Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group
A House in St John's Wood

A House in St John's Wood

In Search of My Parents

Matthew Spender

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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A son's personal exploration of one of the most influential--and troubled--artistic couples of the twentieth century

Stephen Spender's life, with all its secrets, successes, and contradictions, is a vivid prism through which to view the twentieth century. He made friends with W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood while at Oxford, and together the three had wild adventures in Europe, where they became early critics of Hitler and the rise of fascism. Like his friends, Stephen was drawn to other men, yet he eventually married Natasha Litvin, an ambitious young concert pianist, and they started a family.

Matthew Spender grew up in postwar England as the child of two celebrated artists deeply immersed in the political and cultural life of their times. Taught how to use adjectives by Auden and raised among an influential elite, Matthew led what might have been a charmed existence were it not for the tensions within his own household. His father, always susceptible to the allure of young men, was unable either to stop himself for the sake of his family or to reveal his secret; and his mother's suffering led her on a strange introspective quest of her own. Drawing on a wide range of unpublished letters and diaries, secret documents, and youthful memories, A House in St John's Wood is Matthew's remarkably clear-eyed attempt to make sense of the many conflicting messages of his unconventional youth and a deeply felt portrait of his magnetic father and guarded mother.

Lambda Literary Award - Nominee, The Guardian (UK) Best Books of the Year, Kirkus Reviews Best Books of the Year

EXCERPT

1

A WORLDLY FAILURE



IT WAS W. H. Auden who taught me about adjectives. He stayed with us whenever he came to England. I was nine years old. Scene: 15 Loudoun Road, my parents’ house in St John’s Wood, eight-thirty in the...

Reviews

Praise for A House in St John's Wood

“It is hard to overstate how bravely honest Matthew Spender’s book is . . . Brilliantly paced . . . The book also matters in its own right, for its insight . . . into how we are all shaped by the strangeness of the families we find ourselves inhabiting . . . [A] remarkable book.” —Lara Feigel, The Guardian

"The heart of the book is filial and emotional. And very moving." —John Sutherland, The Financial Times

"[This] thoughtful and often astonishingly beautiful memoir . . . is exploratory, analytical, often critical, occasionally disloyal but ultimately a deeply moving work of filial pride, an attempt to try to work out not only the truth about his extraordinary parents but also himself." —Juliet Nicolson, Evening Standard

“A mesmerizing and gripping fulfillment of the universal wish of children to learn their parents' secrets, to know them as adults, A House in St. John's Wood is alive with the sensation of doors finally creaking open, of truths being told. That Matthew Spender's dad was Stephen Spender, who cast one of the longest literary shadows of the twentieth century, makes these discoveries not only personal but crucial missing pieces in our social history. A vivid writer as well as a sculptor, Spender uses language as a precision tool to reveal the soul of his extraordinary family.” —Brad Gooch, author of Smash Cut

“It is hard to overstate how bravely honest Matthew Spender's book is. It is the most truthful account we have had of the poet Stephen Spender . . . Matthew shirks none of the crucial issues. We learn categorically that Spender did know about the CIA funding and that he did have gay affairs during his marriage, though this didn't mean that he wished to divorce Natasha and live with a man, except at a few impassioned moments . . . The book also matters in its own right, for its insight not just into this family but into how we are all shaped by the strangeness of the families we find ourselves inhabiting, showing the possibilities and limits of filial love and loyalty . . . [A] remarkable book.” —Lara Feigel, The Guardian

“Like a circus aerialist, Matthew Spender performs on a high wire strung above his incredibly talented yet tormented family, searching for the reality behind their lives, for his relationship to Natasha Litvin, his celebrated pianist-mother, and his even more celebrated writer-father. After meeting Auden and Isherwood at Oxford, did Stephen Spender give up his early sequence of young male lovers to become the "pillar of integrity" that Natasha proclaimed him? And as co-editor of Encounter magazine, did he really miss completely the fact that the CIA was funding the magazine? Was Natasha's long relationship with mystery writer Raymond Chandler a romantic one? Most important, does Matthew ever connect with his parents? To find out, you will have to read this story that is at once biography and memoir, a tale written without a safety net, told with grace and sympathy.” —Ian MacNiven, author of Literchoor is My Beat

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Matthew Spender

Matthew Spender is a writer and sculptor. His previous books include Within Tuscany, From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky, and Goats on the Roof. He lives in Italy.

Matthew Spender

Matthew Spender

Read a profile of Matthew Spender

From the Publisher

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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