Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love
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