Larkin and his close companion Monica Jones at John Betjeman’s funeral, 1984. Photo: Getty
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A life more ordinary: salvaging Philip Larkin’s reputation

A painstakingly diligent new biography leaves Erica Wagner feeling relieved that the poet’s pornography collection is “almost entirely lost”.

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love 
James Booth
Bloomsbury, 532pp, £25


There are moments in James Booth’s fine portrait of Philip Larkin when the reader may well feel profoundly grateful that he or she is not subject to the scrutiny of such a diligent biographer – and, at least momentarily, queasy about the biographer’s task.

“Larkin’s pornography collection is almost entirely lost,” Booth writes soberly; and for all that its survival might have given us more insight into “the self-possession of bachelor auto-eroticism”, I was rather relieved, on the poet’s behalf, that it appears we have not more than the couple of images that are indeed reproduced in the final plate section here. Just occasionally, too, the lack of overtly thrilling incident in Larkin’s life leads Booth towards what feels like melodramatic overinterpretation. After his lover Monica Jones’s death, we are told, the Philip Larkin Society acquired from among his effects “a circular mirror on a metal stand, one side of which is concave, reflecting a hugely magnified image of every pore and blemish”. Booth links this mirror to an idea of Larkin’s reproachful self-scrutiny: but surely the object described might simply be called a shaving mirror?

Larkin fascinates because the life and the work can seem so much at odds. As Booth writes, the three mature collections published during the poet’s lifetime – The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974) – “established an oeuvre which gave all the appearance of perfection”. What Martin Amis called the “frictionless memorability” of Larkin’s work has made him, as Booth states plainly, “the best-loved British poet of the last century”.

Poems such as “Days”, “The Trees”, “The Whitsun Weddings”, “An Arundel Tomb”, “Dockery and Son” are, and for ever will be, an indelible feature of the English poetic landscape: English as in “English language”, but also in the way they are deeply connected to the geography and psychology of the country of Larkin’s birth, his true emotional territory. Not forgetting, of course, “This Be The Verse”, its celebrated opening couplet such an encapsulation of 20th- (and 21st-) century angst that it’s hard to believe it was written by anyone at all: it is as if the words were pre-existing, carved and revealed out of linguistic stone.

The life’s very ordinariness seems to confront this perfection. Born in Coventry, he found a job after Oxford as a librarian in Wellington; in 1955, less than a year after the institution had acquired full university status, he was appointed librarian at the University of Hull – where the author worked with him for 17 years. He was 32; he would build Hull’s library into the notable institution it is today. As Booth notes, “Larkin is virtually alone among 20th-century poets in writing in a natural, first-hand way about work in the sense of paid employment.” And then there are the arguments that have raged, since the poet’s death in 1985, about whether he was a racist, a miso­gynist, a xenophobe. Or perhaps, one might say, arguments about the extent of his racism, misogyny and xenophobia, given that even Booth – whose intention is to rescue Larkin from at least some of the accusations – must acknowledge these flaws.

The publication of his friend and executor Anthony Thwaite’s edition of the Collected Poems in 1988 began the process of demystification by abandoning Larkin’s arrangement of his own poems and working chronologically, which revealed much that the poet had chosen to omit. Thwaite’s edition of the Selected Letters (1992) exposed “the sewer under the national monument”, as Tom Paulin wrote in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, and so did Andrew Motion’s biography, published in 1993.

Is Booth’s attempt to salvage Larkin’s reputation successful? To a large extent it is – because of its fine-grained, thoughtful focus on what is, after all, the most important aspect under consideration: the poet’s work. This is very much a literary biography and should be read with an edition of the poems to hand. Does the final couplet of “The Trees” – “Last year is dead, they seem to say,/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh” – express “ecstatic affirmation”, as it is often perceived to do? Booth offers the “less deceived” reader the notion that it might be “an imperious command, reminding us that the time will come soon enough when we are unable to respond”.

This biography is full of such wise textual analysis, and for that it should be read. Might you be glad to learn that on 3 August 1955 Larkin dyed three pairs of white socks mauve? Perhaps you might. But you will be gladder still to have cause to return to this astonishing poet’s work. 

Erica Wagner is an Eccles British Library writer-in-residence and a judge for this year’s Man Booker Prize

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis