Jonathan Raban on Larkin--I
[Site manager's note: Thanks to Bill Jarma for providing this extended excerpt from Jonathan Raban's essay from The New Republic (19 July 1993). Raban's essay is worth comparing to Amis's "Don Juan in Hull," The New Yorker, 12 July, 1993: 74-82.)
"The Idea of Elsewhere"
To live in England in the age of Larkin was like having a famous bleeding statue on the premises. Once in a blue moon, word went out that a poem was about to surface in the next issue of The New Statesman, The Listener or the TLS, and within days of its appearance people would know it by heart and be quoting it over the dinner table. I can name precisely where I was (tube train, friend's kitchen) when I first read, on its publication day, almost every Larkin poem between "Dockery & Son" in 1963 and "Aubade" in 1977. Those grimly beautiful later poems are still solid facts of their period, like the three-day week and the falling pound. Larkin's great subject was his own declining bachelorhood, but it seemed that somehow, mysteriously, he had found a way to speak directly to the condition of England as no poet had done since Tennyson. If Larkin's muse (unlike Tennyson's) was usually out on strike, that too was a measure of how perfectly in tune he was with his time.
His writing had a Victorian regard for fine (and sometimes ostentatious) craftsmanship. No literary training was required to see that a vast amount of highly skilled labor had gone into the construction of a Larkin poem. Every last tiny piece was an exact fit. Like a brassbound ship's chronometer, the thing ticked and chimed and kept strict Greenwich time. Larkin started out as a novelist, with Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), and his most despairing poems had the comfortingly busy texture and dependable shape of fireside tales. They swarmed with glistening realistic detail: in a line or two Larkin would re-create a stuffy railway carriage, a vacant room, the wide landscape of a flat county in high summer, and make you see it and smell it on the page. He was expert at the resplendent, transfiguring ending---the ending that sweeps the reader aloft on a rising thermal of grave and formal language:
...as the tightened brakes took hold,
The traffic parts to let go by
When it came to the bitter innards of the poems, Larkin had a genius for making his readers feel vicariously brave as they entered a life of such enforced solitude, such unfulfillment, such concentrated horror at age and death that their own lives grew sharply brighter for being lived for a few minutes inside Larkin's. Just as you assented to the intolerable truth of---
Life is first boredom, then fear
---so you were reassured by your pleasure in the lines' own patterned eloquence that they were not true; at least, not in your case; not quite yet.
Larkin, the son of an accountant, was a famously tough agent on his own behalf and a shrewd promoter of his literary reputation. Recognizing his scarcity value, he ensured that people never got enough of him. Every once in a long while, he granted an audience to an interviewer. The journalist who traveled up to Larkin's aerie in Hull was met by a well-scripted character whose tone was pitched midway between the reactionary acerbities of W.C. Fields and the self-deprecating complaints of Eeyore the donkey. Pale and flabby, carrying his 230 pounds like a shifting liquid cargo, Larkin was fitted out with two hearing aids and thick specs that served as windows to a house whose interior was hidden in gloom.
Each interview was a studied performance, furnished with all the comic business and split-second timing of an old music hall turn. Larkin would pay off his interrogator with at least one original burnished mot, like "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth"; asked about politics, he'd profess to "adore" Mrs. Thatcher, as on modern fiction he would solemnly advance his admiration for the early and middle-period work of Dick Francis. He was a lugubrious tease. Whenever he struck a memorably philistine note ("Foreign poetry? No!") or came across as a blimpish Little Englander, his remarks were treasured as vintage Larkinisms. Had they been made by, say, Enoch Powell or Norman Tebbit, the literary establishment would have deplored them. But made by Larkin, from that dark space deep behind his glasses, and in a voice of mournful plainsong, they were thought ironic and droll, pure Philip.
He died in 1985, a beloved national figure. At his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, I was surprised to hear a burbling dean posthumously enroll him---the poet of all our disbelief---into the ranks of the Anglican faithful. Larkin (who called religion "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die") was, according to the cleric in the pulpit, if not in fact, blah blah, a deeply human man, a deeply spiritual etcetera. This cheeky act of Assumption did at least fairly reflect Larkin's extraordinary centrality in the culture: a man so plainly for England and Saint George would surely be for God as well.
So things rested until the publication in London last October of Larkin's Selected Letters, when the miraculous trickle suddenly turned into an ugly hemorrhage. The letters, which will appear here in the fall, are snappishly funny, full of gossip and lively reports from the home front (the library, the literary committees, the lonely evenings with the gin bottle) and, toward the end, harrowing. They're also petulant, smutty and inexhaustibly self-concerned. Even the expected pleasure of seeing Larkin wipe the floor with his contemporaries wears thin when spread over this length and in this quantity: Iris Murdoch, "unreadable"; English poetry since 1960, "horse-shit"; Vikram Seth, "load of crap"; Thom Gunn, "What an ass"; Theodore Roethke, "phoney"; W.D. Snodgrass, "dopy kid-mad sod"; Donald Davie, "tosh"; Geoffrey Grigson, "rotten"; Ted Hughes, "no good at all. Not at all. Not a single solitary bit of good"; Robert Lowell, "never looked like being a single iota of good in all his born days. Lord Hairy's Arsehole. Gibber gibber." The graceless denunciations far outnumber the pretty wisecracks, like Larkin's verdict on Greene: "Good old Graham, always the saham."
In 1978 he wrote to Robert Conquest: "We don't go to Test matches now, too many fucking niggers about." The letters to male friends like Conquest and Kingsley Amis are salted with terms like "wop", "coon" and "wog", just as they are salted with nursery ruderies like "bum", "piss" and "shit"; and in context the childishness of the words counts for a good deal more than their tiresome spray-gun racism. Larkin's alternative conservative manifesto ("Prison for strikers, Bring back the cat, Kick out the niggers---How about that?") and his ditty addressed to *H.M.* the Queen ("After Healey's trading figures, After Wilson's squalid crew, And the rising tide of niggers---What a treat to look at you") have all the political heft of a pre-schooler showing off his hoard of dirty words to épater the aunties and get in with the big kids. No word was dirtier than "nigger", and Larkin used it extensively to his boys-room cronies, for the usual boys-room reasons.
To the many people who think that no art goes into art (it's just the spontaneous effusion of the personality), it has come as a shock to find that the Larkin of the letters was so much sillier and more mean-spirited than the eloquent and plaintive character whom they met on such intimate terms in Larkin's poems. The sorrowing voice of England-on-the-slide turns out, in 1942 when he was an undergraduate at Oxford, to have been a sneaking admirer of the Third Reich: "Men who can see the right must hold clear from the mass of writhing filth that threatens to engulf us all....If there is any new life in the world today, it is in Germany....Germany has revolted back too far...but I think they have many valuable new habits."
The poet of doleful solitude for whom "Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/Which was rather late for me" turns out to have been a good deal less deprived of female company than his poems suggest. It emerges from the letters that Larkin's solitude was precariously maintained by the old Don Juan trick of always keeping two, and sometimes three, women on, as it were, the go. When things got too intense with one, he found another to play off against her. In 1966 he wrote to Conquest: "Life is pretty grey up in Hull. Maeve wants to marry me, Monica wants to chuck me." This was how Larkin was usually placed---not quite married and not quite chucked, his precious loneliness threatened but intact.
The most off-putting letters are those that deal---in a tone of dismal giggliness---with Larkin's addiction to illustrated magazines depicting the corporal punishment of schoolgirls. With Conquest, a fellow devotee, he scoured the Soho bookshops for suitably arousing stuff, and traded titles by mail. "Bamboo & Frolic are the tops, or rather the bottoms: do pass on any that have ceased to stimulate." "Minuit Cinq has some good rears in it now and again, and I've taken out twelve months' sub." "I got the pictures---whacko. I admired the painstaking realism of it---I mean, the teacher did really look like a teacher, and I greatly appreciated the school-like electric bell on the wall..."
But even these letters say only what the poems had told us all along: that life for Larkin was a sorry business, mitigated, at increasingly rare intervals, by his gift for recasting it in verse. His poems are triumphant evidence that it is possible to make a silk purse from a sow's ear; and it was always our luck that we could read Larkin's life without having to live it.
Now comes another sort of silk purse: Andrew Motion's measured, intricate and quite beautifully written biography. When teaching English at Hull in the 1970s, Motion became a close friend---but not a crony---of Larkin's. A couple of months after they first met in 1977 (Larkin was 55, Motion 25), the subject described his biographer-to-be as "like a latter-day Stephen Spender---very tall, sissy voice, gentlemanly, good-looking, all that. I quite like him." Motion is a poet (most recently, Love in a Life), a novelist (Famous for the Creatures), a critic (Edward Thomas) and a biographer (The Lamberts); he is also an executor of the Larkin literary estate. Thirty years younger, well to the left of Larkin in politics and far too modernist a poet for Larkin's taste, he is an ideal foil. Motion is close enough to write intimately of the man, and some of Larkin's best lines here were spoken to Motion in private, in a voice he never allowed his interviewers to hear. Yet he is sufficiently distant to keep Larkin in sharp focus, and his book brilliantly amalgamates the warmth and understanding of the good friend with the necessary cold reckoning of posterity.
Larkin always wanted life both ways---fame and obscurity, sex and solitude---and his chronically ambivalent personality doesn't easily fit the sequential requirements of conventional narrative. There was precious little and then...and then in his life; an inordinate amount of despite . . . and however. . . . Motion solves this problem by approaching his subject in much the same way that an Empsonian critic might approach a particularly dense and ambiguous poem: he uncovers the paradoxes and the contradictions in Larkin's life, cherishing its contrariety. Doing justice to Larkin's doubleness leads Motion to a style of very nearly continuous antithesis. So, on Larkin's engagement to Ruth Bowman in 1948, Motion writes: "In two minds himself, he would keep his mother and fiancée in two minds as well. By promising his life to both of them, he hoped he might be able to keep it for himself." The twin-bladed eloquence of that phrasing is typical of the book. As Motion teases out this life of unhappy evasions and denials, he proves himself to be a wonderfully subtle and psychologically acute writer in his own write.
The biggest paradox uncovered by Motion is one that no reader of Larkin's poems could possibly have suspected: that the author of "They fuck you up, your mum and dad..." was quite such a chip off the old block. Sydney Larkin, the Coventry Borough treasurer, was eerily like the Hull University librarian---a forbiddingly anti-social man, with a well-developed sense of humor; a compulsive flirt, who pressed his advances on his female office juniors; a great reader, whose library in the early 1930s ran to Lawrence and Joyce, Sydney Larkin's greatest literary enthusiasm was Thomas Hardy---the presiding genius of his son's poems. Politically, he was on the extreme right wing. Probably a member of the British Nazi organization, the Link, he certainly decorated his city hall office with Nazi regalia and kept a statue of Hitler (it saluted at the press of a button) on the mantelpiece at home. At an age when most sons are in revolt against everything fathers stand for, Philip Larkin was (lamely) supporting his father's pro-German views and (passionately) discovering his father's favorite author. "They fill you with the faults they had", says the poem---and not just the faults in Larkin's case, but the tastes, the opinions, the attitudes that until now we had thought eccentrically personal to him.
Larkin's mother, Eva, was a snobbish, sick-headachey doormat. Unintellectual, lacking in everyday vitality (or perhaps just saving it up, since she lived to be 91), her twin driving forces appear to have been a belief in the Larkins' social superiority and a terror of thunderstorms. Growing up in the genteel gulag of his parents' marriage, Philip Larkin acquired his father's ideas, his mother's sense of hereditary specialness and a pathological loathing of family life. It was a mixed glass of blessings: it at once guaranteed Larkin a lifetime of unhappiness and gave him his essential identity as a poet. continued
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