#100PENMembers No.24: David Carver

David Carver cut a dashing figure at PEN conferences and dinners, and oversaw a period of the organisation’s history which was dominated by glamourous parties but also the complex international rifts of the Cold War.

David Carver [far left]
Photos from Edinburgh Congress 1950 (Tatler Sept 6 1950) reproduced with kind permission of the Harry Ransom Center, Texas

He served as the Secretary of International PEN from Hermon Ould’s death in 1951 until his own in May 1974. Although International Presidents have come and gone, it is notable that both Ould and Carver served as International Secretary for so many years. They thereby provided a certain stability, as well as a central point for Centres around the world. 

A musician and singer by trade, Carver proved as dedicated a Secretary to PEN as Ould had been, but his approach to the organisation was different. While Ould was always diplomatic, influencing PEN members through friendship and good humour, Carver was more high-handed and bullish. 

Never afraid to wade into national or even international politics, Carver was in many ways the ideal personality to shepherd the organisation through the Cold War years. He spent a good deal of time making peace between Communist elements within PEN and other member Centres.

He was highly involved, in the 1950s and 1960s, along with President Arthur Miller, in encouraging the Soviet Writers Union to form a Russian PEN Centre. During this time he visited Russia and held talks with key Soviet officials about the possibility of Russia joining the organisation and arranged for Soviet observers to attend the PEN Congress in New York in 1966.

In 1961 he spoke out on the BBC – blaming the Soviet Writers Union for the detainment by the Russian authorities of Boris Pasternak’s mistress Olga Ivinskaya and almost causing an international crisis!

He quite frequently engaged in these types of public spats with the Soviet Writers Union, writing on 1st February 1964 an incendiary letter to the Russian newspaper Isvestia in response to a piece by Alexei Surkov, the head of the SWU. 

Surkov’s piece – which rather mischievously described PEN as the ‘one time respectable writers’ organisation’ – accused it of pandering to American efforts to subvert and undermine the ‘youthful culture of socialist countries.’ It critiqued PEN’s apparently apolitical stance alleging that ‘the International Organisation of Pen [sic] Clubs have thrown themselves deliriously into the defence of literary reactionaries.’

Carver’s letter, in turn, attacks Surkov for his ‘foul slanders’ on the organisation and seeks to set the record straight about PEN’s activities. The rift soured relations for several years but Carver and Arthur Miller made enormous efforts to win back Surkov’s support and after several exchanges of correspondence and even a clandestine meeting with Russian officials in 1965, the Russians were invited to the New York Congress as observers and the fight to establish a Russian PEN Centre continued.

This back-and-forth characterised relations between PEN and the Soviets during these years. Carver was a good match for Surkov – both men were strong characters with quick tempers and seem to have gained a certain amount of enjoyment in baiting each other! It often fell to PEN International Presidents Miller and the Dutch writer Victor Van Vriesland to calm frayed tempers and return all parties to the negotiation table.

Carver was also, however, highly effective and a great many key advancements in the management and policy of PEN were brought in under his instruction, such as building PEN’s status as a key advisor to UNESCO, organising the first international conference in Africa (in Ivory Coast in 1967) and building better links to PEN India and the other Asian Centres. He also organised some of the most high profile free expression campaigns – such as the campaign to free Wole Soyinka and Boris Pasternak and the celebrations International Year of Human Rights in 1968.

He and his wife Blanche, were regular attendees of all of PEN’s events and conferences and both were well-loved by members from all over the world.

Carver was a somewhat dominant personality and whilst his bullishness in the face of adversity meant he was often not an ideal mediator during the heady days of the Cold War, in many ways, his skillset could not have been more suited to dealing with the political intrigue and crises of those years.

Not only did he keep the organisation together during this time, his determination to become involved in political processes, from writing to Eastern European dictators to clandestine meetings with Russian spies, actually served PEN remarkably well.

He was replaced following his death in 1974 by Peter Elstob.

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