly sees this as a passive-aggressive message about his relationship and refuses the poetic gesture: “I had no desire to be strapped to a wheel of daily life by my father, not even in metaphor.”

If Stephen reacted against Matthew’s “happy straight coupledom,” Matthew could be withering about his father’s acquaintances. After meeting a young American novelist David Plante, who had taken up with one of Stephen’s lovers, the Greek poet Nikos Stangos, Matthew tells his father: “I think he must be one of those creeping plants.” The usually even-keeled Spender explodes in anger, less for the actual dig than for what it implies: “My casual remark was a form of rejection, not so much of David Plante himself as of this whole arcane world that my father valued, which I felt I couldn’t enter.” As one of Matthew’s friends points out to him, the son must have felt jealous seeing his father, in whom he occasionally detected “a detachment indistinguishable from boredom,” exuberantly devoting himself to these young men.

While we’re playing amateur psychoanalyst, I might as well mention Matthew’s decision to give up rowing, which he discusses almost exclusively in terms of its post-workout showers and “all that yucky business of comparing cocks among the steam.” He found the grueling workouts less bothersome than “facing the true hideousness of the male sex.” He goes on:

So many organs, some of unusual colour, some evidently damaged, almost skinned. Though you’d been told that pricks were as noses, no amount of comparison could reconcile you to the fact that whereas a nose was familiar and visible, a prick was always a surprise and ugly.

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about the membrum virile, but Matthew’s revulsion, expressed as it is in a book exploring his father’s homosexuality, strikes me as a tad excessive. Then again, sometimes a locker room scene is just a locker room scene.

But let’s exit the showers and towel off. The book has an interesting rhythm, jumping between standard biographical passages (dates, places) to charged familial scenes to amusing sketches of nonchalantly outrageous behavior to idiosyncratic reminiscences, including a bizarre anecdote about Matthew’s attempt to breastfeed a stray cat. Here he provides the definitive answer to Robert De Niro’s question in Meet The Parents:

So I lay there patiently every morning as this wild thing kneaded my breast with adamantine claws and chewed my nipple with needle-sharp teeth. After a week, I began to lactate.

Complications ensue, and he has to have a mastectomy.

One of the pleasures of memoirs like these are the cameos from figures in the family’s orbit. W.H. Auden appears at regular intervals throughout, meeting Stephen Spender at Oxford in the 1920s, where the two famous poets began their lifelong friendship. Auden would take Spender’s virginity, blithely reassuring his sexually inexperienced charge: “Now, dear, don’t make a fuss.” Years later, after Stephen had married Natasha, Auden, playing the role of “kind but didactic wizard,” would teach their young son Matthew about adjectives or compose “Tolkienish poems” with him, each contributing alternating lines in the quatrains:

God knows what kings and lords,
Had their realms on these downs of chalk,
And now guard their bountiful hoards,
One night you may see them walk.

(Quick, which are the bard’s and which are the child’s?) In another anecdote, Natasha phones Auden, who is staying at the house, to ask him to put a chicken in the oven for dinner. This he promptly does. Natasha comes home to find the uncooked chicken in the oven, which was never turned on. Poets can be so damned literal.

An alcoholic Raymond Chandler, somewhat uncharitably described as looking like a “decaying tortoise,” is another key figure in the memoir. In 1955 Chandler, a widower recovering from a botched suicide attempt, meets and falls in love with Natasha. Stephen is not particularly worried about Chandler, whom he sees as another of his wife’s “cases” — she was “always a saver of desperate people.” Stephen even sends them off on an Italian vacation together so that he can have the house to himself for a bit. Chandler pays for the trip, buys her extravagant gifts and eventually leaves her everything in his will. He even writes her a check to open her own bank account. Despite being chronically worried about her finances, Natasha carries it around uncashed in her pocketbook. Chandler loves this, and Matthew, in a concise observation that demonstrates his psychological acuity, explains why: “There was something erotic about this: his check, her purse.” Chandler nursed the fantasy of Natasha leaving Stephen, but for her Chandler was less a “viable alternative” than “a fantasy, a counterweight to the my father’s yearning for a public display between two men.”

coverVirginia Woolf, whom Stephen showed a draft of his homosexual coming-of-age novel, The Temple (unpublished until 1988), makes an appearance as well. Responding bluntly to Stephen’s question about the importance of sex in a relationship, she tells him: “It depends how highly you value cocks and cunts.” Next question? Matthew recounts a dinner hosted by the literary critic William Empson: “If what Bill was arguing became too arcane, he spoke to the ceiling and the rest of the table went on rowdily saying whatever came into their heads.” And on a boat in the Mediterranean, Matthew puts a patronizing Cyril Connolly, who edited the influential magazine Horizon alongside Stephen, in his place: “He didn’t frighten me. I could see in his small eyes surrounded by fat a nervous child peeking out, hoping not to be rejected.” Matthew was 10 years old at the time.

coverSpeaking for the parents of memoir writers everywhere, Matthew’s mother at one point tells him: “You were a much loved child, and if you choose to remember differently, it’s no bloody business of anyone but you.” Had she read A House in St. John’s Wood before she passed, her death mask might have looked angrier still. Matthew does admit to being hard on her at times, but given the witty inquisitiveness of the book, I think a wry, proud smile might have come through as well. Then again, it’s entirely possible she never would have read it. Raymond Chandler found it delicious that six years after her husband’s now-classic autobiography World Within World appeared, she still hadn’t taken a look.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at