This be the defence of Eng Lit’s Eeyore
Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love By James Booth Bloomsbury, 544pp, $49.99 (HB)
PHILIP Larkin has been on the nose with the reading public and the academy since the 1992 publication of Anthony Thwaite’s Selected Letters. These revealed the poet to be a porndevoted misanthrope with a gin problem and a dislike of women matched only by a dislike of himself. Andrew Motion’s more-in-sorrowthan-disgust biography the following year added vaunting literary ambition, casual racism and Thatcher worship to the mix.
But things have changed in the two decades since. Other material has come to light, particularly correspondence with women in the poet’s life, chief among them Monica Jones, Larkin’s intermittent love interest, correspondent and late-life domestic companion. Letters to Monica, a selection published in 2011, showed a man capable of gentle humour, generosity and tenderness, all qualities under-represented in Thwaite’s volume. Its contents described the mild domestic felicity of a bloke we previously had known only being competitively obnoxious with his mates down the pub.
James Booth’s biography of Larkin should not be read as a replacement volume for Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life but more as a helpful corrective. Booth, a Larkin scholar and former colleague of the poet at the University at Hull, knows the poems inside out. He also has taken the trouble to dig deep into the relevant archives. So it is we learn from him that Larkin should be considered almost co-author of Kingsley Amis’s scabrously funny debut novel Lucky Jim, given the degree of editorial intervention the poet was granted, according to early manuscripts.
Likewise, the two salacious schoolgirl genre novels Larkin wrote as an undergraduate jape at Oxford, filled with spanking and barely disguised Sapphic undercurrents (both published only a few years back, edited by Booth), should be read not as erotica but as sincere Jungian investigations of Larkin’s feminine side. There is plenty of fresh perspective here, though there is some strain in the recuperative impulse. It sometimes seems that the biographer would have us believe the great Eeyore of 20th-century Eng Lit was actually its bright-eyed Forrest Gump.
If Booth’s response to Motion’s dispiriting version of Larkin’s life is suspiciously upbeat, we should first understand how low the bar has been set for the poet. In the official histories so far, Larkin has been characterised as a crank whose poetic genius could never escape the force field of his constitutional miserabilism. Booth disagrees, and he does so convincingly.
He shows how much fun there was in the man, right from the outset. An early love of jazz, particularly by black American musicians, radiates from his youthful letters; it is the one passion that bears comparison with his love of literature, and the intensity of this admiration argues, in Booth’s view, against some ingrained racism. In terms of Larkin’s poetry, this seems a fair appraisal. Think of the rare rise to ecstatic affirmation in For Sidney Bechet: On me your voice falls as they say love should, Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City Is where your speech alone is understood, And greeted as the natural noise of good …
As for Larkin’s notorious politics, which his detractors have regarded as a kind of inheritance from his father, a fan of Hitler in the 1930s, Booth will have none of it. Having combed the correspondence, the biographer can find no overt conservatism from Larkin’s early decades. Even when he meets the consistently reactionary Jones, the poet defends his mildly left-ofcentre politics. Booth argues that the Tory caricature of later years, unpleasant as it undoubtedly was, represented Larkin’s general naivety, his shyness and fear of change, as much as any considered belief.
The effort expended in Larkin’s defence only admits, however, the severity of the charges laid against the poet. What the biography does do, however, is open up other possibilities. Few would have known, given Larkin’s famous dislike of travel and elsewhere generally, how much he was shaped by French literature, which he read in the original. Booth makes a decent argument that a 19th-century symbolist such as Jules Laforgue was as important to Larkin’s voice as many English poets.
The enduring affection of the poet for DH Lawrence, for instance, which the biographer returns to again and again, reinforces a sense of a figure who, beneath his Little Englander veneer and an intentional plainness of style borrowed from Thomas Hardy, retained fealty to poetry’s visionary strain. How can one read the final lines of his poem The Explosion, inspired by a television documentary about a real-life coalmining disaster, and not acknowledge the existence of another side to Larkin that still hewed to what Booth calls ‘‘the metaphysics of