Suppose yourself an enterprising biographer in search of a subject. Your interests lie in late twentieth-century Britain. You wish to trace cross-currents of literary and political commentary—not omitting spicy gossip, off-color jokes, and pyrotechnic wordplay—in pre-Thatcher London. For your purposes, you could hardly do better than choose a kebab shop near the New Statesman’s offices in the late 1970s. There one could find among a crowd of Young Turks, on a series of Fridays that have passed into literary legend, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, and others (all indiscreetly male). Lacking transcripts, you could fall back on interviews and memoirs to reconstruct these lunches. Your labor would be rewarded by the chance to assay a wellspring of diverse talents and sensibilities that gave rise to at least five prominent literary lives spanning several decades.
A group biography, then. Even so, the account would be incomplete if it failed to invoke a conspicuously absent elder, one whose influence bound the clique as tightly as did its members’ socialist leanings. Philip Larkin, though ensconced in his library at the University of Hull, made a vivid impression on all of these young men. Indeed, periodic visits to the group by his chums and fellow reactionaries Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis probably made it seem as if his hologram were beamed into the Bursa Kebab House. Consider the effects. The younger Amis, whose brother was Larkin’s godson, has paid tribute to the poet in a memoir and essays and oversaw a published selection of his verses. Barnes was buoyed by Larkin’s praise of his first novel, Metroland; more recently, as Colm Tóibin has noted, “the spirit of Larkin” haunts Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (2011). Hitchens wrote about or quoted Larkin on numerous occasions. McEwan recounts being asked by the Hitch to pronounce “The Whitsun Weddings” at his hospital bedside, weeks before dying, and the two kept up a brief email correspondence about the meaning of the poem’s celebrated final lines:
We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
A few years earlier, naming The Whitsun Weddings (1964) as one of his top five favorite poetry books for The Wall Street Journal, Clive James said the final line of the title poem had become “a call sign for a generation.” It supplies, at any rate, the title for the book James published shortly before his death last November at the age of eighty.
Among the aforementioned writers (exempting Conquest and Amis père), James alone had taken the measure of Larkin in print before the fabled Friday lunches. The oldest piece in Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 1973. The occasion was a review of Donald Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry. Before getting down to business, James cracks an aside—one the reader may take, in retrospect, as fair warning to literary London that a new upstart had arrived to clean house. The Davie book, he writes, “raises confusion to the level of criticism: it is a testament to Britain’s continuing fertility as an intellectual acreage in which ideas will flourish at rigor’s expense, the insights blooming like orchids while the valid syllogisms wither on the vine.”
At the time, James was minting name-brand columns as a TV critic for the Observer. The previous year, also for the tls, he had published “The Metropolitan Critic” in homage to Edmund Wilson. Of this breakthrough essay, which gave the title to his first book, James crowed in a 1994 postscript: “I managed to get it done while the great man was still alive to read it. I just didn’t want to let him get away with feeling unfulfilled at the end of his life, as if his example had meant nothing, when for so many of us it had been an inspiration.”
For much of his working life, James himself did not lack admirers. His literary journalism, “unreliable memoirs,” poems, songs (with Pete Atkin), and especially TV shows always garnered a following, primarily in the United Kingdom and Australia, though many Americans first came to read him upon the publication of Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007). Among longtime devotees, mounting awe attended James’s performances in his final decade—a translation of the Divine Comedy, five books of poetry (including an epic), and four of nonfiction—while he sustained treatments for leukemia, emphysema, kidney disease, and, in a stint at Mt. Sinai Hospital, deep-vein thrombosis. The last episode bequeathed the poem “Whitman and the Moth,” which James’s obituary-writers would have quoted in his epitaph, had not “The Japanese Maple” come along to supplant it.
All the same, one hankers for an encomium worthy of this “metropolitan critic,” even if James is not still alive to read it. Confronted with the literary treasures that James hauled to the surface in his excavations, whether of prose or poetry, one wishes not so much to appraise the goods individually as to identify the source of their collective luster. Amid such plenty, where to begin? In interviews, James suggested that his productivity stemmed at least in part from a need to justify living after his father, who survived a Japanese pow camp in World War II, died in a plane crash on the way home to his six-year-old son. It is also possible to construct a narrative about the self-styled “Kid from Kogarah” (New South Wales, Australia) clowning for the British public, in print and on TV, much as an only child once sought to console his widowed mother with assorted hijinks. (See the first installment of Unreliable Memoirs.) Biography and armchair psychology can teach us about motives. But how might we approach the more absorbing quest for stylistic and thematic unity in his work, what another James, Henry, called “the figure in the carpet”?
Clive’s writings on Larkin may help us here. Assets that James generally associates with the poet are: a “playful seriousness” (James’s gloss of seriatà scherzvole—Eugenio Montale’s “desired quality for writing about art”); the valuation of beauty as its own abundant reward; and a craft capable of visionary grace. Let’s take the first of these. “Larkin’s wit is the ethics of his poetry,” James once wrote. “It brings his distress under our control. It makes his personal unhappiness our universal exultation. Armed with his wit, he faces the worst on our behalf, and brings it to order.” Earlier in the same essay, an appreciation of Larkin’s writings about jazz, James explains:
To be witty does not necessarily mean to crack wise. In fact it usually means the opposite: wits rarely tell jokes. Larkin’s prose flatters the reader by giving him as much as he can take in at a time. The delight caused has to do with collusion. Writer and reader are in cahoots. Larkin has the knack of donning cap and bells while still keeping his dignity. [My italics.]
Any fan of James’s own essays will see at once a parallel. His assimilation of far-ranging literary and artistic references, his guileless transactions with “high” and “low” culture alike, and his ability to cram as much production value as possible into his prose set-pieces, confident that his audience will stay captive—these are hallmarks of James’s criticism. They also comport with Larkin’s dry dictum, quoted by Kingsley Amis in The King’s English, that “no one will enjoy reading what you have not enjoyed writing.” As with so much in Larkin, the negative statement has a life-affirming corollary. Of Larkin’s poetry, James claims:
[It] is all witty—which is to say there is none of his language that does not confidently rely on the intelligent reader’s capacity to apprehend its play of tone. On top of the scores of fragments that make us laugh, there are hundreds which we constantly recall with a welcome sense of communion, as if our own best thoughts had been given their most concise possible expression.
This “welcome sense of communion” affords Larkin’s poetry and prose, and the best of James’, its broadly ethical contours. Just before Anthony Thwaite’s first edition of Larkin’s Collected Poems (1988) came out in the United States, James reviewed them for The New Yorker. There he counterbalanced the dour and solitary character of Larkin’s literary persona with the poet’s robust commitment to realizing his gift and vocation:
One of the effects of Larkin’s work is to make us realize that beyond the supposed bedrock reality of individual happiness or unhappiness there is a social reality of creative fulfilment, or failing that, of public duties faithfully carried out.
“He thought that art should be self-sufficient,” James adds. In a much earlier essay, a review of High Windows (1973), James concluded that, though “Larkin is the poet of the void,” the “one affirmation his work offers is the possibility that when we have lost everything the problem of beauty will remain. It is enough.” For the omnivorous James, the inexhaustible appeal of our aesthetic and cultural heritage is, if not quite redemptive (he doesn’t traffic in easy answers), then at least a spur to keep going. In this sense, the curatorial feat of Cultural Amnesia—with its (mostly) twentieth-century profiles in courage, villainy, artistic excellence, and mass entertainment—is a cultural literacy primer à la E. D. Hirsch, even if it sometimes reads like liner notes to a recast Sgt. Pepper album cover. (James the avid collector was once on display at clivejames.com, which, before his physical decline, included not only some of his out-of-print books verbatim, but also works by visual and performing artists. The website still features “guest poets”; an anthology, reportedly titled The Fire of Joy, will appear posthumously.)
“Your saddest lyric is a social act,” James wrote in a poem eulogizing Larkin. Masterpieces such as “The Whitsun Weddings,” “To the Sea,” and “The Old Fools” bustle with humanity, even if the lives are not clearly individuated. The characters, in each case, compose a vision of evanescent beauty, or of its doomed pursuit. (“Stark terror never sounded lovelier,” James says of the second stanza of “The Old Fools,” with its line about “the million-petalled flower/ Of being here.”) But the glamor of the counterfactual—mocked by Larkin in “I Remember, I Remember” (“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere”)—has its upside: perfection, once known, can be recollected in tranquility. (Larkin’s famous quip, “Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth,” is only half truthful.) In his poetry, some images are more conducive to this response. “The Sun and Moon, like Water, bring out Larkin’s expansiveness, such as it is,” James observes. “It’s there, but you wouldn’t call it a bear-hug.”
Witness the moon in “Sad Steps,” radiating its promise of youth “undiminished somewhere.” The awareness of life still flourishing after passion ebbs is manifest in such lines as “Still going on, all of it, still going on!” (“To the Sea”) and “Yet still the unresting castles thresh/ In full-grown thickness every May” (“Trees”). It is enough for Larkin to praise this surfeit without registering its implosion. In Larkin’s “arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain,” a swelling gratitude for beauty is kept in check by the anticipation of loss. In James’s literary and cultural criticism, as with his own ambitious poems (including the Dante translation), this tension is matched by that of a steady flow of exuberance vying with the formal constraints of a genre. This mesmerizing quality made his TV columns for the Observer required reading even for Brits who had not tuned into the shows in question. In James’s poetry, much of the same appeal lies in the spectacle of idiomatic speech employed winningly amid traditional verse elements of rhyme, meter, and stanzaic shapes.
In reviewing the Davie book, James finds in Yeats’s poems “no distance between the surface form and organic form, the thing being both all art and all virtuosity at the same time.” Attacking Davie’s belittlement of Larkin as a metrical technician, one more allied with Hardy than Yeats, he asks: “Why can’t he see that the large, argued Yeatsian strophe is a technical achievement thoroughly dwarfing not only Pound’s imagism but also Hardy’s tricky stanzas?” He ventures that “the inspiration for the big, matched stanzas of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is not in Hardy’s ‘intricacy’ but in the rhetorical majesty of Yeats.” Without pitting Yeats against Hardy—Larkin recognized both poets as formative influences, as James swiftly acknowledges—we read in James’s remarks a defense of his own gregarious but studied facility with prose and verse. As with Larkin, so with James: craft does not begin to describe it.
Somewhere Becoming Rain: Collected Writings on Philip Larkin, by Clive James; Picador, 160 pages, $16.17