This be the de­fence of Eng Lit’s Eey­ore

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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

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