Ian Hamilton, at the start of his contentious biography In Search of JD Salinger, recalled being transfixed by The Catcher in the Rye at the age of 17:
“I carried his book everywhere with me as a kind of talisman. It seemed to me funnier, more touching, and more right about the way things were than anything else I’d read…The Catcher was the book that taught me what I ought to have already known: that literature can speak for you, not just to you. It seemed to me ‘my book’.”
At which point Hamilton adds ruefully:
“It was something of a shock when I eventually found out that I was perhaps the billionth adolescent to have felt this way… “My book” had turned into everybody’s book: Everybody had seen in it a message aimed at him.”
Of course, we are constantly discovering new writers – many of whom are also old writers – and the zeal of discovery never goes away. But the only time in my reading life I have felt something close to what Hamilton is describing – that sense of immediate passionate ownership, coupled with a naive belief in its uniqueness – was when I “discovered” Larkin.
This happened in 1971 when I bought both The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings in quick succession. No one had previously suggested his work to me; I hadn’t read English at university, and was finding my own way through the canon. But this wasn’t “the canon”; this was some near-contemporary speaking directly to me in a calm, clear voice that felt familiar even though I hadn’t read him before, and was “more right about the way things were”. Not a “poetic” voice either; a daily voice, wry, careful, melodic, witty, and cautious about the oceanic.
Larkin’s friend Kingsley Amis had asked “Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart/Or squash it flat?” Larkin’s implicit reply was: “No, they should show it as it is, in all its pock-marked hopefulness and begrudged disappointment.”
Larkin was already well-known to others, as Salinger had been: by 1971 The Whitsun Weddings was seven years old, and The Less Deceived a full 16. But this didn’t diminish my proprietorial feelings. I cut out Larkin’s rare poems as they appeared in magazines; I waited for the next book, and along came High Windows a mere three years later.
Little did I know that these three volumes would add up to the collected works, pretty much all he would grace us with. Well, there has been The North Ship (1945), but I never got on with it. It read like the young poet putting on someone else’s overcoat (made of Yeats tweed).
I held on to my naive possessiveness for a good many years, until the selfishness wore off and I realised that it was a good thing if as many people as possible also read and admired Larkin too: good for him and good for us. Also, good for the world to be measured by such precise instrumentation: as in the way “our almost-instinct almost true” precedes and modifies what would otherwise seem a greetings-card declaration (and one often taken as such): “What will survive of us is love.”
I never met Larkin, though I once spoke to him on the phone when I worked at the New Statesman, having been instructed to chivvy him about a late review of Thomas Hardy’s notebooks. He made the mistake of remarking that he read what I wrote (which was only reviews up to then); so over a period of five years I sent him my first three novels.
His letters in reply were precise, funny and encouraging (it was only on about the third reading that I noticed his courtly caveats). Such kindness irritated Kingsley Amis. “I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, all this reading Julian Barnes,” he groused in a letter of November 1984 after Larkin had praised Flaubert’s Parrot. “I stopped reading F’s P as soon as it was clear that the fellow wasn’t going to find in F’s works concealed instructions for finding a hidden treasure in a sleepy little village in the Vosges.” (Well, whose praise would you prefer?)
In a way, I was happy to have met Larkin only and purely through the poetry. But about ten years ago I visited him at his grave in Hull. It was a flat, bleak, damp boneyard, hardly a ground “proper to grow wise in”. I was shocked to see that the letters of his name, far from being cut stylishly into marble, were pasted on to the slab in what looked like strips of black velcro. Later, I thought how Larkinish this detail was, and imagined him smiling wanly at it; so I did too.
This article is part of a series in which writers reflect on Larkin’s life, work and legacy to mark the centenary of his birth. Read the other contributions here.