Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, by James Booth, Bloomsbury, 544 pp, £17, ISBN: 978-1408851661
Speaking about a writer’s personal life is always a tricky business. On the one side stands the work we admire; on the other, the writer, who may not be especially admirable. On rare and lucky occasions we know nothing of his or her character. This lets us see the works as lonely masterpieces: we can pretend that they wrote themselves or take them as pure products of their time and place, produced by the muse of history.
It is easy to wax sentimental about a name without face or body. But then we have those real people in real places, flesh and blood figures who walk, talk, swear and make fools of themselves. They may dislike their times and places, feeling as if they were born out of phase, as Yeats would say, outside their rightful place in history, at odds with their culture. They may not want what others want. They may be shocking or just plain boring. They may disappoint us by not behaving decently, maintaining friendships with disreputable louts, hoarding pornography, swilling cheap wine in abject solitude, smiling at twee pictures of bunnies yet despising children, keeping company with multiple lovers while morbidly aware of the emotional pain inflicted upon each one, complaining about bills and taxes which their incomes are more than sufficient to cover, professing political views that make our flesh crawl. I am sure that it’s now clear that I am thinking of Philip Larkin.
After a selection of his letters was published in 1992, closely followed by a revelatory biography that let us see the worst of his personality, including material from unpublished letters and personal correspondence, Larkin’s reputation took a beating from which it hasn’t yet recovered. Ironically enough, this helped to secure his fame: a strikingly unglamorous character became the talk of the town. Outraged academics claimed they would never teach Larkin again or would make him a cautionary tale, an example of what not to be. Curiously, non-British readers took him as a case study of everything that is wrong with the English: insular, happily provincial, sentimental, reticent in all the wrong ways, and overly fond of bland food and drink, Larkin began to be seen as a living stereotype. Some detected a distasteful chauvinism in his work. A few went so far as to suggest that we could assess the sorry state of postwar English poetry by looking to Larkin as an example of what went wrong.
Except for the fact that other readers, equally sensitive, failed to see this chauvinism, failed to be shocked at his odd and evil ways, and failed to lose their admiration for his poems. An oft-cited 2003 poll by the Poetry Book Society and Poetry Library showed that Larkin was the most popular contemporary poet amongst British readers, whereupon The Guardian published a triumphant article claiming the poet had “survived his brief exile from literary fashion.” Not so quick. The damage had been done.
Let us risk naïveté: why are these revelations so shocking? Perhaps the poems don’t lead us to expect this personality behind them; perhaps we are convinced that we’ve been reading badly, and have overlooked all traces of the nastiness that must be present. Or perhaps it is all much more simple: we would-be optimists feel surprised that anyone behaves badly. I suspect both cases are true, but also that readers feel profoundly uncomfortable admiring work by an author whose views they find unlikeable. We live in a moralistic age. Instructors of literature feel compelled to find positive values in what they teach, explaining away the sins of great authors or spending their time discussing the divide between art and life. If a book does not reflect the views of its readership then its artistry may go ignored, as its unpleasant opinions become central. If they cannot be whitewashed away then it may be blacklisted or even censored, just as the traditional children’s tales we all grew up with have been rewritten by politically over-correct ghost writers so that the wolves, devils, witches, and spankings are all banished, replaced by rainbows and kisses.
But is it right to insist on such an absolute divide between the eternal sunshine of the literary work and the unholy errancy of life on earth? Imperfect people walk among us and sometimes they write better than they behave. It is easy to explain why someone writes badly, but talent always keeps a kernel of mystery at its centre. A biography cannot explain a writer’s gift ‑ it can only put it in context, which isn’t always to our liking. But perhaps we can learn from his very imperfections. Literature gives us access to minds that are different from our own. It can challenge us to understand thoughts and feelings that we never had ourselves. Sometimes the real shock may be realising that we get it, we are in another person’s head, and can sympathise with a broader range of experience than we expected. This is a real achievement. The worst we could do is to forestall it by not even trying.
In Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, James Booth has certainly succeeded in gaining sympathy with his subject in what is a carefully written and meticulously researched biography. He leaves no stone unturned in his journey through Larkin’s life, and – but ‑ remains his staunchest ally. The only question we may have is whether he gives enough credence to the opposition. No biographer writing today can sidestep the opprobrium that Larkin has received; its weight must be accounted for. Booth knows this, and has had to cope with it in his scholarly and editorial work before ‑ he is a dedicated Larkin scholar. The issue is broached in the biography’s fairly brief introduction; yet the problems are rather hastily brushed away. After discussing more neutral matters of chronology and editorship, Booth introduces Larkin the poet by highlighting his range, his “instinct for verbal refinement” (a phrase that rings true to all who have worked through the poet’s drafts), and his “generous inclination to identify himself with the widest range of his fellow beings”. His words refer to John Keats’s famous idea of the chameleon poet who gives voice to both virtuous and vicious characters, and this detail is disproportionately important here. Maybe we can see Larkin’s letters as literary, or as Booth puts it, performative and playful, work. Friends, family, colleagues, and friendly acquaintances make up four distinct audiences for his notorious letters, and also, let us remember, for anyone’s correspondence. We would not expect the same confidences to be shared or the same tone to be assumed with all the personages who populate our own lives, yet we expect consistency from others. Many critics are shocked to find the young Larkin whining about the expense of taking his girlfriend on a date, and complaining that he (no early bloomer) doesn’t have the sex life he dreams of.
Booth is not shocked. He only, however, devotes a paragraph to each major charge before getting on to the business of the biography proper. Perhaps he believes every item of censure must be considered within its particular circumstances, which makes sense and does indeed help readers to contextualise, and hence comprehend, Larkin’s feelings. Although it is easy to lump them together, his sins against social decency are actually quite separate.
We begin at the beginning, the “forgotten boredom” of childhood, as Larkin memorably put it, when he did not experience the wonder and romance we might expect of a poet’s youth; and yet, as Booth points out, it was not a time of suffering. His much-maligned father Sydney, an admirer of Nazi economic policy in the 1930s, gets off fairly easily, but we are also reminded that parent-child relationships are usually apolitical. Nazi sympathiser fathers do not necessarily produce Nazi children. The young Larkin was not a political animal, but if pressed to define his stance, Booth notes that it was rather leftist for most of his life: as Larkin wrote to his long-term partner Monica Jones in middle age, “even if we neither at bottom care, the fact does remain that you explode to the right & I explode to the left”. Too much has certainly been made of Larkin’s politics, which merely allowed him to vent a few more gouts of bile (to use his own metaphor) in his disaffected fifties and sixties. All the same, Booth’s effort to recast his relationship to Sydney in a positive light reads as a slightly overdeliberate attempt to offset previous portrayals.
The biographer’s task is not easy, and Booth allows us to appreciate its complexities. He proffers a good deal of new material, all of it interesting. On the book’s dust jacket, a quotation from Jonathan Raban claims he spent “nearly three days” happily perusing its pages. I admit that it took me far longer, having quickly determined not to miss a single sentence. Virtually every detail is, for Larkin aficionados, intriguing. We wend our way through the poet’s life, sensing at every turn how difficult it must be to braid together its major strands: the slow, then sudden accrual of literary awards and honours, the rise of his reputation from unknown student seeking to self-publish and willing to forgo an official contract to nominee for national laureateship ‑ this is a story unto itself, and a good one, but we must twine it together with that of his family life (Sydney’s early death, his mother Eva’s aging, his own vacillation between genuine filial love and annoyed sense of obligation), that of his day job (many of Larkin’s co-workers insist we give him credit for his librarianship ‑ his nearly accidental first post led to an admirable career), and of course, those of his friendships (with the serious and sincere James Sutton, foul-mouthed Kingsley Amis, and multi-faceted Robert Conquest) and notorious romances (although it got off to a slow start, Larkin’s love life was to grow bafflingly complex). One must be a deft juggler to keep all these balls in the air at once.
And then there are the poems. Larkin thought they were straightforward enough not to need commentary, but this has not deterred anyone from supplying it. Surprisingly, readers keep finding new things to say about them, which is a testament to their greatness as well as their often hidden intricacy. Booth has written about Larkin’s poems before, yet still manages to provide fresh ideas. They are unfailingly excellent. He knows Larkin’s oeuvre through and through, has counted syllables and studied drafts and listened for echoes of precursors, both English and, often, French, and the result is a collection of mature insights into Larkin’s work that all future scholars will have to consult. Every reader will pick favourites among the poems, and this is the only aspect of Booth’s analysis that can sometimes baffle: why do certain ones, such as the juvenile “School in August”, merit several pages of sympathetic commentary, while others, such as the exquisitely melancholy “Afternoons”, are not accorded any? De gustibus non est disputandum.
As Booth reminds us, Larkin was not just a poet. In fact, he set out to be a novelist and wrote two respectable novels in his youth, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). Until the end he spoke bitterly of his failure to realise his juvenile dream of success: money, villa on the Mediterranean, considerable leisure, the attention of many women. This wonderful life, he moans, is not to be his. Attentive readers must scratch their heads. Except for the villa, this sounds much like the life Larkin did lead. His job precluded long hours at the beach, but living alone without family or even a pet, Larkin had several hours to himself each day. He did not, however, become the successful novelist that Amis did, though one suspects no amount of success would have been enough to curb a morbid tendency to disparage himself and his career: “inside I’ve [always] been the same, trying to hold everything off in order to ‘write’. Anyone [would] think I was Tolstoy, the value I put on it. It hasn’t amounted to much.” This is not just fishing for compliments. The subtitle of Andrew Motion’s biography, “A Writer’s Life”, suits him well, though Booth’s “Life, Art and Love” certainly sounds more buoyant, while Richard Bradford’s “First Boredom, then Fear” strikes a darkly dramatic note. Larkin’s own sense of self-irony is both depressing and exhilarating, as he mocks exactly the conventionalities that we may suspect ourselves. The fact is, he did live “a writer’s life” in both comic and serious ways, “holding everything off” to pursue his creative compulsion (passion seems the wrong word) and cultivating a mildly eccentric lifestyle, yet always self-aware enough to make fun of both. To “write”, perchance to publish ‑ Larkin knew that this was no ordinary job.
Neither is Booth’s. Motion’s biography is still considered indispensable after twenty-two years, though Bradford has supplemented his own with The Odd Couple: The Curious Friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, a deliciously gossipy read. For his part, Booth rejects Bradford’s stress on the centrality of Amis to Larkin’s life and opposes Motion’s denunciations of Larkin’s behaviour. He has made himself the poet’s most impassioned ally and his biography is a sustained case for the defence. Even Larkin’s juvenilia, particularly his attempts to write through a female persona, are admired, while his romantic life is treated sympathetically.
I’m not sure why we are surprised to hear that Larkin kept a pair of binoculars to peep at attractive young women or courting couples, since we are equally voyeuristic towards his private life. Booth is tactful when it comes to Larkin’s school and university days, refraining from commentary on his subject’s erotic attraction to his male friends. A less polite writer might use the occasion for some heavy-handed psychoanalysis, especially given Larkin’s predilection for moving between male and female points of view. On this subject, Booth has much to say, and makes an impassioned case for Larkin’s pseudonymous “Brunette Coleman” fiction and poetry. Most other scholars don’t take them seriously, viewing their soft-core lesbianism ‑ Larkin was fond of naughty schoolgirl scenarios ‑ as onanistic fantasy, particularly given their author’s sexual inexperience. Booth, however, finds literary merit in this writing, venturing that “Coleman” even improves upon Baudelaire and Villon in a couple of rather racy, but not salacious, poems. This may be going a bit far. Larkin was an extremely talented young man, and critics of his early work (such as his first full published volume, The North Ship) should be kinder to the student-aged writer than they are, but Baudelaire and Villon’s reputations can rest untroubled.
Booth believes the early work deserves serious scholarly attention, which will certainly provoke many to disagree. Comparing the novelistic tropes of popular girls’ school fiction to ancient archetypes is asking for trouble. Arguing that French literature “[offered] an intimate Other to his own Englishness”, or even a way of “evading his Englishness” is also surprising, but we can understand the intentions of such pleading, given that Larkin’s life has been likened to a sewer under a national monument. It seems fairly obvious that he took non-English literature seriously enough to wish he had composed certain French poems himself, but the point bears reiteration: Larkin was certainly open to “foreign” influences even if he was too shy, sedentary, and unskilled at languages to enjoy travel abroad. Some of the happiest years of his life were spent in Northern Ireland, where his library career and his love life both gained momentum.
Which brings us to the juiciest part of the life: Larkin’s romantic relationships. I shudder to write “Larkin’s women” since this implies their identities were subsumed into his ‑ nothing could be further from the case. His lover Patsy Strang would certainly not let herself be owned; it is hard to imagine Winifred Arnott, Monica Jones, Betty Mackereth, or even Maeve Brennan allowing their identities to become indistinct from his. Brennan deserves an “even” because she is one of the softer personalities here, inclined to euphemise and romanticise matters in her memoir The Philip Larkin I Knew. Larkin’s biographers take care not to do this, and call a spade a spade.
Booth makes a generous attempt to see Larkin’s relationships from his partners’ perspectives, but he is clearly the hero of the story. Thus his first, drawn-out relationship with Ruth Bowman is seen as an “entanglement”. The poem “Wild Oats” perhaps gets it better: during seven years, the poet “Wrote over four hundred letters, / Gave a ten-guinea ring / I got back in the end, and met / At numerous cathedral cities / Unknown to the clergy.” Poems should not be seen as factual reports, but this comes close. His “entanglement” almost made a married man out of the famous bachelor (there is a sense of clandestine relief in “Unknown to the clergy”), and one wonders how his life and poetry would have fared if it had.
Luckily, Booth reins in any impulse to hypothesise or moralise, and does not give much sideline commentary on the events he describes, unlike Motion, whose negativity towards Larkin is palpable. One exception is his treatment of Monica Jones, who gets a bit of a verbal pummelling and is blamed for twisting Larkin’s politics to the right. Until we learn her side of the story, this isn’t quite fair. Yet Booth has made a supreme effort to understand his subject and communicate the facts; readers can pass judgment as they see fit.
It is difficult not to when we hear of the slightly lurid and pathetic flirtation carried on between Larkin and Hilary Amis (née Bardwell, later Kilmarnock). This is also Richard Bradford’s chosen territory, and between both biographers, we can now guess what sorts of things actually went on behind closed doors in the conservative postwar years. An attractive and free-spirited young woman, Hilary found herself with child, by Kingsley, rather earlier than either of them hoped for. They settled into a traditional family life ‑ working husband, non-working wife, house filled with children ‑ but Kingsley did not let this deter him from pursuing other women. A handsome and apparently charming man, he was frequently successful. Hilary knew, of course. So did Philip. She could not, however, bring herself to respond quid pro quo.
Or could she? It is clear that Hilary and Philip enjoyed what used to be called a flirtation. Although he was not smoothly seductive (there are stories of him donning a cat mask and meowing at his library assistant), Larkin was sensitive, thoughtful, and brilliant, with a matchless sense of humour. Also, he was willing to listen. Although Kingsley never visited him in Hull, he visited the Amises in Swansea on several occasions, despite his professed fear and loathing of children. Not only was Kingsley tolerant of this flirtation, he suggested taking it to another level: knowing that his friend enjoyed pornographic pictures of women in their underwear, he suggested that Hilary take a star turn in his fantasies. She was willing to do “corset-and-black-stocking or holding-up-a-towel stuff”, and Kingsley suggests the possibility of “‘some of us together’” (his scare quotes). We do not know if this actually came to pass. We do know that he was excited by the prospect of taking these photographs. Strangely, the presence of a new baby was no deterrent to the project, as Hilary assured them that nursing would make her more curvaceous.
Even those with a jaded view of marriage must realise that such shenanigans do not tend to strengthen the connubial bond. Although she maintained the friendship with Philip, Hilary and Kingsley’s marriage faltered and eventually ended in divorce. Meanwhile, Booth assures us that Philip’s relationship with Ruth merely “stumbled on” and appears confounded by the sudden rise in his spirits: “a distinctive Larkinesque tone of contrarian jouissance emerges,” marked by a new “masculine, bloody-minded assertiveness”, so crucial an aspect of Larkin’s mature voice, and often so much fun to read. Perhaps Booth is too delicate to speculate on whether the spicy photographs contributed to such a change of mood, or if the very possibility of such intimacy excited Larkin. It is also possible that the long, serious relationship with Ruth was leavened by the high spirits of his epistolary exchange with the Amises, and that Larkin craved precisely this sort of movement between different personalities and situations in his life.
Tucked away near the beginning of Booth’s book is a masterful insight: a “restless” and contrarian instinct drives Larkin to contradict the tone of his recent writing in subsequent work, so that the heavy Yeatsianism of his North Ship poems is balanced by his light fiction written as Brunette Coleman. This can be extended farther: Larkin has a profoundly dialectical character. Yeats provides his model of a poet who vacillates between extremes, but Larkin does not consciously try to. He simply cannot commit to one course but must always move between, say, serious poems and comical ones, serious friends (Sutton) and comical ones (Amis), a religious and “proper” woman (Maeve) and a sceptical and flamboyant one (Monica). Towards the end of his life, when the once independent Monica needed his care more intensely than before, he grew close to a third woman, Betty Mackereth, who provided a full opposition to Monica and Maeve (if he annoyed her at the workplace, she would good-humouredly burst out “Well, fuck you!” She also had no expectation of marriage). His vacillation between a desire for fame and luxury (“bathing and booze and birds”) is offset by a tendency toward solitude (he is called the hermit of Hull) and simplicity (he complains about not wanting “central heating or double glazing or fitted carpets or the other things everyone has”).
Larkin is also extraordinarily sensitive to different modes of writing, and his lifelong taste for parody and impersonation is one aspect of this sensitivity. He cannot commit to one voice, so he tries out all of them. This is where one must separate the poet from the poems. Larkin is able to channel voices and personalities with remarkable ease. But this isn’t always a gift that people admire: we tend to prize sincerity and dislike inconsistency. How can he write in so many different guises and always tell the truth?
Perhaps each of Larkin’s voices conveys a different aspect of a single complicated situation. Booth warns against taking the late interviews seriously: having achieved fame as a particular sort of curmudgeon, Larkin dons a rather unattractive mask, that of “a reductive, plain-spoken traditionalist”, in order to give the public what they’re looking for. He becomes, essentially, trapped by his own image. In contrast, his poetry becomes, in Booth’s words, “ever more self-ironic and elusive”. This is well said. Although he doesn’t seem to like High Windows, Larkin’s last volume, very much, we can agree with Booth’s insight without sharing his negative judgment. I would, however, extend it even further: Larkin’s entire life is marked by this division between the man and the poet.
People will always debate the merits of Larkin’s lovers, poems, and character. Booth goes to great pains to justify the lattermost of these, even suggesting that each lover took advantage of Philip rather than vice versa, and that the worst faults of character can be rendered innocuous or explained away. Even the staunchest Larkin-hater cannot gainsay the meticulous research of this volume, so now the debate has entered a new phase. We must insist, though, on the poet’s right to speak in multiple voices without reducing him to one personality, whether admirable or repellent. We must also remember that the poems stand apart from a poet’s life and need no defence. Booth knows this well, and a deep respect for the mystery of artistic excellence permeates this rich, compelling biography.
Magdalena Kay has written books about Seamus Heaney as well as the relationship between Irish and Polish poetry. She is currently writing a book about Philip Larkin and Charles Tomlinson entitled Poetry Against the World. She teaches British and Irish literature at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, where she is an associate professor of English.